Artists > Junko Narita
Junko NaritaBorn in Kyoto in 1946. Raised amid Kyoto's history, culture, and traditions, Narita studied Japanese dance and became acquainted with Kabuki and the theater from an early age. After an encounter with a clay doll in 1980, she began to create her own dolls, studying the skills of doll making under famous sculptors and doll artists. After graduating from the Japan College of Creative Doll Making in 1982, she embarked on the creation of dolls, guided by her own imagination. Narita collects historical fabrics and decorative antiques for use in creating dolls. In her doll art, founded on her knowledge of classic dance, she pays fastidious attention to the hands and feet, and once her dolls are costumed, they come to life and a story begins. She held solo exhibitions at Ippodo Gallery (Ginza, Tokyo) in 2006 and 2009, and in 2010 held a Special Exhibition at Kodai-ji Temple in Kyoto, entitled "Nene Fantasy."* In 2012, she held her first overseas exhibition at SOFA Chicago (Ippodo Gallery) with great success.
* Nene: Wife of the 16th century ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Junko Narita's dolls are not only exquisite works of art, but they are also a revealing look into Japanese culture. In Japanese, the word 'doll' is written using the characters for 'human' and 'form.' In this respect, its meaning is quite different the from Western interpretation of these words, in which 'doll' is a figure that evokes a 'fantasy'.
In the West, artists emphasize realism of the human figure by striving to reflect reality as closely as possible. In contrast to this however, in Japan, the objects that appear at local festivals or in daily life - the things that people wish on or pray to - are dolls. Parents buy their daughters hina dolls for the Girls' Day Festival (March 3) to wish them a happy marriage in the future; for the Boy's Day Festival (May 5), they buy their sons warrior dolls in the hope that they will grow up to be brave like the samurai; the Tohoku region saw the development of kokeshi dolls, which represent small children, and at festivals throughout the country, mechanical dolls, depicting legendary heroes, are displayed on top of festival floats. There are dolls that have traditionally been produced in certain regions, like Hakata dolls from Fukuoka City or Gosho dolls from Kyoto City, that are considered an art form, while bunraku puppet theatre is recognized as being one of Japan's leading performing arts. In Japan, dolls symbolize daily life and the cultural climate. Their significance as 'figures' originated in certain regions from local customs, have developed over time, and carry on into the present day.
The Japanese people believe that the forests, rivers, seas, and the sky are inhabited by gods, and there are places to pray to these deities throughout the country. This speaks to the fact that the Japanese people do not limit their belief to physical things that are visible to the human eye, but it also extends to invisible energy or spirits. These figures are depicted as possessing individuality, and this tendency is evident today in contemporary anime culture as well. It can also be said that the individuality of Japanese dolls belongs to a fantasy world far removed from the real world in which we live. What this means is that these dolls are able to take us to a fantasy world - they go beyond sculpture and are not confined to craft. They are like vessels that contain the thoughts and souls of the people who hold and treasure them. Furthermore, the relationship that exists between people and dolls goes beyond that of possessing mere objects. It is mysteriously intimate connection, which we sometimes look upon with apprehension and sometimes with longing.
Artist Junko Narita was born in Kyoto and was brought up in an affluent environment. She has studied traditional Japanese dance all her life, and in so doing, she has been able to learn everything connected with the traditional arts - the clothing and customs, history and literature, instruments and singing, seasons and social hierarchy, language and meaning - absorbing it quite naturally through experience. Her dolls' faces do not seem static, rather they appear warm-blooded, and contain a sense of movement that extends down to their fingertips. They do not just stand, they possess a hint of presence, their will and emotions seeming to spread and enter the hearts of the viewers. When seen from any angle, they possess a unique charm.
Narita studied under a famous sculptor and doll maker but later set up her own studio, aspiring to create original dolls. Narita says that her greatest teachers were Buddhist statues. The subdued, asexual poses of her dolls create a great sense of presence, containing a mystique that makes us want to put our hands together in prayer - they possess a splendor that distances them from the mundane. Narita is also inspired by the Tenpyo culture that blossomed in the ancient capital of Nara, a city famous for its aristocratic and Buddhist arts, from the late seventh to mid-eighth centuries; she is enamored of this civilization and has been greatly influenced by its worldview. During this period, a series of envoys were dispatched to Tang dynasty China, resulting in Chinese and Buddhist culture being introduced to Japan, which quickly spread throughout the country. This was also a time when culture was carried along the Silk Road from western Asia, through China and into Japan. Among Narita's works there are figures with ancient Chinese children's hairstyles, or wearing Edo period (1603-1868) Japanese clothes, while the gold and silver ornaments they wear on their bodies are copied from Buddhist statues. This mixing of various periods and cultures, as well as values and sensitivities, gives birth to strange characters whose place and time of origin remain obscure.
Narita is also a collector of antique fabric. The clothes worn by her dolls are made from valuable fabric belonging to kimonos dating back to the Edo or Meiji periods (between 300 and 100 years old). The design or patterns she selects correspond to the story or background of each doll. She cuts out the small pieces she requires from an entire kimono, making no sacrifice of extravagance. She then sews them together to create the costumes. She finds the gold and silver jewelry in antique markets, dismantling hair ornaments or other accessories that once belonged to the privileged classes, using these for adornment. With this attention to detail, Narita's exquisite dolls are carefully decorated with extremely rare, valuable accessories, further adding to their striking beauty.
The figure of Amaterasu-Omikami, who appears in this exhibition at Ippodo Gallery's booth at SOFA CHICAGO 2012, is the embodiment of the sun. She is a major goddess and considered to be the progenitor of Japan. Tsukiyomi-no-mikoto is her younger brother; he is the embodiment of the moon and reigns over the night. Karura is a bird-god from Indian legend that was incorporated into Buddhism as a protector of the Buddhist Law. He produces golden fire from his mouth and when he spreads his red wings, they span 13.44 million kilometers. Genbu (Black Tortoise), Suzaku (Vermillion Bird), Seiryu (Azure Dragon), and Byakko (White Tiger) are the four mythical beasts of Chinese legend that guard the north, south, east and west, respectively. Finally, there is Fujin (Wind God) and Raijin (Thunder God). All of these figures present nature in 'human form,' and each of them possesses a unique character showing their lively figures within a fantasy world.
The world we live in is the real world. It is not a fantasy. Our lives are lived neither on top of the clouds nor above the sky, but here on Earth. This being so, why do people like to fantasize about heaven or imaginary worlds? This tendency begins from the moment we enter this world at birth, whether we are conscious of it or not. We look to a world on the other side of this one, a world beyond the sky that transcends the pain and sadness of life on this one. It is a world that everybody is allowed to dream. These imaginary figures, these 'human forms,' exist beautifully in the theatre of heaven. They are treasured by people and they sometimes play the role of actors who speak for us; they become messengers who carry our souls and friends who offer salvation, communicating intimately with us. Dolls are a form of art that is both fundamental yet fantastic.
These works by Junko Narita are the first dolls that Ippodo Gallery has introduced to America. We believe that they will dance freely, talk to you, and pray for the happiness of everyone who comes to see them.
Director, Ippodo Gallery New York.