A Shared Enchantment: Japanese, Australian and New Zealand Contemporary Enamelling 

Tsuruya Sakurai, Kazuko Inomata, Hiroki Iwata, Helen Aitken-Kuhnen, Mio Kuhnen, Jasmine Watson 

Opening 6pm Friday 25 June at the Drill Hall Gallery

Launched by Dr. Sarah Schmidt, Director, Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Tickets to the opening are limited. Please reserve online: hands_on_studio_a_shared_enchantment_dhg_openings.eventbrite.com.au 


Join Mio Kuhnen and Helen Aitken-Kuhnen in conversation with Tony Oates  12pm Friday 30 July  Tickets to the talk are limited.

Please reserve online: a_shared_enchantment_dhg_floor_talk.eventbrite.com.au  


Slow Time Travelling

This exhibition is a story of intertwined journeys. 


Consider first the journey that the practice of enamelling has made across time and place. Propelled by the migratory impulses of the late Roman Empire, it travelled from what is now the Middle East, following the late Roman routes of empire and trade to spread as far as ancient Britain in the west, across Europe to the Byzantine Empire in the East. 

Like all journeys of trade and exchange, enamel’s spread did not take a simple linear route: it stopped and started, it doubled back on itself, participating in a kind of material conversation between cultures and peoples. Along the route, different techniques flourished, sometimes developing and innovating in several places at the same time. 


Knowledge of enamelling lay in the cultural soil of Japan until the economic and cultural climate was right. Although enamel had been used and valued there since at least the 11th Century, its moment arrived when Japan opened up to the West in the middle of the 19th century. The flowering of Japanese enamelling was brought about by the intersection of two opportunities: Japan’s interest in building trade through the adoption of modern manufacturing infrastructures and Europe’s insatiable cultural appetite for all things Japanese. 


In the latter half of the 19th century, several factories were established in Japan aided by European technological expertise, manufacturing fine examples of cloisonné enamel, a European technique involving the firing of enamel into small cloisons or cells that enable the building up of intricate patterns or images. Cloisonné was deployed skilfully by these companies on vessel forms ornamented with designs reminiscent of Japanese ink paintings and lacquerware. 


These quickly became part of a repertoire of high-end objects consumed by the Japanese court elite and used as items of exchange with foreign dignitaries. At the same time these objects, hybrids of European technological expertise and Japanese aesthetics, travelled to Europe and the New World where they were exhibited and admired in trade fairs in Chicago and Paris at the peak of the Art Nouveau period. European enamelware made the journey back to Japan as well. When he returned from the Paris Exposition of 1900, Jubei Ando, the director of the Ando Cloisonné Company, brought with him an example of plique a jour enamel made by the French artist Fernand Themar, who himself was strongly influenced by Japanese visual culture. 


Plique a jour is a particularly demanding technique in which a tracery of open cells is charged with enamel and fired so that light is able to shine through it like a stained glass window. Themar’s specimen was closely studied and refined by the artisans of the Ando Cloisonné Company and the technique became a trademark of its work. The Company’s other great innovation was the development of moriage, or “piling up”, where the enamel is packed into cells in thick layers to create a three-dimensional effect.


Nearly 150 years after its establishment, the Ando Cloisonné Company is one of the last of the great Japanese manufacturers still trading. Until his death in 2020, Tsuruya Sakurai was considered the last direct link to the great artisans of that golden age. Having spent some fifty years of his working life as an artist and advisor in the Ando Cloisonné Company, he retired in 2000 and spent the rest of his life teaching. 


Mr Sakurai is the focus for the other set of journeys at the heart of this exhibition. Between 2007 and 2020, Helen Aitken-Kuhnen, Mio Kuhnen and Jasmine Watson made several journeys back and forth between Australia, New Zealand and Japan to undertake master classes with Mr Sakurai, assisted by his student Kazuko Inomata, an established enameller in her own right. In Japan they also met Mr Sakurai’s colleague, Hiroki Iwata, a distinguished figure in the Japanese enamelling community. 


The work in this exhibition is the outcome of these exchanges. You could consider the objects on display as material emissaries between different cultural approaches to the exacting craft of enamelling. The Australian and New Zealand artists have learned the techniques Mr Sakurai mastered and refined, but they have improvised and integrated what they have learned with the skills they bring from other enamelling traditions to create new technical and aesthetic vocabularies. The work of the Japanese artists in turn anchors the aesthetic tone of the exhibition, demonstrating the broad range of approaches to enamelling that operate in Japan today. 


With this exhibition, these objects journey from the workshop out into the world and address those who will come to see them. They are complex objects that speak to enamelling’s extraordinary capacity for mimetic effects. Here we see recreated in enamel everything from the crystalline cragginess of a mountainside to the exquisite refinement of a spray of painted flowers as well as the subtle gradations of colour enamel can lend to ornament and pattern. 


But the most compelling aspects of these objects are not overtly visible to us. I’m thinking here about the way in which they speak to us about time: the span of time represented by enamel’s slow journey across the world, certainly, but also the time involved in its making. 


Reviewing the videos I made one morning in Helen Aitken-Kuhnen’s studio whilst she worked on a moriage brooch, I relived the time it took to slowly pack minute quantities of wet ground enamel the consistency of damp caster sugar into the tiny cells of a frame that would eventually be a brooch. Using the tip of a quill whittled to a point like a pen, she pecked gently at the layer to distribute it evenly. It is meticulous work, nothing can be hurried and her attention was constantly focussed. As I watched, I found my own breathing slowing and the muscles of my hand responding to hers as she gently worked the enamel into place.


When the brooch finally went into the kiln, I realised that more than an hour had passed during which all my attention, like Helen’s, had been focussed on one small spot on her bench. But this was only a single step in a series of processes taking days. Before she got to this stage, there might be the labour involved in grinding and washing the enamel; the painstaking firing of test pieces to get the colour right; the meticulous laying down of the wire cells that form the pattern of the piece. And afterwards, there’s hours of filing down and burnishing of the surface of the enamel. 


In our frictionless world of screens and keyboards where so many desires can be instantaneously gratified, the slow and exacting method of making to which these artists are committed is an increasingly uncommon, some would say anachronistic process. But what these objects offer us is an antidote to the jittery, distracted, speeded-up time we inhabit. They are the antithesis of the disposable culture of object-making and consumption that dominates our contemporary world. They are possessed of a kind of energy, as if the slow time of the studio, the focused reverie of making, the artists’ intimate, unhurried engagement with every aspect of their materiality are all coiled up within them. 


In return we can still the pace of our everyday lives and offer these objects the slow time of our own concentrated looking. We can allow ourselves to take the time to notice their small details and to become immersed in our own reveries, participating at last in the encounter between objects, makers and viewers that mark the end of this entwined journey.


- Anne Brennan