Visit Japan Virtually at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum

A new exhibition contrasts ukiyo-e woodblock prints by master artists with portraits of Kyoto’s geiko from a well-known Singaporean photographer.

Cherry blossoms at Tsukiji Honganji Temple by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a woodblock print from 1853. (Photo courtesy of Ei Nakau Collection)

With international travel still severely restricted — and the Tokyo Olympics off-limits to overseas sports fans — those aching to return to Japan must look for other ways to satisfy their wanderlust. Singapore-based admirers of Japanese culture should not miss the latest showcase at the Asian Civilisations Museum (A.C.M.), due to open tomorrow. Running from April 16 to September 19, 2021, “Life in Edo | Russel Wong in Kyoto,” is a double-bill exhibition that presents one of the largest collections of ukiyo-e woodblock prints ever displayed in the Lion City, alongside intimate portraits of geiko (Kyoto geisha) by famed local photographer Russel Wong.

The first part of the showcase, “Life in Edo,” is focused on “pictures of the floating world” that capture scenes of everyday life in the Japanese capital during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). A total of 157 fully colored woodblock prints from the private collection of Kobe businessman Ei Nakau, including works by masters such as Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro, offer a closer look at the festivals, fashion, and habits of 19th-century Edo residents. The light-sensitive nature of the artworks means that only half the collection can be shown at any one time, with the woodblock prints rotated midway through the exhibition period (on the night of July 11). Visitors who buy a ticket during the first rotation will be able to view the second rotation for free.

Geiko Sayaka helping Maiko Satsuki with her kanzashi (hair ornaments), Kyoto, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Russel Wong)

Meanwhile, “Russel Wong in Kyoto” comprises 40 previously unseen black-and-white photographs that spotlight the beauty of the former Japanese imperial capital and provide a window into the hidden world of geiko and maiko (apprentice geiko). Customs and traditions covered in this section include neighborhood courtesy visits known as aisatsumawari and the two-week-long erikae ceremony, through which a maiko prepares to become a full-fledged geiko. Nodding to the ukiyo-e artworks in the first part of the exhibition, nearly all of Wong’s photographs have been printed in oban size, the most popular woodblock print format during the Edo Period.

These two parts also intersect in an unexpected way. The A.C.M.’s curators have juxtaposed ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print of the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo, which marks the beginning of the centuries-old Tokaido Road, with a Russel Wong photograph showing the modern-day Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto at the opposite end of the historic route.

A series of special events will be held in conjunction with the exhibition, with members of the public welcome to sign up for Japanese cultural workshops, curator-led tours, and interactive activities on woodblock printing and photography.

More information here.

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