Baskets – Kago

Primitive in origin, a basket in every culture is intrinsically a functional object created for a variety of uses in many aspects of daily life. In Japan, bamboo containers serve all socioeconomic strata of the population. For centuries, bamboo baskets have been treasured by the Japanese people and were woven into many utilitarian useful shapes. Historically, bamboo was used to create many types of containers to deliver all forms of commodities, including beer, fish, vegetables, sweets, lunch boxes and letter boxes, and also has been utilized in the making of fans and umbrellas. However, it is the flower baskets, commonly known as Hannakago, that were painstakingly crafted by local artisans that became an integral element of the culture, and an essential part of the traditional craft of Ikebana (flower arranging). These baskets are now so valuable and have become so important for their unique design and craftsmanship that Ikebana teachers no longer encourage their students to use them, for they command more attention than the arrangement.

It is not yet clear when bamboo baskets were first used in Japan to display flowers, but it seems likely that this function has its roots in the tea ceremony and the art of flower arrangement, both of which developed during the Muromachi period (13th-14th century) when many new and highly creative forms emerged.

The Japanese have always encouraged in ikebana as well as in basket making in general, the integration of Wabi-Sabi and Awareness. Wabi is the spirit of poverty, or the appreciation of the commonplace, the celebration of the humble and handmade. Sabi is the feeling of isolation or detachment. Awareness is the acceptance of the impermanence of things (i.e. the natural death of the flower). The assimilation of these three aspects into the Japanese character has given the world not only centuries of beautiful artifacts but a manner of approaching life centered around simplicity. In the past, the continued popularity of flower arranging among the wealthy also augmented demand for bamboo baskets, as did the continued importance of the tea ceremony in everyday life.

There are two kinds of bamboo used in basketry: green bamboo (aodake) direct from the grove; and processed, or cured bamboo that has had the oil removed (sarashidake). In Japanese basketry the handles have always been an integral part of the support structure to provide the strength needed for the loads they will carry. Many handles are made of Wisteria Vine, which offers a wonderful rough contrast to the beautiful smooth and tightly woven basket forms.

There are four (4) broad categories of bamboo containers. The first category called marutakemono is made from a single, fine, polished bamboo tube taking advantage of the natural sealed bottom of one segment, thus holding the water and the flowers. In the second category, called midare, the containers are made of varying sizes of bamboo strips, pieces, interactive bamboo tubes and ceramic containers. Typically, this tube or ceramic container is used in combination with the basket to hold the flower arrangement. The third category, is the technical term for functional baskets, as opposed to sculptural baskets called hanakago, literally, “flower basket.” And finally, the fourth category are shallow open baskets for displaying fruit or tea leaves during the sencha (tea) ceremony called morikago. The last two categories allows great variety, depending on the width and thinkness of bamboo strips, the modulation of form, the arrangement and combination of twining & plaiting techniques, and the coloration of the basket as a whole or in parts.

Basket makers did not begin to sign their works until the Mid-1800’s which marked an important transition in the development of bamboo basketry, since it reflected the consciousness of basket makers as individual artists. While old, signed baskets are not easy to come by these days, contemporary baskets and sculptural bamboo pieces are inevitably signed, and command far higher prices in most cases.

There are several regions in Japan that are known for distinctive basketry styles, particularly Beppu on the southern island of Kyushu, and Shizuoka near the foot of Mount Fuji.

mingeiarts handles all forms of antique and vintage baskets and represents work from numerous rural craftsmen throughout Japan.

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