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Ackland Art Museum to unveil new Japanese art collection Friday


Photo courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum. The Ackland Art Museum will unveil its Lotus Moon and Nandina Staff exhibit Friday, which features about 50 pieces from two Japanese artists prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pictured Left to right: Ōtagaki Rengetsu's Waka Poem: "The Blood ...", Nakahara Nantenbō's staff, with inscription: "Speak — Nantenbō ...".

A museum in North Carolina holds the largest Asian art collection in the southeastern United States.

Not only is this museum in North Carolina, it can be found right on UNC’s campus. And this collection is set to become even larger soon. 

On Friday, the Ackland Art Museum will unveil its Lotus Moon and Nandina Staff exhibit. The collection features about 50 pieces from two Japanese artists prominent in the 19th and 20th centuries, Ōtagaki Rengetsu and Nakahara Nantenbō. 

Like the location, the exhibit itself is also unique. Morgan Pitelka, the chairperson of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at UNC, said the collection will display a type of art that isn’t typically appreciated as much in Western culture — the art form of calligraphy. 

“All across East Asia, calligraphy is considered one of the highest art forms. It is just as prestigious as painting,” he said. “Whereas in the West, when you go to the British Museum or the MET, you’re very rarely going to see calligraphy exhibited alongside Monet’s paintings or something like that.”

According to Peter Nisbet, Ackland’s deputy director for curatorial affairs, both Rengetsu and Nantenbō created tens of thousands of calligraphic pieces during a period of great social upheaval. They were also both Buddhists, with Rengetsu coming from a Buddhist nun background and Nantenbō being a Zen priest.

However, he said it isn’t these similarities that will be the highlight of the show, but rather their stark differences.

“One is a woman, the other’s a man. (Rengetsu) is known for small-scale works with poems rendered in a delicate script. Whereas Nantenbō is known for really expressive, energetic brushwork often on a much larger scale,” Nisbet said.

The exhibit will take place in the large gallery where Ackland primarily displays Asian art and includes calligraphic scrolls, ceramics and poetry in the waka verse form. Waka translates to "Japanese poem" in Japanese.

“The ceramics are by one of the artists, who is probably the most interesting woman artist in 19th century Japan, Ōtagaki Rengetsu,” Nisbet said. “Who not only was very prolific in writing poems on paper, but also inscribed inside some of these poems on her own ceramics. That is, I think, an unusual aspect that people may not expect.”

Most of the exhibit comes from a donation by UNC alumnus Ray Kass. Even after the exhibit concludes, the pieces will remain at Ackland — a decision Kass said he decided to make in the honor of his late friend and scholar of Japense art, Stephen Addiss.

“I was so impressed with how the facility at the Ackland functioned in relation to the school,” Kass said. “The upstairs galleries that professors can ask for works of arts to be displayed for specific classes, for groups of students. It’s a very engaged museum with the university study community.”

Part of the planning for the exhibition was actually done by undergraduate and graduate students in the UNC Japanese History Lab. Megan McClory, Sylvie Hack and Jack Snyder, among others, helped fact-check, matched the artifacts with their corresponding poems and even decided where some of the pieces would go. 

All three students said it was difficult to translate the calligraphy — even as students with Japanese language experience. Considering this, Hack said she recommends students to experience the exhibit as the art show that it is.

“I think students should come with an open mind to maybe not seek to understand necessarily what they see, but to enjoy it rather than trying to piece together what it could mean," she said.

In addition to the exhibit, Ackland will also hold a one-day symposium on April 15. Scholars from around the world will come together to lead lectures on the poetic culture of waka, what calligraphy offers as art and its importance across Asia, the intersections of Buddhism and art and how art can function as a social product. 

Along with the symposium, Ackland is also hosting other events in relation to the exhibit. On April 14, which coincides with the annual celebration of Arts Everywhere Day, visitors can hear local poets perform waka poems. And in the spirit of this year’s Arts Everywhere Day theme “YOU Are an Artist,” visitors can also write their own waka poems and share them at an open mic.

On April 15, the event continues at the Coker Arboretum, where participants can hang strips of their waka poems in the trees. 

Pitelka said there is something for everyone at the exhibit, symposium and poetry events. Like Hack, he said this can be enjoyed even without an art history background. 

“It’s easy to see calligraphy written in Japanese and think, ‘I don’t read Japanese, so I can’t engage with this; there’s nothing for me here,’ and that’s really not true,” he said. “There’s the context, there’s learning about Buddhism, there’s understanding the biographies of the artists. There’s all these different points of access for calligraphy that can help us to appreciate these artworks even if we can’t read the writing.”

For more information on the exhibit and accompanying events, visit the Ackland Art Museum’s website

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