The 2015 ceramic sculpture “Creature,” by Japanese artist Tomoko Konno — which captures the feeling of a sea creature bending with the motion of the water — is one of the works visitors will see in the renovated Japanese art gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The 2015 ceramic sculpture “Creature,” by Japanese artist Tomoko Konno — which captures the feeling of a sea creature bending with the motion of the water — is one of the works visitors will see in the renovated Japanese art gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran


DIA’s Japanese art gallery engages, educates and amazes

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published December 27, 2017

 Visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts will find Noh theater robes and other precious artworks and artifacts in the Japanese  art gallery.

Visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts will find Noh theater robes and other precious artworks and artifacts in the Japanese art gallery.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 This distinctive samurai helmet — made of wood, lacquer, metal and fiber in the 1600s by an unknown artist — would  have been worn only by a high-ranking warrior. It can be seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ revamped Japanese art gallery.

This distinctive samurai helmet — made of wood, lacquer, metal and fiber in the 1600s by an unknown artist — would have been worn only by a high-ranking warrior. It can be seen in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ revamped Japanese art gallery.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DETROIT — The revamped gallery of Japanese art at the Detroit Institute of Arts manages to bridge the past with the present in a way that honors historical artifacts while engaging modern audiences.

From the moment visitors enter the gallery, those connections are apparent, as they encounter a 17th century samurai helmet topped by a decorative metal clamshell near a contemporary ceramic sculpture evoking something from the sea that was created in 2015 by Tomoko Konno.

“Japanese traditional art … is a living tradition,” DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons said. “This gallery explores the concepts of stillness and movement, which is so essential to Japanese culture.”

From Noh theater robes to silkscreens to tea service pieces, visitors will find much to admire and study. They’ll also be given the context in which these items would have been used, or are still being used.

“I think we want (visitors) to connect with different forms of Japanese art and culture, and challenge stereotypes,” said Katherine Kasdorf, assistant curator of Arts of Asia and the Islamic World at the DIA. “(The inclusions of) contemporary (artworks) are one way to remind people Japan is a place of living culture.”

One of the highlights of the gallery is an interactive tea table that enables visitors to experience this elaborate ritual in a virtual reality type of setting. A ceremony that would normally last about four hours has been condensed into roughly three minutes, and visitors sitting around the high-tech touch-screen table can handle cups that resemble the ones that would typically be used in a tea ceremony.

“It’s a wonderful way to connect with visitors,” said Andrea Monteil de Shuman, a digital experience designer with the DIA.

The museum benefited from the financial support of the Japan Business Society of Detroit — which donated more than $3.2 million to the DIA during the “Grand Bargain” to protect the collection from being auctioned off during Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. Members of the JBSD and others within the Japanese community also provided invaluable input during the process of revamping the gallery. 

The DIA worked closely as well with Natsu Oyobe, curator of Asian art for the University of Michigan Museum; she served as a consulting curator for the gallery, which has been in the planning phase since 2015. She had particular praise for the “beautiful screens” and “decorative lacquerware” in the gallery.

The JBSD also donated about a quarter of the funding for the newly reopened gallery — a gift of approximately $800,000, said Takashi Omitsu, a DIA Board member and executive adviser to the JBSD. Education is a key mission of the JBSD, so he said this collaboration was a good fit.

Because of the delicate nature of some of the items on display — including some textiles — many objects can only be on view for limited periods of time, because extended light exposure — even in a controlled environment like a museum — can damage them.

“At least 50 percent of the objects will be on a rotation basis,” Salort-Pons said. “That means every six months, you’re going to see different objects. It’s going to be a very dynamic gallery.”

The DIA is located at 5200 Woodward Ave. Admission to the Japanese gallery is included with general museum admission and is therefore free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. For hours or more information, visit www.dia.org or call (313) 833-7900.

Call Arts & Entertainment Editor K. Michelle Moran at (586) 498-1047.