‘Living Colours’ honours the techniques and stories of ancient Japan

The evolving palette of Kyōto’s seasons, ancient Japanese literature, the rituals of the Heian imperial court, the hidden messages of the courtesans’ colourful layered kimonos – all weave their way into the latest exhibition at Japan House London. ‘Living Colours’ is a delicate show focused on the work of the 200-year old Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop who has brought back the art of Japanese colour making.

Red paste extracted from safflower at Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop. Living Colours (5 April-19 May) at Japan House London

In ancient Japan, textile production relied on natural dyeing techniques with a focus on the art of kasane – colour combinations that are sensitive to the changing seasons. Since joining the Kyōto family-run workshop in 1988, fifth-generation master of colour Yoshioka Sachio and his daughter Sarasa, a specialist dyeing weaver, have looked to revive this technique. They have abandoned the use of synthetic colours in favour of pigments harvested from the natural world and plant-based dyeing techniques.

Gromwell root yields purple dye at the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop in Kyoto

Visitors to Japan House London enter a collage of colour to the soothing hum of a well, a recording of the natural sounds at the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop. For over a month, the clean and clear deco building is swathed in vibrant colours with a series of ceiling-high installations of silk – each communicating a specific seasonal message.

Living Colours’ (5 April-19 May) at Japan House London Photo © Jeremie Souteyrat for Japan House London

‘Kyōto’s natural beauty is perfect for the dying business,’ Yoshioka tells us. To salvage the tradition, he initially began researching the past, visiting old shrines and talking with experts to understand the world of Heian. The period (from 794 to 1185) is seen as the peak of Japan’s imperial court and is a time noted for its attention to art, poetry and literature, with everything, from methodology to concepts and ingredients, recorded.

Living Colours’ (5 April-19 May) at Japan House London Photo © Jeremie Souteyrat for Japan House London

A special display of dyed washi paper at Japan House pays homage to the novel ‘The Tale of Genji’. This classic work of Japanese literature was written by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu a thousand years ago. It tells of the lives of the courtiers and courtesan of Heian, where members of the court were expected to write and exchange poems between lovers on specially dyed fans or elaborately folded paper. Often hidden from public view, we learn that courtesans would layer their kimonos with colours, subtly coded to reveal their personality and attract suitors when escorted on carriages.

Living Colours’ (5 April-19 May) at Japan House London Photo © Jeremie Souteyrat for Japan House London

Yoshioka wants to express the beauty in the natural pigments of plant-based colours. The seasons are prominent in Japan, especially in Kyōto, and the kasane layering of colour and tone is about appreciating the subtleties (‘the cherry blossom pinks of spring and deep plums of autumn’). Yoshioka uses only natural dyes in his workshop, some 100 or so shades are sourced and mixed in a slow process to make complex and vibrant pigments.

washi and textiles dyed by Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop i

With the help of the literature, historical documents and textile samples, the Yoshioka studio has recreated the palette of the Japanese court, reviving this age-old craft with all its hidden meanings to be appropriate for modern times. On until 19 May 2019, ‘Living Colours – Kasane, the Language of Colour Combination’ shines a spotlight on the guardians of this tradition, and introduces us to the art of mixing vivid seasonal colours in the most natural and organic way. Nargess Banks

(Images 1, 2 and 6 © Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop and 3, 4 and 5 © Jeremie Souteyrat for Japan House London)

Liquid indigo dye is stirred at the Yoshioka Dyeing Workshop in Kyoto
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