By Deanna Duff
Northwest Asian Weekly
Do you feel lucky? Whether you believe in the power of four-leaf clovers or tossing salt over your shoulder, seeking good fortune is often a valuable part of a culture’s traditions. The Bellevue Art Museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cats – From Talisman to Pop Icon” (running from Feb. 22 to Aug. 4), provides a rare opportunity to view an extensive collection of Japan’s talisman, the lucky cat.
“They’re believed to have the ability to (positively) change circumstances,” said Stefano Catalani, Director of Art, Craft, and Design at BAM. “I’m fascinated by the idea of how we bestow on an object, something made by the human hand, the tradition of a certain culture, and the power to change lives.”
Literally, maneki neko translates to “beckoning cat,” and the figurines always have an upraised paw. Legend tells that a nobleman was saved from death by a cat who coaxed him away from a falling tree. Sculptures were made in the cat’s honor and the practice has persisted since the 17th century.
Catalani curated the exhibit, which includes 155 pieces spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection is one of the largest in the world outside of Japan and is on loan from the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Representations are often porcelain and clay, but wood and papier-mâché are also included. Some modern versions are even battery-operated.
“What’s striking about this exhibition is that the first impression is that they’re all the same, but when you look closer, you see the differences. It’s engaging because it stimulates your curiosity and sense of wonder,” said Catalani.
One of his favorite pieces is a maneki neko from Japan’s famed Kutani kiln, which dates to 1655. A gorgeous porcelain, the surface is decorated with raised, cobalt dots and lines, which Catalani describes as a “mesmerizing, topographic map.” The pieces will be displayed in a Japanese-style home environment created from borrowed antiques.
The exhibit showcases the its illustrious history, but also engages their evolving significance. Arguably, the maneki neko established the larger context and popularity that paved the way for contemporary icons, such as Hello Kitty.
BAM is also presenting its own contribution to the ever-expanding tradition by inviting nine Northwest artists to create their own interpretations. Other than featuring the requisite, beckoning paw, they were free to pursue their imaginations.
“This show is not static at all. There is so much variety and I felt open to pursue my vision,” said Saya Moriyasu, a Seattle-based artist of Japanese heritage who is particularly known for her ceramic and sculpture work.
Moriyasu drew on her firsthand experience of the familial bond we often have with cats. Her maneki neko depicts two felines — one an over two-foot high Siamese with arresting, blue eyes. The tail twitches (thanks to a motion sensor) and rests atop a small, black feline. Both were modeled on personal pets, one which recently departed.
“With the Siamese cat’s raised paw, I made it so the claws are out. It’s a reminder that even with the relationship we have with these soft, wonderful creatures, they are also predators,” Moriyasu said.
Another artist being exhibited is Diem Chau. Having immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when she was only 6 years old, she identifies her generation as being particularly attracted and interested in pop culture. One of her signature mediums is carving intricate, Lilliputian sculptures from Crayola crayons. Her two-part maneki neko depicts a cat next to a stack of gold coins.
“I’m really excited for the BAM exhibit because I think American culture is a little too afraid of ‘cute,’ whereas the Japanese really embrace it,” Chau said referring to the adorability of maneki nekos.
“To catch people’s attention and intrigue them about another culture, it helps if it’s enjoyable and fun. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a lucky-cat symbol that serves to draw them in,” Chau said.
BAM has hosted numerous Asian-influenced exhibits in recent years and looks forward to further feature the communities in partnership with the greater Northwest.
Catalani first encountered the maneki nekos when he moved to Seattle and frequented the International District. It served as a partial inspiration for the show and with it, he hopes to share his enthusiasm.
“You realize it’s not just about Japanese culture,” Catalani said. “These (cultural) themes are universal. It might come from Japan, but it’s something that is interesting to everybody.” (end)
“Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cats — From Talisman to Pop Icon” runs until Aug. 4. For more information, visit http://www.bellevuearts.org/exhibitions/current/maneki_neko/index.html.
Deanna Duff can be reached at email@example.com.