Born in 1953
Izena Island, Okinawa, Japan
If you have ever visited Okinawa, Japan you have probably visited American Village. If not and you plan on being in Okinawa, you most definitely need to go. One place some people overlook when visiting this area is Akara Gallery. Although set right in the bustling center of American Village, it’s overwhelmingly tall walls and rounding shape makes it easy to miss the entrance. If you are an art lover or can appreciate a taste of artistic Okinawan culture and design, you need to visit this beautiful museum called Akara Gallery showcasing Bokunen’s art.
Who is Bokunen, though? He is an Okinawa native, born on Izena island which is situated north-west of mainland Okinawa. Born in 1953, his interest in art started early. Due to a lack of readily available materials on the small island, he quickly used up the typical, square art paper he had at home. His aunt then gave him cement and fertilizer bags to draw on. He was the little boy who would not let any disadvantages stop him by drawing on anything, anywhere at any time. Growing up on farmland surrounded by hard-working farmers, he would sit quietly near the fields so his aunt could watch over him while she worked the land. While waiting for his aunt, he used the clay in the dirt around him to make horse, cattle and other animal figurines and line them up perfectly. Once, his aunt finished and went to get him, but when she saw the display of so many figurines that the number and perfect alignment made her say “it almost felt creepy”. Yet, this was a sign of Bokunen’s artistic future.
Fast forward to 1974 and Bokunen is working for a design company. Clients adore his work and he is successfully working and constantly creating, but he takes a bigger, more personal leap in 1979 by established ‘Project Core’ with a good friend and the design company he worked at. Through this, he created Habu Box, the popular and intriguing store we see in American Village today that sells designer apparell, accessories and more.
Continue a few more decades into 1996 and Bokunen finally gets his first solo exhibition in Tokyo after years of creating beautiful and fast-selling pieces of art. But what is special about his art? His use of ‘urazaishiki’. This is a technique used to apply color to the reverse side of a print and Bokunen does this on carved blocks of wood. The amount of power and skill to carve wood with precision as quick as he does is enough to impress, but the scale of artwork created is mesmerizing.
His motivation is largely his home, Izena island, where he was born. Like mainland Okinawa, Izena island has clean beaches, bright sunlight, blue water and a vast color range of flowers in mountains that are all expressed in Bokunen’s colorful, intrinsic art. He also does commission work for his fellow Okinawans and those in mainland Japan. His popularity has reached so far as to being featured on NHK Japan and interviewed by the famous Beat Takeshi.
His style of creation may look either absurd or like a dance depending on how you look at it. Shavings and materials are scattered all over, but this is what sets up his necessary ‘mood’. This ‘mood’ determines the speed and method of production. This production may look like chaos on the outside, but in Bokunen’s mind, there is order. This order cannot be explained by the creator himself because the artwork’s destiny was already decided before production even began. Real life objects appear in the artwork, but Bokunen hardly references pictures or looks at the objects himself. They are created from feeling or pieces of memory. Sometimes the objects may not look like the object we see in reality, but this is the abstract essence of his creations. Yet some artworks have animals, plants, etc. drawn so precisely that wildlife experts are shocked especially due to the speed at which Bokunen works. The NHK documentary below gives a glimpse into the method and speed by the artist during creation.
In his 60’s now, he is still creating more masterpieces. We are not sure when he will stop, but we can appreciate his past and present work shown in Akara Gallery and anticipate his future work. Postage stamps, posters, books, CD covers and more have used his art and can all be seen in the museum or bought as a replica in the store. However, not only his work but other work by artists in Okinawa are also on display in the Akara Gallery store and Habu Box store. Bokunen has created a community to support artists and display different styles all with the same inspiration: Okinawa.
Look at some of his artwork below to get a peek at Izena and Okinawa island through his eyes.