Do you know what lacquerware is?
Laquerware is an almost forgotten art form that originated in Asia and has seen a decline in popularity in the past few decades. But these gorgeous handmade pieces and the very technique of making a lacquered item is worth preserving. It’s fascinating how artisans spend not hours or weeks, but months making each item by hand. Susanna and her friends are bringing back lacquerware through SOIL; their exhibition-cum-workshop space in Hong Kong.
Here’s what Susanna had to share about lacquerware and SOIL.
Tell us a little about yourself and your friends at SOIL. Did you have any background in art before starting SOIL?
The idea of running a place for selling crafts was initiated by myself. It stemmed from my first trip to Myanmar in 2008 and I was deeply moved by what I had seen about the traditional lacquerware making. Since then, I visited Myanmar almost every year and started reading a lot of books about the art of lacquer. One of the major publications was the book “Burmese Lacquerware” written by Sylvia Fraser-Lu which inspired me a lot. I even wrote to Sylvia to ask for her advice on the research and study of the art form.
I started talking to my friends who are also craft enthusiasts, and they also felt impressed by what I shared with them about lacquer art. In spring 2012, five of us decided to have an expedition to Myanmar together and carefully documented the process of lacquerware making. We brought back a good collection of lacquerware and then decided to have our first exhibition-cum-shop, SOIL, in April 2012.
Tell us about the story behind lacquerware, and your passion for this art form.
Lacquer craft has a long history in China and other parts of Asia. The oldest lacquerware discovered dates back to the Warring State period. I have devoted most of our efforts and resources to the design and research of lacquerware making. It is not only in Myanmar. I have also been to Fuzhou which is similarly famous for its lacquerware making in China. Unfortunately, the masters of Fuzhou told me that nowadays they are willing to work only with big lacquer installations such as lacquer paintings, panels and furniture as they make more money [from such large scale projects]. I then decided to go back to Myanmar again to pursue our lacquerware design experiments.
I think it’s meaningful to bring the art of lacquer to the audience in Hong Kong. We also find that many of our customers or visitors actually find this craft impressive as it takes a lot of time in making them. Different from mass production, each lacquerware piece is different and unique. Consumers nowadays need more alternatives from the mainstream.
What other products and techniques do you promote via your website?
It takes a while for us to educate consumers about what lacquer art is about. We therefore we have to demonstrate the entire process to them. Apart from lacquerware, we also promote other handmade products such as hand painted porcelains as consumers may be more familiar with those.
What fascinates you the most about lacquerware?
Every bit of lacquerware is made of natural materials. Lacquer is actually just sap from trees. The body is usually made from bamboo or wood; in Myanmar, you can also find them using horse hair, textiles or even paper. Craftsmen still use very primitive tools to make them. The entire object is almost entirely biodegradable as every material used is from nature.
You have also been conducting workshops. Can you tell us a little more about these?
Yes, we hold workshops when there is a good theme or topic and a good speaker. They are not limited to lacquer art. Topics may range from ceramics and hand painted porcelains to other forms of Chinese/oriental art.
How has the process of making lacquerware changed or evolved? And what is the turnaround time for making lacquered products?
The value of a piece of lacquerware begins with the materials used to make it. A high-quality piece of lacquerware requires the skills of several different elements. Lacquer has to be applied in numerous layers and each has to be allowed to dry before the addition of the next. In Japan, a more sophisticated method has been developed in lacquerware making. They have made good use of technology to control the humidity, temperatures and a dust-free environment. This has made Japanese lacquerware more consistent in terms of the quality.
The turnaround time for a lacquerware piece can take up to 6 to 9 months.
You mentioned that you partner with craftsmen in different countries. Can you tell us more about these associations.
One of our encounters was working with a Ukrainian artist, Veronica Gritsenko, who started her workshop on lacquerware making in Myanmar over 15 years ago when the country was not so open to the outside world. She has become my mentor and friend. Her story is inspiring to me as it has been a lot for her to overcome, especially the differences in cultures and languages when she first started the workshop there.
I am also working closely with a Taiwanese lacquer master. He learned the art of lacquerware from Japan and has adapted that to the Chinese cultural context.
How do you see lacquerware in the modern household?
Using lacquerware is actually relatively easy. The items are durable as they are less fragile than porcelains. The lacquer sheath can withstand acid, alkali, alcohol and high temperatures.
After washing with warm water and soap, clean it with a soft, dry cloth and the lacquerware can be kept in good condition for a long time.
What is your most treasured memory while working at SOIL?
The conversation and interaction with customers have been the most enjoyable part of life when I am with SOIL. In Hong Kong, it’s always a fusion of east and west – we can interact with people from different parts of world. I feel proud to be able to introduce this craft, originally from China, to them and they feel impressed. Some people in Hong Kong or China could be collectors and are knowledgeable about Chinese art. Some of them are even my friends now.
I have a regular customer whose first purchase was a horsehair lacquer bowl which cost about 80 USD. Since then he has become a collector.
Art enthusiasts and passionate people like Susanna and her team help to preserve this beautiful art form. If you would like to find out more about lacquerware, please feel free to get in touch with Susanna.