It’s been 10 years since I last photographed Naka Bokunen, and his star has continued to rise. In 2006, I interviewed him at his small gallery on Route 58. In 2016, I meet him at the beautiful Bokunen Art Museum at the heart of Depot Island in American Village.
On this occasion all I needed was a couple of quick images for a client, but it was great to see his new mountain exhibition at the gallery.
Here’s the original interview from Okinawa Living Magazine.
Island Icon – Naka Bokunen
Bokunen was born on the small Okinawan island of Izena in 1953. As a child, he always carried a sketchbook, and drew pictures of the island’s creatures and landscapes. At that time, he never imagined a career as an artist, and thought he would become either a fisherman or a carpenter. His talent, however, did not go unnoticed. One of his teachers recommended that he attend an art-based high school on the main island of Okinawa. After graduation, Bokunen became a graphic designer and set up his own design production company, Project Core.
It is his skills as a woodblock artist that have gained him them most recognition. His colorful, dream-like prints were used for the Kyoto Climate Conference in 1997, the G8 Summit in 2000, and in numerous exhibitions across Japan.
What process do you go through to create the prints?
“I begin with a vague idea of what the image will be like, but as soon as I start to carve the wood, things change. The whole process is very fluid, almost like someone is working through me. I’m not creating the image directly on the paper, but in the wood which I’ll then print from. Because of this, I feel the process has an almost spiritual quality. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen.
Once the woodblock is finished, I spread black ink on the surface of the wood, and then press it against the paper. The black and white print is a mirror image of the carving in the wood. I then turn the paper over and paint in the colors on the back of the paper. This reverse coloring technique gives the process its name: uratesaishoku. Traditional woodblock prints, such as the tsunami by Katsushika Hokusai, use another technique called ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e uses a different woodblock for each color and all are applied to the front of the paper. Painting from the back keeps the blacks dark and vivid, and gives my prints their distinctive style.”
Do you now work exclusively with woodblocks?
“Not at all. I sometimes do sculptures such as the bronze mermaid at Moon Beach. I also do pen and ink designs, which I print as lithographs then paint with watercolors. Woodblocks, though, are my favorite method. I love the process of carving the image; it’s unlike anything else.”
What are your main artistic influences?
“The greatest influence comes from the things around me: Okinawa’s plants, animals, people, ocean and mountains. I also want to do more traveling, as whenever you make a connection with a place or a person, you get inspired, and it is this inspiration I can then channel into my work
I like the paintings of Van Gogh and Picasso. Some people say that my prints remind them of Chagall because the women in my pictures seem to be flying through the sky.
The other person who has inspired me is Shiko Munakata. He was the first to use the uratesaishoku technique in Japan, and was one of this country’s great 20th century artists.”
As nature is you main inspiration, do you worry about the future of the environment?
“Of course. I believe that the power of life lies hand in hand with the power of nature. I do not directly campaign for environmental protection, but I hope that, through my work, people will see the beauty of Okinawa, and not want to lose it.”
A lot of your creations include images of women or mermaids, but there don’t seem to be any men?
“I think that women are the spiritual heart of life. In Okinawa, they also have the special roles of kaminchu and yuta, priestess and shaman. To some this female power is known as Gaia, others call it Mother Nature. When I begin to draw or carve, the images just come naturally from my subconscious. Maybe, I just spend more time thinking about women than I do about men.”