We recently took a trip down to Bloomsbury on a sunny August afternoon, to visit the Brunei Gallery at SOAS, University of London. Currently, they are exhibiting ‘Japanese Aesthetics of Recycling’, a collection consiting of garments, pottery, paper, and more.

The act of recycling is one so ingrained in Japanese culture, and while modern Western cultures may recycle in an attempt to reduce waste in a hyper-consumer era, in Japan the act of reusing and repairing dates back to the Heian Period, with examples shown in this exhibition. It highlights the philosophical concept behind the Japanese word mottainai, which represents a sense of regret when something is wasted or when its value is not fully realised.

A large number of Boro garments and fabrics fill the space, from kimonos to futons, made from small fragments of recycled indigo cotton cloth. These cloths were often bound together using sashiko stitching by members in poorer communities, to create robust garments suitable for working in. These garments demonstrate the skills of the workers and how they utilised limited resources. Some of the favourite pieces in our archive are boro, so to see such an array of examples of this was a treat.

Examples of Kin-tsugi or Gin-tsugi pottery, from The Heian period (794-1185) to The Edo period (1603-1867), made up a large portion of the exhibition, demonstrating how breakages and repairs were not disguised, but instead became a rich part of the object’s history. These bowls, plates, and tea sets were repaired using lacquer mixed with gold, creating the shimmering pathways that make it whole again.

Also exhibited were Washi papers; handmade paper often made from old ledgers, where you could see the shadow of the material’s past overlapping with new writings and drawings.

More modern fabrics adorning adverts were also recycled into room dividers or curtains.

The techniques shown in this exhibition, such as Kin-tsugi or Sashiko stitching on boro, may demonstrate ways in which we can reduce waste, but fundamentally this ethos embraces flaws and imperfections, such as a crack or a tear, to create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

The exhibition is open until the 23rd of September 2023. More info can be found here>