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Kawaii: new exhibition explores Japanese cultural concept of 'cute'

Thought-provoking pieces from Japanese artists exploring the darker side of Japan’s love for all things small and cute are being showcased in a new exhibition at our Farnham campus.

Kawaii (which originally meant something small and lovely that fits in your hand) is now synonymous with Hello Kitty, who has just celebrated her 40th birthday. Acting as the focus of the exhibition - which has been curated by our internationally renowned crafts expert Professor Lesley Millar MBE - kawaii is being depicted through ceramics, glass and textiles pieces, including items made entirely from urushi (lacquer).

In the UK, kawaii is largely represented in CosPlay (costume-play) and Animé, but Professor Millar and our artists are keen to showcase a more in-depth look at the concept that makes up such a large part of Japanese culture. They’ve adopted a more challenging view of kawaii by exploring it in relation to concepts such as exploitation and the sexualisation of young girls. Surprisingly, the critical exhibition has had a lot of interest in Japan, as Professor Millar explains:

“A critical look at kawaii has never really been done in Japan by the Japanese themselves, so it’s completely new to them. As a concept, it is so much more than Hello Kitty. It’s cool popular culture in Japan, so if you’re called kawaii, it’s like they’re saying ‘you’re one of us’. With no feminist movement in Japan historically, kawaii acts a bit like a territory that women have established.”

The exhibition features the work of over 15 Japanese artists, and pieces include: a perfectly petite Red Riding Hood outfit that considers the roles of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the well-known fairytale; a mass of handmade melting sugar paste roses; a large cherry blossom inspired installation created from tiny pieces of handmade paper called washi. Underpinning all of the pieces is the desire to promote contemporary craft.

“I hope that the exhibition will help to get people thinking about contemporary craft in a different way,” says Professor Millar. “All the artists have come from a craft background and many of the works are using traditional crafts in a very contemporary way. The exhibition showcases the role of crafts as a commentator on popular culture as well as crafts as part of culture. It also gives the artists the opportunity to share something of their own understanding of kawaii.

“Here in the UK, the interest around kawaii is growing with events like Hyper Japan in London, which celebrates all things Japanese. It’s getting more popular each year and it’s got its own life, changing slightly with every generation, but always staying as something cute.”

Kawaii!!!? Crafting the Japanese Culture of Cute is open to the public at UCA Farnham until 11 December.