Facing the National Self-Portrait Prize

Kenji Uranishi, 'Danpen (Fragments)' 2017, glazed porcelain Image: Carl Warner

Kenji Uranishi, 'Danpen (Fragments)' 2017, glazed porcelain Image: Carl Warner

When I was invited by The Curators' Department to be one of 28 artists to participate in The University of Queensland National Self-Portrait Prize — a biennial, $50,000 acquisitive prize — my natural reflex was to say no. I couldn't imagine how I could possibly respond to the brief, given the focus of my ceramic practice. But I mulled it over, and with the encouragement of my wife, allowed my mind to investigate the possibilities...and very soon, I felt excited! 

I considered a number of paths — a drawing, a painting, porcelain body armour? But in the end, I returned to what really is a true extension and reflection of me and who I am. I created a five-piece installation of porcelain objects entitled 'Danpen (Fragments)'. My artist statement follows: 

For 31 years, I lived in Japan, shaped and influenced by the language, culture, food and seasons of my birthplace. I am, at my very core, Japanese. My passport is red, not navy blue. 
Life in Australia has provided its challenges, yet I feel at ease here; I feel free. There’s something wonderful about being released from cultural expectations, while still having that culture at the core of your being.
When you look at me, I’m Japanese. But I see in myself fragments of two histories, two lives, two cultures – maybe even two personalities, with two styles of communication and humour. I’ve spent more years of my life in Japan than I have in Australia, but it won’t be long before the balance tips in the other direction. 
'Danpen (Fragments)' is a reflection of me, and my practice, right now. In creating my self-portrait, I have hand-carved two distinct shapes for every piece and brought them together into one, abstracted whole, reflecting the coming together of my two identities.
Kenji Uranishi, 'Danpen (Fragments)' 2017, glazed porcelain Image: Carl Warner

Kenji Uranishi, 'Danpen (Fragments)' 2017, glazed porcelain Image: Carl Warner

When blending two different elements, I felt they had to communicate, not fight against each other. My Japanese and Australian selves are no different – both must have a place – and ideally, co-exist peacefully and beautifully. To live and thrive in a society where you didn’t grow up demands this.

But these finished forms are imperfect. They don't provide the satisfaction that comes from looking at something symmetrical. They are a little lopsided, a little unbalanced, but in the randomness of these pairings, they are also curious and intriguing.

The five sculptures are varied in form and contain differing quantities of each of the two elements. My approach to their construction was a bit like dropping a stone into a vessel containing two coloured liquids; you cannot anticipate the result. There is no perfect or predetermined way to combine the colours. The shape of the splash will also be different each time.

But perhaps it is the unexpected nature of this blending process that makes ‘it’ more interesting? ... Or strange!

The National Self-Portrait Prize is on show at UQ Art Museum until 18 February. I hope you get a chance to 'Look at me looking at you' if you're in the neighbourhood! 

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'Danpen (Fragments)' with Dale Harding's 'White ground'

'Danpen (Fragments)' with Dale Harding's 'White ground'