A Folk Carving from Tohoku: Otaka Popo
ca. late nineteenth century
4 3/8" x 2" x 2", 10.25 cm x 5 cm x 5 cm
This marvelous, small wood carving of a stylized hawk is referred to as otaka popo and is of a category of carving called sasano ningyo, a reference to the place where this was carved, Sasano village which is located in present day Yamagata prefecture.
According the exhibition catalog, Mingei, from the Brooklyn Museum's 1985 exhibition,
Sasano ningyo are engi toys, engi means something like "inviting good luck and avoiding bad luck." In the popular beliefs of the Edo Period, certain days, numerals, directions, and events had to do with engi and were met with prayers and exorcism. Many types of Japanese folk toys, particularly those purchased at temple or shrine festivals, originated as engi toys. During the Edo Period, the daimyo (feudal lord) of Uzen Province, Uesugi Yozan, encouraged the farmers in his fief to engage in cottage industries in order to supplement their meager income. Woodcarving was already a popular pastime for the long winter evenings in snow-covered Tohoku (northeastern Japan). Thus the farmers in Sasano Village came to specialize in this type of carved wood folk toy. The wing and tail feathers of their hawks and roosters are pared into thin curlicues with a few deft strokes of a heavy kife. This techinique is derived from one used by the Ainu aborigines on Hokkaido to produce wood ritual implements with long, curling shavings attached. The curling streamers on the Ainu ceremonial imlements in turn relate to the gohei, sacred white paper streamers, used to mark off a sacred site in Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan.
This marvelous little carving is imbued with intended supernatural powers. Its spare, planar form calls to mind Modernist sculpture and looking at this we cannot help but think of early Cubist assemblages by Braque or Picasso, or of the sophisticatedly beautiful work of Brancusi.