Idris Veitch: African Masks, Ukiyo-e and the never-ending quest for identity

To say a synthesis of traditional African and Japanese cultures piques interest would be a gross understatement. At a glance, the two seem polar, incongruous, even, and yet oozes the potential to be an absolute marvel together. This was exactly the impetus behind Tokyo-based artist Idris Veitch’s concept for the exhibition of “African Masks X Ukiyoe — an exploration into the parallels of Japan and the continent of Africa.”

Jamaican artist Idris Veitch of Nigerian ancestry produced a body of work exploring African and Japanese cultures (Photo: Chris Lewinson/BUZZ)

Veitch, whose creative endeavours span fashion and textile design, graphics, illustration and prints are all woven with a common thread — the unending search for the true self amid our societal masks, roles, cultural experiences and adaptations. 

A concept that has fascinated him and influenced his pieces given his own nomadic life path and also symbolised by the meaning of Veitch. He is half Nigerian, born and raised in Jamaica, studied at the Edna Manley College and in the United States, and has called Japan home for the last 10 years… which explains his natural affinity and knack for collages.

A piece from Idris Veitch – Mothers

His own need to observe and adjust, mix, match and reimagine himself due to the ‘otherness’ he embodies in these new spaces is the motif through which he explores the question, ‘who am I’? By extension, juxtaposing radical differences to pose it on a larger scale – who are we, really?

Veitch speaks on his work at an exhibition

While exploring that despite glaring differences in our cultures, we are driven by the same core things… and are, as clichéd as it sounds, one. A pertinent reminder for those of us able to perceive the work, especially given the chaotic relationship between nations in the world today.

About A Girl Named Kushni is a part of Veitch’s digital collection “African Masks X Ukiyoe”

It is this lifelong query that informs their beautiful, thought-provoking collection of digital collages in “African Masks X Ukiyoe”, showing the parallels between two seemingly opposite worlds, even while hinting at similarities in Jamaican culture and leaving ample space for viewer interpretation.

With the meeting of vibrant, stunning visuals in the African masks and muted softness of Ukiyo-e —a genre of Japanese art popular in the 17th to 19th centuries— the mission was definitely accomplished. Ukiyo-e literally translates to mean ‘pictures of the floating world’, which is what the pleasure districts of Edo [modern day Tokyo] was called.

Much like collages, Ukiyoe is an amalgam of mixed media, with woodblock prints and paintings of traditional Japanese looks; like beautiful women [often geisha in erotic settings], landscapes, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers; historic scenes and folk tales.

In a further nod to the culture, the collages were printed on traditional Japanese washi, a delicate hand-made, seasonally produced paper made with kozi [mulberry] and gampi fibres, which dates back to 610 CE, and was once used by Buddhist monks to write sacred sutras.

Veitch’s latest collection aptly describes his evolution as an artist. (Photo: Chris Lewinson/BUZZ)

African masks, on the other hand, are usually worn as part of ceremonial dance costumes in religious and social events, mainly as a representation of ancestral spirits. They are believed, in most African traditions, to control or invoke good and evil forces by coming to life through spirit possession when used in dance.

These masks often fuse elements of humanness with that of nature and animal features, similar to the way in which the Jonkunnu we know here in Jamaica, or Moko Jumbi in other Caribbean islands are designed and expressed. 

Girl Combing Her Hair

As different as these two artforms seem, there is a crystal clear focus on the relationship between and sacredness of man to natural environment striking in both, and their marriage in Veitch’s series is heightened by the decision to present them as a visual exploration of personal introspection and layered connection to the two worlds. The washi, he shared, was “the best way to preserve it”… and once it was complete, he “had to bring it home”.

This amalgam is no small feat, considering all the research, time and fragility of the ultra-thin washi, which is only available in one store and requires extreme levels of patience and delicacy in the handling. Veitch tells us the process of collating everything from concept to execution has taken “about three years” and is heartened by the “mind-blowing interpretations and responses” to the work. 

Empress II

“African Masks X Ukiyoe” is indeed excellent, and aptly reflects Veitch’s evolution as an artist, always ready to reimagine separateness through a blank canvas. What’s next? “Hopefully incorporate my fashion background into the visual artistry a bit more.”

Veitch has started to incorporate his fashion background by printing his artwork on his shirts. (Photo: Chris Lewinson/BUZZ)

He has already started printing the pieces on T-shirts, which are available for purchase along with framed pieces from the exhibition, in the online store at www.idrisveitch.com. Also on the agenda is to continue exploring the current niche in varying ways, possibly return home to Jamaica soon, and generate even more buzz on Instagram with the search for self-identity through art. Take a look…