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Edging Toward Japan: An artistic dream of an Asian-African cultural collision

The Zulu King, Shaka (Public Domain)

By Damian Flanagan

    Once, while driving around the dusty roads of Zululand in South Africa, I stumbled into a small art gallery that had some memorable prints on display. The pictures told the story of how, at the beginning of the 20th century, a group of Zulu warriors had made the long journey to Japan, and depicted them in a variety of Japanese settings, at shrines and in scenic gardens.

    There was a narrative associated with the pictures -- a Japanese traveller to Durban in 1910 called Naokichi Nakamura had encountered a Zulu named Mpunzi Shezi on his travels and invited him and other Zulu back to his homeland, where a journey of mutual exploration of each other's cultures began. Mpunzi, we were told, would go on to explain Ubuntu philosophy to Japanese Buddhists, while explaining Zen to the Zulu.

    The story was not, of course, true. The pictures were an invention, works of pure fantasy, as some of the more erotic elements -- nude female torsos pictured against exotic Japanese backgrounds -- immediately gave away. The series of pictures were called "Zulu Sushi" and were the creation of the Durban-based artist Peter Engblom, who passed away in September last year.

    The descendant of Norwegian missionaries to South Africa, Engblom had developed a keen interest both in the Zulu culture of his homeland and the Indian heritage of his native city of Durban. As well as being an artist, he liked to describe himself as a sugar farmer, yacht broker and professional snake catcher (though in just about everything regarding Engblom, fact and fiction are sometimes hard to disentangle). Living in a land where three vastly disparate cultures -- Zulu, European and Indian -- coexisted, his fantasies seemed to have evolved in the direction of imagining an even stranger collision: the coming together of traditional Japanese and Zulu cultures.

    A tribute giraffe presented to the Yongle Emperor (Public Domain)

    In our own culturally hypersensitive age, an artist might perhaps hesitate to produce works such as these. Engblom imagined his Zulu guru Mpunzi as learning "tantric sex with geishas" and being equally interested in "Buddhism, bondage and bonsai." A fierce individualist who refused to fetter his imagination, in an interview in 2003 with a German magazine, he remarked provocatively that "ethnic identities are basically constructions that we are swindled into believing. My pictures are constructions of events that never took place."

    Engblom never visited Japan (or, at least, so he said). And yet there is something thrilling and fascinating about the cultural collision Engblom imagined. Throughout the 19th century, as Europeans and Americans explored the world, the meetings of European with Asian and African civilizations were common, but direct interaction between traditional African and Asian civilizations much rarer.

    How would the Zulus have fared in the Japan of 1911? Engblom may have conjured up a wild fantasy, but he went out of his way to give his fantasy an air of authenticity, even including in his pictures mock telegrams announcing the arrival of the Zulus in Japan.

    One of the most fascinating episodes in history is the early 15th century sea-faring expeditions of the Chinese admiral Zheng He who, leading a massive fleet along trade routes established since the Han Dynasty, journeyed towards the Arabian Peninsula and all along the east side of Africa, and brought home such exotic animals as giraffes and lions to present to the Yongle Emperor. The fact that the Hongxi Emperor put a halt to these expeditions and China retreated within its own cultural sphere for the next six centuries would prove to be a major hinge of world history.

    Within Africa itself, the "Bantu Migration" is the name given to the theory explaining how peoples, originating in homelands in central Africa, resettled over thousands of years as far as the eastern and southern tips of the African continent. Later, European settlers appeared, establishing trading centres on the African coast.

    At that point, when vastly different peoples were on the move across the world, history could have evolved in any number of directions. Flourishing contacts between Asia and Africa could have happened many centuries earlier than they actually did.

    Instead, we are left with such artistic and historical fantasies as "Zulu Sushi," left only to muse over a curious "What If" of history, dreaming how it would have been if curious Zulu had gone wandering east and landed on the shores of a still deeply traditional Japan.


    The Yongle Emperor (Public Domain)

    (This is Part 39 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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