Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cat (or, What is San Francisco's best kept art secret?)
On my way to Paris this morning, running to catch a flight at San Francisco International Airport, I was, once again, stopped in my tracks by the installation and curated exhibition on display at the airport's Terminal Two (frankly, when my driver announced we'd arrived at our terminal, and that it was Terminal Two, I was excited by the prospect of what I might see).
On past occasions, I've been met at Terminal Two with exhibitions of work by my friend, Marvin Lipofsky, whose work with color and blown glass shapes took the medium and its expression to fantastical heights (technical accomplishment, concept). On many other occasions, and at other terminals, I've been fortunate to find a grouping of iconoclastic San Francisco paintings by the San Francisco trifecta of Robert Bechtle, Wayne Thiebaud, and James Torlakson (are they grouped together because they’re paintings by men from San Francisco, or is it because of a common theme, the American fascination with roads and road travel, maybe?).
Oh, but there is diversity in the SFO Museum's Public Art collection, as represented by Jay de Feo's blisteringly dark painting, "Masquerade in Black, 1974" and Deborah Butterfield's homage to the equine, with "Põhina, 2001" made of bronze castings of found objects, Hung Liu's richly narrative paintings, "Take Off, 2006 2006," and Yayoi Kusama's "High Heels for Going to Heaven, 2014", signature work, among others.
So, this morning's discovery of the Maneki Neko exhibition was affirmative of what I've come to expect from the San Francisco Airport Museum's installations. Fine things.
The story of the maneki neko, or beckoning cat figurines, is thought to date back to the late Edo period (1615-1868), when artisans in Japan began to make these figures in honor of its auspicious nature (for centuries, the cat had been valued for its ability to kill rodents) from ceramic and plaster, although some were also made in copper, bronze, wood, stone, and iron.
Today, maneki neko are found in Japanese (and sometimes, Chinese) businesses, near the entrance or in a window, where they silently beckon potential customers to enter. The figures classically show a cat with a raised left paw, an effort to bring luck and good fortune to a business; the right paw invites good fortune, health, and happiness into the home. Colors are also important: white represents happiness and satisfaction, black symbolizes safety and helps to drive away evil, while gold maneki neko symbolizes money and fortune. A distinctive feature of maneki neko is the bib attached to the neck. Bibs are frequently painted with traditional symbols of good luck and fortune, such as coins. Maneki neko, while made in the form of a cat, and look similar, on close inspection, show variations in color, size, facial features, and bib decoration.
And while this exhibition is housed in a busy international airport at the juxtaposition of the North America and Asia, it is, like any respectable and high level museum exhibition, properly curated, lit, and accompanied by generous displays of wall text to explain to the wanderer what lies before us. In fact, in 1999, the SFO Museum (SFOM) became the first museum in an airport to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums and is a widely imitated model for museums operating in public arenas.
Today, SFOM features more than twenty galleries throughout the Airport terminals displaying a rotating schedule of art, history, science, and cultural exhibitions, including the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, which houses a permanent collection dedicated to preserving the history of commercial aviation. The maneki neko exhibition was made possible by SFOM's relationships with the Mingei International Museum, who provided the generous loan to make it possible. Much of the exhibition is beyond the security gates ("post security"), and out of reach of San Francisco residents who have no reason to suffer through TSA, and that's a shame, but for those of us in possession of a boarding pass and access to SFO terminals, we are indeed fortunate to be able to enjoy a world class collection of contemporary fine art available in every terminal. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, and a frequent traveler through the terminals of the San Francisco International Airport, I am grateful for the excellent curatorial thought and development of these exhibitions, and to the relationships and trust we receive from the international community that allow this to happen.