Border to Japan: an artistic dream of an Afro-Asian cultural collision

Zulu King, Shaka (public domain)

By Damian Flanagan

Once, while driving on the dusty roads of Zululand in South Africa, I came across a small art gallery that featured some memorable prints. The images told how, in the early 20th century, a group of Zulu warriors made the long journey to Japan, and depicted them in a variety of Japanese settings, in shrines and in picturesque gardens.

There was a narrative associated with the images – a Japanese traveler to Durban in 1910 called Naokichi Nakamura had met a Zulu named Mpunzi Shezi on his travels and invited him along with other Zulus to his homeland, where on a trip from mutual exploration of each other’s cultures began. Mpunzi, we were told, would continue to explain the Ubuntu philosophy to Japanese Buddhists, while also explaining Zen to Zulu.

The story was of course not true. The images were an invention, works of pure fantasy, as some of the more erotic elements – naked female torsos depicted against exotic Japanese backgrounds – immediately revealed. The series of images was called “Zulu Sushi” and was the creation of Durban-based artist Peter Engblom, who died in September of last year.

A descendant of Norwegian missionaries in South Africa, Engblom had developed a keen interest in both the Zulu culture of his native country and the Indian heritage of his hometown of Durban. As well as being an artist, he liked to describe himself as a sugar producer, yacht broker and professional snake catcher (although in just about everything about Engblom the facts and fiction are sometimes hard to tell. unravel). Living in a country where three very disparate cultures coexisted – Zulu, European and Indian – his fantasies seemed to have evolved in the direction of imagining an even stranger collision: the meeting of traditional Japanese and Zulu cultures.

A tribute giraffe presented to Emperor Yongle (public domain)

In our culturally hypersensitive time, perhaps an artist might be hesitant to produce such works. Engblom imagined that his Zulu guru Mpunzi was learning “tantric sex with geishas” and was also interested in “Buddhism, bondage and bonsai”. A fierce individualist who refused to fetter his imagination, in a 2003 interview with a German magazine he provocatively remarked that “ethnic identities are fundamentally constructions we are made to believe. My images are constructions of events that never took place ”.

Engblom never visited Japan (or, at least, that’s what he said). And yet, there is something exciting and fascinating about the cultural collision envisioned by Engblom. Throughout the 19th century, as Europeans and Americans explored the world, encounters of European civilizations with Asian and African civilizations were common, but direct interactions between traditional African and Asian civilizations were much rarer.

How would the Zulus have behaved 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 images fake telegrams announcing the arrival of the Zulus in Japan.

One of the most fascinating episodes in history is that of the early 15th century maritime expeditions of Chinese Admiral Zheng He who, at the head of a massive fleet along the trade routes established since the Han Dynasty, headed to the Arabian Peninsula and all along the eastern side of Africa, and brought home exotic animals such as giraffes and lions to present to Emperor Yongle. The fact that Emperor Hongxi put an end to these expeditions and that China retreated into its own cultural sphere for the next six centuries will prove to be a major turning point in world history.

Within Africa itself, “Bantu migration” is the name given to the theory explaining how peoples, originating from the homelands of central Africa, resettled for thousands of years to the eastern and southern ends of the country. African continent. Later, European settlers appeared, establishing trade centers on the African coast.

At that time, as very different peoples moved around the world, history could have moved in a number of directions. Flourishing contacts between Asia and Africa could have taken place several centuries earlier than they actually did.

Instead, we end up with artistic and historical fantasies such as “Zulu Sushi”, left only to ponder a curious “What if” story, dreaming of what it would have been like if curious Zulu had gone. wander east and land on the shores of a still deeply traditional Japan.


Emperor Yongle (public domain)

(This is part 39 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, researcher in Japanese literature, wonders about Japanese culture during his trips back and forth between Japan and Great Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Great Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at the University of Cambridge. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 to 1999. After completing master’s and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he obtained a doctorate. in 2000. He is now based in 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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