The way in which his solo exhibition at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art came together gave artist Makoto Fujimura a crash course in Israeli culture. Whereas other such shows were the product of months of discussion with curators and institutions, Fujimura’s engagement with Tikotin happened quite casually and almost completely by chance.
These first steps into the Israeli art world were both baffling and beguiling for the world-renowned Japanese-American artist.
“I was meant to come to Israel on a cruise and spend Christmas in Jerusalem in 2000,” he says over juice in central Tel Aviv. “But there was the Haifa bombing, which strongly impacted tourism in the following years.”
However, a colleague of Fujimura’s, James Elaine, happened upon the museum while visiting Haifa.
“I knew James from Beijing though he’s now at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. James was staying at some hostel and the owner of the hostel knew the new curator of the Tikotin Museum. He introduced James to Dr.
Ilana Singer Blaine and James asked her if she would be interested in presenting my work. It all aligned, which was pretty miraculous.”
Once the ball got rolling, Fujimura made his first visit to Israel to begin setting up the extensive solo show “Beauty of Silence,” which features over 30 pieces made over the past three decades.
“There are several large paintings and one very large one. I think that it gives a good overview of my work,” explains Fujimura.
At 58, Fujimura, the father of three grown children, appears somehow ageless. Graceful and disarming, he speaks of his art easily and with great intention. Born in Boston, the son of a revolutionary speech scientist, Fujimura relocated with his family to Sweden at the age of two.
“Apparently, I painted as early as then but I don’t remember it,” he smiles. “My mother kept one of the paintings then and the incredible thing is that it still looks like Sweden to me. I used the same colors then that I would use now.”
After high school, Fujimura attended Bucknell University and went on to receive a national scholarship to study traditional Japanese painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It was the first time that a non-Japanese resident was awarded this honor.
“It was meant to be a year-and-a-half, but it turned into six years in Japan. It was an enormous privilege to be in Japan with a stipend and a studio. Like a dream. I discovered the 17th-century Japanese aesthetic, which relies on the use of minerals to make paint.”
For Fujimura, this was a “eureka” moment, one that defined the future of his artistic path. From more conventional materials, Fujimura transitioned into a deep exploration of the way artists painted centuries ago.
“An artist looks for materials that suit his or her expression. After I found the 17th-century aesthetic, it was a no-brainer. It perfectly suited my expression. I use minerals that would have been used in the 17th century, mixed with space-age materials.”
Fujimura goes on to cite a few of his influences, namely 17th-century Japanese artist Tohaku Hasegawa and tea master Rikyu. He adds that he is certain that another influence, more contemporary American painter Mark Rothko, would have “loved these pigments.”
Over the years, Fujimura found himself putting his passion into books and films, an “accidental filmmaker” who has also weighed in on works by other filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese. He served on the US National Council of the Arts under the George W. Bush administration and is the recipient of countless awards and honorary doctorates. His work has deep ties to theology and religious practice and often relates directly to the Bible. One of his most notable projects, the book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, is a biographical reflection on Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s Silence. The writing reflects on destruction and trauma and God’s silence in the face of it.
Perhaps because of his distance from Japan, Fujimura has been able to touch on a pressure point of Japanese culture that locals had not managed to.
“My goal, as an outsider, is to rejuvenate Japanese culture. I see 17th-century Japan as a microcosm of the world. In that time, Rikyu created the tea ceremony as a path toward peace but also as a path to beauty. That is at the center of what I do. The act of making is at the very center of who we are as human beings.”
Today, Fujimura splits his time between Princeton, New Jersey, and Pasadena, California.
One of Fujimura’s favorite pieces in “Beauty of Silence” was inspired by his first year in Princeton.
“We had just moved to a farmhouse in Princeton from New York City. The owner showed us a pear tree on the land and told us that it wouldn’t produce fruit again. But a year later it blossomed. It reminded me of Japanese culture,” he says.
“Many say it’s dead, but not me. It is the old and new coming together to create a miracle.”“Beauty of Silence” will be on display at Haifa’s Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art through June 17. For more information: www.tmja.org.il.