Christian art in Asia: from breaking bread to fish and rice

One day, next to Renaissance and Reformation greats like da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt, you may well find names with a decidedly Asian ring--names like Sadao Watanabe, Kim Yong Gil, Nalini Jayasuriya, and Bagong Kussudirdja.

At least that's how the future of Christian art looks to one visiting professor at Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, Masao Takenaka. Asia, he says, is generating an artistic rebirth that could well rival the West's as a century-shaker.

At this early stage, he and the art historians are not taking the comparison too far. But they're certainly having a hard time cooling their anticipation. Even Europe's greats were once relative unknowns, struggling to rouse an awakening age to a clearer understanding of itself, reaching deep into the treasures of Christian symbolism to do it. That's precisely what the burgeoning Asian Christian art movement is all about.

In the last decade Christian artists' associations have suddenly jelled in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Australia, and New Zealand. Each is garnering publicity through exhibitions. Christian magazines that once relied solely on illustrations done by the Western masters now display the works of native sons. Some 300 major artists from the full spectrum of Christian denominations have also formed an Asia-wide network of mutual support, known as the Asian Christian Art Association.

The genesis of this Asian rebirth actually goes back decades. But it developed almost totally unnoticed--until, that is, cultural spelunkers like Professor Takenaka got wind that something was up.

He teaches social sciences at Kyoto's Doshisha University, and has a doctorate from Yale in Christian social ethics. Takenaka was raised in an artistically inclined Christian family, but the nuclear blast that devastated Hiroshima drove him into more serious biblical reflection. The only artistic depictions of scriptural stories he had seen in Japan had come out of the European Renaissance. And when writing his book ''Reconciliation and Renewal in Japan'' in the 1950s, he lamented how little indigenous Christian art there was in Japan.

He was wrong.

In later researches, Takenaka turned up dozens of Christian artists, most of them working in quiet isolation from the broader Buddhist society. It became for him something of a pastoral duty to keep in touch with the artists and their exhibitions. In a few years, he had catalyzed a network of Japanese Christian artists and co-founded a monthly magazine, Image: Christ and Art in Asia.

The genius of the new Renaissance, like the old, lies in its exploring the biblical tradition for insight into societies embroiled in change. Compared with the task of the Asians, da Vinci and Michelangelo may have had it easy. They were at least painting for cultures nurtured in the biblical tradition.

But not the Asians. In a region where even a basic Christian symbol like bread is uncommon (if not totally unknown) to rice-eating commoners, how do you portray a scene like the Last Supper in which bread plays the quintessential role?

Browsers at a recent Asian Christian art exhibit at Harvard got a taste of how Japanese painter Sadao Watanabe handles the problem. Watanabe's trademark is a kind of silk-screen printing on crinkly rice paper. In his rendition of the Last Supper one instantly recognizes the disciples seated with Jesus over the common meal. Like da Vinci, he pictures them seated at a large table, not reclining on couches in the manner of first-century Palestine. But at center table, the bread is missing. Instead, Watanabe substitutes the Japanese equivalent of the Western staff of life--fish and rice.

Is something getting lost in the translation? For the exhibit organizers, this sort of translation is crucial if text is to meet context. It's a way for the scriptural tradition to speak meaningfully to, and about, Asian life.

Takenaka has many examples of this in his personal art collection. Here are the works of Korean painter Kim Yong Gil, for instance. The three wise men at Jesus' nativity have long been portrayed as Eurasians, usually Persian magi in Persian dress. In Kim's version, they have Korean features, are kneeling Korean-style in traditional Korean robes, and wearing straight-brimmed Korean hats that ride high on the head and tie under the chin. (Numerous artists of the Renaissance did the same thing, cloaking the magi with painstaking accuracy in the dress of 15th- and 16th-century Europe.)

Or take the painting ''Jesus the Master,'' by Nalini Jayasuriya, a Sri Lankan painter. She has the Christ figure sitting cross-legged in the traditional lotus position of Eastern religious holy men, holding the traditional white circle of truth.

Indonesia's Arief Darsons depicts Noah's Ark as a black Javanese longboat with friendly stylized dragon heads at prow and stern, ornate orange designs on the sides, and oarsmen lining the length of the ship.

For all their adaptation of traditional Christian metaphor, however, the Asians seem determined to keep their enterprise well within the harness of the biblical themes. That discipline is making demands on even the most long-held traditions of Asian art. In the process, the ancient artistic media seem to be going through a rebirth of their own.

One sees this trend in the examples of ''Christian flower-arranging'' by Japanese artist Takao Tanaka. One of his best-known is centered on Easter lilies, a symbol of resurrection. White lilies rise from a base of feathery scarlet palm leaves, cupped on right and left by upstretched white rice stalks that converge upon flame-orange plumes which rise above the lily blossoms. The theme is the Holy Spirit. Artist Tanaka calls it simply ''Pentecost.''

In such interplay of Asian art media with Christian themes and imagery, rhythm after aesthetic rhythm has been set in motion, texts adapting to contexts. Age-old artistic media have yielded to the demands of biblical texts.

To the casual observer, the artists and their works express universal biblical themes, rather than illustrated religious dogma. Ask the artists about their works and you are likely to find tales of Asian Christian encounter.

Take, for instance, the ''Conversion of Saul,'' by Kim Yong Gil, who accompanied his works to the Harvard exhibit. As a painter, Kim does not aspire to the dazzlingly detailed anatomical realism of the Italian masters, though he is not incapable of it. He moves in a world of geometrical form, monumental idealized human figures portrayed with sharply drawn angles and straight lines. Golden hues seem to glint off the edges of forms painted in deep azure blues, maroons, and browns, like the edges of a dark bronze statue that have been shined into bright gold by the touch of passers-by. Unlike the oils of Western works that fade with time, Kim has invented a way to make his colors nearly immortal. He soaks his rice paper canvases dozens of times in solutions of pigment, vinegar, and glue.

In the ''Conversion of Saul,'' the about-to-be-apostle Paul kneels, face upturned as if bathing in the torrents of light that pour down from above.

''When I was little and the Japanese had occupied Korea, my family escaped to China,'' Kim explained to visitors as they peered into the painting.

''Years later, when we came back to South Korea we were very, very poor. I was extremely weak and sickly. The doctor said I should go to the seacoast for rest, that I had only a year or so to live. . . . I remember how hard I prayed--just like Saul appears in this painting at his conversion. And ever since I have been strong and healthy, as you can see. That's why I began religious painting: to offer my talent for God.''

His painting ''Seven Elders''--a tall, crosslike form emerging from serene Inca-looking faces set side by side along the bottom of the canvas--looks like a sculpture of vertical and horizontal lines carved in layers of wood. It, too, tells a tale. Disturbed by struggles and bickering among the various church leaders in Korea, Kim had vision that they would be unified through the cross, the symbol that seems to bond the elders together in one.

More than one minister viewing the piece said they wished it could be used as a model for the facade of their churches.

In the overall spectrum of Asian Christian art, Kim's work seems to be toward the more personalistic biblical encounter. Other artists are grappling more with the tempestuous historical forces in the Asian scene--the struggle to bring traditional cultures into the age of high tech; the process of weaning from a clinging colonial past; tyrannical governments; pressures of mass poverty, overpopulation, and hunger; a consciousness of the sobering implications of life in the nuclear age; an awareness that comes from living in a region that has witnessed the only atomic bombs ever dropped.

Taking on such forces, the Asian brush can sometimes bite. The drear existence of crowded, polluted Philippine factories draws stinging comment from Filipino painter Alberto Jimenez, who shows listless workers streaming en masse from factories built of wooden crosses.

The affronts to religious faith posed by high-rise, technological civilization get an almost Salvador Dali-like comment from Shin Young Hum, another South Korean. In his ''Formation of Faith,'' the face of a huge Christ figure, gazing like a Greek marble statue into a pastel sky, provides an apocalyptic backdrop. In front, robed religious figures walk through the byways of a confused conglomeration of urban structures washed in pastel ferrous greens , yellow, and pink. A praying figure appears to be asking where civilization is going; the robed figures march humbly toward the future.

Then there is the lighter side. The relevance of religious faith today is celebrated in the playful calligraphy of Chinese artist Choi Kai-Yan. His work ''Rei'' (''Spirit'') repeats the Chinese character for ''Spirit'' in a three-tiered arrangement, each ''tier'' comprising five Spirit-characters. To convey the chameleonlike adaptability of Spirit to the many aspects of modern life, Mr. Choi builds into the structure of each character a symbol of modern life--computer tapes, an electric light bulb, a curving multi-laned highway, and so on.

Professor Takenaka is certain that the full impact of the Asian art explosion hasn't begun to be charted. There are signs that its intensity will be further fueled by the surging biblical interest among Asians at large.

Perhaps most telling, he says, is the way Christian imagery is creeping into the work of artists totally outside the Christian tradition.

Some months back Takenaka visited the renowned Indian artist K. C. S. Panikar , principal of the Institute of Arts and Craft in Madras. The Indian brought out one of his own sculptures portraying the Christ figure in his compassion for the plight of lepers.

''Of course, in India, Panikar explained to me, the leper is classified outcast, untouchable; they live in the caves outside the villages. Even the closest family member would not touch you if you were a leper. But Jesus visited those who were lepers. He touched them.''

Takenaka asked Panikar if he was a Christian. When he replied that he was Hindu, Takenaka asked him why he had used the Christian model. '' 'Jesus of Nazareth,' '' Takenaka related Panikar as replying, '' 'identified with the people who are suffering. I can think of those here in India who go to great lengths to enhance their kindness, praying, fasting. But not to the extent of Jesus. He reached even the total outcast. I admire that. That admiration had to find its way into my art.' ''

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