Decades before Makoto (“Mako”) Fujimura became America’s most successful evangelical fine artist — and even longer before he advised Martin Scorsese on the director’s new movie, “Silence” — an unplanned turn down a darkened museum hall in Tokyo defined his artistic calling.
Awaiting him there were dozens of fumi-e, bronze and wooden tiles bearing an image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.
During Japan’s 250-year persecution of its Christians, magistrates forced suspected believers to trample the images or face torture and death. Yet Japanese Christianity was never eliminated, and Fujimura, who encountered the images just after his own conversion, saw in their “deeply scarred mystery” a skewed testimony and a personal touchstone.
“Everything I’ve done has stemmed from that,” he said.
Today, Fujimura is the most successful serious artist of openly evangelical faith in the U.S., and probably in the world. His larger paintings sell for up to $400,000 and defy the secular art establishment’s unspoken commandment: Thou shalt not reward an artist who claims explicit Christian inspiration.
At the same time, his ravishing semiabstract canvases and his work as a writer and administrator have eroded the corresponding prejudice among evangelicals: Thou shalt not trust modern art.
Says fellow artist and sometime collaborator Bruce Herman, “He’s a kind of household name; if people think of contemporary artists who are Christians they immediately think of Mako.”
Most recently, the fumi-e have led Fujimura into a kind of partnership with Scorsese.
The “trampling blocks” are pivotal in Scorsese’s new movie, “Silence.” Fujimura is credited on the film as a “special adviser” and has written a kind of companion book about Shusaku Endo, the author of the 1966 novel from which the movie is adapted.
The association — Scorsese calls Fujimura a “remarkable artist and writer”— may gain Fujimura enough nonevangelical recognition to attain an elusive goal: street cred — not just as an artist, but one of faith — among non-Christians.
A personal touchstone
“In grade school I used to play baseball on the beach at Kamakura,” Fujimura said recently over buckwheat tea. “That was one of the places where they lined up Christians to step on the fumi-e.”
A youthful 56, he wears a cowled wool sweater and cuffed-up jeans, either for style or because rain has turned his bucolic property near Princeton, N.J., into a small swamp.
His family is distinguished and haunted. One grandmother died in the Allied firebombing of Tokyo; one grandfather, then No. 2 in Japan’s wartime education ministry, toured the horrors of Hiroshima a week after it became the original ground zero.
Mako was born in Boston while his scientist father was doing postdoctoral work with the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. Fujimura attended middle school, high school and college in the U.S. and then returned to Tokyo for a crucial six years. It was there that he mastered the traditional Japanese nihonga tradition, in which pigments made from pulverized semiprecious stones refract seemingly infinitely, and merged it with a New York-style abstraction to create a unique look.
He experienced his Christian conversion in Tokyo through American Protestant missionaries. And his encounter with the fumi-e provided his underlying themes: beauty, death, faith and resilience. In 1992 he became the youngest artist ever to have work acquired by Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
His success stateside was less meteoric. In the ’90s, his paintings sold quietly — and since they do not include obvious symbols, most buyers were unaware of the role of Christianity in their inspiration. He became a leader in a movement to reconcile evangelicals to contemporary art, but it was small.
“We were like the Hubble Telescope, sending out these almost futile messages in hopes that someone could hear them,” he said.
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SOURCE: Religion News Service