|A frog smokes a cigarette in this detail from “The Waiting” by Taeko Takezawa.|
“I am a totally different type from the other people you’ve interviewed,” says painter Taeko Takezawa as she lights up a clove cigarette. “I am not living my life with any kind of issue consciousness. I’m just trying to find some independence and freedom.”
I tell her I’m not interested in types, that I’m interested in people who make a courageous decision to break with social expectations and live a life they believe in.
“No,” she disagrees in her unequivocal style, “I’m not courageous. I simply knew I couldn’t go on living the life I was living.”
We are speaking in Tokyo, where Takezawa has returned briefly to set up a forthcoming exhibition of her oil paintings, but what we talk about is another world.
For the past eight years, she has been living in Bali, Indonesia, in a cabin in the rain forest 10 minutes by motorbike from the artists’ village of Ubud. When I first met her there, she was speaking at machinegun speed in Indonesian to a woman behind the counter in a small crafts store. In her hand were two small, brightly colored oil paintings that she wished to have framed. Though the interchange between the two was in no way unfriendly, it was impossible for me to get a word in and try to introduce myself. I could tell from her vibrant work, though, especially in the shimmering greens, and from her forthright, even obdurate manner, that this person had grabbed onto the passionate in life, and was not going to let go.
It was not always this way. Until the age of 25, Takezawa was living the life of an incredibly harried and bored clerical worker in Tokyo. “I was consumed by the demands of my job, night and day,” she says.
So she left her job to devote herself to art. Still, a lot of people want to break away from their institutionalized lives, but few really do it. How did she make the decision?
“Well, it was the late ’80s, before the bubble had burst, and everyone was utterly focused on economics. I had this inner sense that there was something really disgusting about that. The people at the top — the men at the top, I should say — had made it so that no one could live without money. And since Japan is fundamentally an authoritarian country — and it hasn’t changed at all since then — people get moved around here and there just to satisfy the greed and avarice of the men at the top.
“I found the art world was the same. It didn’t matter how much I tried, if I didn’t pay my dues to the bigwig teachers, I wasn’t going to get anywhere.
“That’s when I remembered this small book I had read when I was 20 or so, which profiled foreigners, mostly Europeans, who had abandoned their countries and gone to live in Bali.
“There they were in these beautiful photographs, surrounded by greenery, living together with nature. I was incredibly jealous of them and wanted to do that myself.”
After several years in art school, she moved permanently to Bali where she lives to this day. She paints with a traditional Balinese bamboo brush in a style influenced both by illustrations from Japanese folk tales of animals with human characteristics and by Bali’s intensely hued tropical Asian aesthetic.
Being an artist at any time or place is, of course, an amazing adventure of expression, imagination and experience. But living at the crossroads of two vast traditions, each with their own flavors, influences and visual languages — and then mixing those with one’s own emotive sensibilities and life experiences — gives the painter access to an opulence most of us can only experience in dreams.
The densely populated island of Bali is home to eight or 10 distinct traditions of oil painting, not to mention the schools of dance, woodcarving, shadow puppetry, stone sculpture and of course its trance-inducing music.
The hypnotic movement of this music of bamboo xylophones and deep brass gongs is almost palpable in Takezawa’s work. There is both languor and immediacy in the mystical-realist compositions. Thatched-roof temples sprout tree trunks that snake upward into the soft, deep-blue heat of the night; a girl floating on a huge green leaf rides downstream on an undulating river.
“Sometimes I use my art as a kind of journal,” says Takezawa, “and sometimes I use it to forget the past, or to clean up its mess. And sometimes I use it as a means of emancipation.”
There are also contemplative paintings which seem inhabited by words unspoken. A couple glance at each other through thick bamboo foliage, the Asian skin tones subtly nuanced in the humid and shady light.
Takezawa’s portraits, like the painter herself, are unstinting in their honesty. In one, an old Balinese couple stare out at us, the lines on their skin as unsoftened as their gaze.
“A lot of my work is about the way men and women relate,” says Takezawa. In the first of a series of three paintings, a baronial frog on a dais examines a woman below him kneeling in the formal pose of the Japanese tea ceremony. In the second painting he lays out green leaves as futons for sleeping, with the proprietary look of one who takes things for granted. In the final painting, the woman is alone in the house, which now belongs to her. She has eaten the frog whole.
For Takezawa, the consciousness of herself as a woman has been perhaps the biggest understanding she has gotten from living in Indonesia for all these years. “Like many girls,” she says, “growing up I always had this nagging feeling: ‘There’s something not quite right here.’ But I didn’t know what it was. I was taught, like all girls in Japan, that I wasn’t supposed to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ clearly.
“But if a woman living alone in the forest in Bali can’t say yes or no clearly, she’s going to have a lot of problems. Unimaginable problems! You have to say what you need.”
Probably, it occurs to me, it was this insistence on prioritizing what is valuable in life that led her to throw down her job and move overseas, and this part of her character has been strengthened by her years living alone in the tropics and painting.
Has she found the freedom and independence she sought? “I’m not free at all,” she says. “I’m moving toward it, though. I don’t think of myself as any kind of example, but perhaps, just maybe, a young person looking at my life can say to themselves, ‘Wow, an existence like that is possible as well.’ “