Young artist re-creates painting from fire-devastated Shuri Castle

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Marina Nizoe speaks about Ryukyu art in Chatan, Okinawa Prefecture, on Oct. 17. At left is her reproduction of Zhang Sheng’s “Birds and Flowers in Snow.” Nizoe’s original painting “Enchushokazu” (Rise from fire) is on the right.

NAHA — A young artist has reproduced a classic Chinese painting lost in the massive fire that destroyed Shuri Castle in Naha three years ago.

A work in the traditional bird-and-flower genre, the original was a treasure of the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which existed from the 15th century to the 19th century.

Marina Nizoe, 29, lives in Chatan, Okinawa Prefecture, and is hoping to help spur a renaissance of Ryukyu painting. She was in the process of reproducing the artwork, one of the foundations of Ryukyu art, when the fire occurred.

Nizoe plans to donate the reproduction when the castle’s burned-down main building is rebuilt. The reconstruction work started on Nov. 3.

Titled “Birds and Flowers in Snow,” the original painting was created by Qin-dynasty artist Zhang Sheng and depicts a pair of pheasants sitting near a dead tree covered with snow. Court painters of the Ryukyu Kingdom are believed to have honed their artistic skill by reproducing paintings by Chinese artists, including Zhang.

“This work had a tremendous influence on Ryukyu art,” Nizoe said.

Court artists of the Ryukyu dynasty were also entrusted with designing lacquerware and kimono.

Their works were distributed to Japan through the country’s Satsuma domain. The 2019 fire destroyed 27 paintings, including reproductions and Chinese paintings, and damaged six works.

Nizoe has loved drawing animals and nature since she was a child, and majored in Japanese-style painting at the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts and its graduate school, which are located near the castle. She has mainly painted works in the traditional bird-and-flower genre, but her use of bright colors and dense compositions with little white space sometimes drew harsh criticisms at exhibitions for not being Japanese-style paintings.

Nizoe felt inadequate and even thought of quitting the university, but then she learned about Ryukyu paintings from her mentor.

Influenced by both Chinese and Japanese paintings, Ryukyu paintings were bold and sophisticated. They were noted for vivid colors that evoke the nature of Okinawa, and Nizoe was convinced that she found her career in them.

However, the methods by which Ryukyu art was created were unclear, as no one carried on the work of the court painters who lost their jobs when the kingdom was annexed to Japan in 1879. Many of their works were also lost in the Battle of Okinawa and during the U.S. occupation.

“I’ll figure it out, then,” Nizoe thought. She studied the art in depth, getting involved in the restoration of Ryukyu paintings at a picture frame and scroll shop. She also repeatedly visited the castle, which housed many Ryukyu paintings.

Fire takes her path away

The place of her studies was engulfed in flames in the early hours of Oct. 31, 2019.

Nizoe learned of the disaster at 5:30 a.m. in a text message from a friend and saw on TV that the castle’s main building was burning fiercely. Due to a traffic jam in the area, she found it difficult to get near the castle. When she finally saw it from her university at about 10 a.m., she was faced with the devastating sight of a structure charred black.

“I felt like the career path I’d finally found had been taken away from me,” she said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shuri Castle in Naha is seen on Oct. 31, 2019, after its main building and other quarters had burned down.

At the time, Nizoe was working on reproducing “Birds and Flowers in Snow.” She had tried to trace Ryukyu artists’ footsteps to discover how their painting was created.

Only several days before, she had asked an official at the Okinawa Churashima Foundation that managed the castle to take the painting out of fireproof storage, and she took pictures of its details with a microscope. Since most of the artwork in the storage was safe, Nizoe became distressed, blaming herself for the loss of the painting.

Whenever she saw the burned site of the castle, she felt gutted. Encouraged by officials of the foundation and professors at the university, she took paint brushes and completed the reproduction of “Birds and Flowers in Snow” at the end of the year. There are other reproductions of the work made by court artists in the past, but the foundation has welcomed Nizoe’s donation proposal.

“[Nizoe’s reproduction] captures the brushwork and the colors the original and has an intensity that’s close to it. This is a significant work that can never be created now that the original is lost,” a foundation official said.

Overcoming sense of loss

In spring this year, Nizoe finished her degree at the university’s graduate school and took her first steps as a Ryukyu painting specialist. She has held a joint exhibition with other Okinawan artists who were all born after the prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972.

Nizoe’s dream is to establish technical methods for creating Ryukyu paintings — like bingata dyeing and Ryukyu lacquerware, traditions that disappeared at one point but were successfully revived. She also hopes to foster successors and see Ryukyu paintings commercially distributed as works of art.

“Reproducing old paintings requires patience, and there aren’t many people who continue doing it with enthusiasm. I hope to go on supporting young people with a mission,” said Yasuyuki Uezu, who works in the foundation’s division in charge of the castle.

“The fire made me feel yet again the sheer magnitude of Shuri Castle’s presence,” Nizoe said. “I hope that the castle’s restoration will boost momentum to pass down its history and culture to the next generation. I’d also like to overcome this sense of loss and produce Okinawan treasures.”