Ambassador of Vietnamese Lacquer Art: Nava Levy – Issue 1

by Amy A. Har-Even


Nava Levy – Featured Artist

The first thing you notice about Nava Levy’s Hong Kong apartment is its sweeping panoramic view of the city’s famous skyline; thousands of buildings sprawl as far as the eye can see. The second thing you notice is the collection of vibrant artwork that punctuates the walls, in warm and colorful contrast to the sea of gray metal and glass outside. With vibrant red hair and a warm smile, Ms. Levy emits the same welcoming feel her paintings do; and she stands casually before her works as though it were the most natural thing in the world for an attorney from Jerusalem to be an expert in Vietnamese lacquer art. And why shouldn’t it be? After more than two years studying the technique, she realized she “was talented but didn’t know that this [talent] existed. I had to discover it,” she says. “And it happened when I was in Vietnam.”

The former career woman and mother of three came upon Vietnamese lacquer art while living in Hanoi from 2001-2003 where her husband Amikam Levy served as the Israeli Ambassador to Vietnam. “I discovered this magnificent art, which was really unique and different,” Ms. Levy says. “I decided to get more acquainted with this style that attracted me so much. I like to know and discover new things about the places that I live in, so I really wanted to understand more about this technique.” She enrolled in the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, and though she had no prior formal arts training, she found an aptitude for lacquer art as well as a creative outlet for her individualistic zeal. “I brought my Western passion,” she says, “which was a little bit surprising to my teachers there at the university.” That passion translated in her art as cracked surfaces-where the traditional way was smooth, and in following her instincts to go against the grain. But it certainly wasn’t a matter of her misunderstanding the technique. If there is one thing that’s apparent when talking to Nava Levy about lacquer art, it’s that she knows what she’s talking about.

“The idea is layers. It’s a long process-very complicated,” she explains. “You really have to understand that lacquer—produced from trees that grow in Southeast Asia—is the basis of this work. The board I’m painting on is made of tiny pieces of wood, attached with lacquer, and glued on gauze. More layers. Then the finished board itself is covered with lacquer so the colors you create won’t soak into the board.” Ms. Levy speaks with reverence about the difficulty and complexity involved in the centuries-old tradition she has joined, marveling at the uniqueness of each piece. “It always takes a new direction, with the second layer, and the third layer. Each layer changes it,” she says, “and you can never make exactly the same color that you made the day before. Interesting twists happen. Sometimes out of a mistake you can discover a whole world.”

Predictably, her desire to break with convention and, using the techniques she studied and mastered, to paint in her own individual way didn’t immediately garner praise. “In the beginning it wasn’t accepted, and the instructors always wanted it to be smoother,” she says. “But I insisted on my way.” Her teachers came around when they saw Ms. Levy’s final results; so much so that they persuaded her to have an exhibition of her work, where the country’s Secretary of Culture was the guest of honor. “They were very proud that a foreigner had adopted their unique art and had come to the stage that she was having her own exhibition,” she recounts. “I thanked them for giving me this gift and promised that I would be the ambassador of Vietnamese lacquer art in Israel.”

Making good on that pledge, Ms. Levy opened the first lacquer painting studio in Jerusalem in 2004, and began teaching lacquer art. Along with the technical knowledge gleaned over two and a half years at the Fine Arts University, she brought with her from Southeast Asia all the specific materials necessary to create the works, including the boards, pigments and, of course, lots of lacquer. In her Jerusalem studio she was the “only one who had this style.” In addition to her many students, Ms. Levy has had many exhibitions, most notably her last, a group exhibition of her work along with her students’ work, where the guest of honor was the ambassador of Vietnam to Israel. The success of her exhibitions was clearly humbling. “You feel very lucky and happy when somebody likes your painting so much that he chooses it to be part of his everyday life,” she shares. “It’s very flattering. I love when people buy my paintings for that reason—it makes me want to work more.”

Distinguished guests and accolades are of course gratifying, but Ms. Levy is never more animated or enthusiastic than when discussing the process of creating her artworks. “With lacquer, you don’t paint with a brush, you work with a piece of towel, except for the small details and outlines. With a brush, lacquer becomes stiff quite quickly. It’s tiring: you need some physical strength to do it. But painting in layers brings a lot of depth to the work.” And seemingly as appealing to her as the process of creating this art, is her impression of its accessibility, thanks in part to the distinctive material. “You don’t have to be a painter in order to paint with lacquer,” she exclaims. “It will still be beautiful even if you don’t know how to paint. You can just throw lacquer on the board and it will look amazing.”

But talent is an added bonus. Back in her apartment in Hong Kong, Ms. Levy sits on her sofa beneath a large painting; a mixture of deep reds, blues, and greens and shimmering gold and silver, all outlined in dense black. Squares and sharp angles share the space with part of a woman’s face, more sinuous lines, and in the foreground three red disks, lids of glass bottles, sit in low relief on top of the painting, but also as part of it, which Ms. Levy has incorporated into the artwork. Down the hall, something is protruding from the wall. Upon closer inspection, you discover that it’s a piece of wood emerging from a painting of an eagle, giving it a collage-like quality similar to the work in the living room. “You can add things to your painting and make it a little bit of a sculpture,” she says. “As long as it is something from the environment, the lacquer will accept it. It acts as a glue.”

But it’s the glossy surface, above the complex textures, that all these works have in common that makes them so intriguing. “When people are looking at the paintings, they are really astonished,” Ms. Levy says. “They stand there, mouths open, not understanding what kind of a painting it is. Is it like ceramic? Or they think that part of the process is burning it, and that’s what brings this shininess. But that’s not it at all. It’s only lacquer.” Well, only lacquer, a great deal of technique, and especially Ms. Levy’s obvious passion for her craft. “I’m definitely continuing with this,” she says, looking ahead, and, speaking as a true ambassador of her chosen art, she adds emphatically, “In the near future I will even teach it.”

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