Ideas

Growing from the Barren Ground: Part 1

Xie Congyang traces the emergence of unofficial art exhibitions in northwest China from the late 1970s

Part 1 of a three-part essay series based on Xie's fieldwork in the region, drawing on oral histories and interviews with local artists, editors, and educators. Her research examines ten unofficial experimental art exhibitions organised by artists based in three major cities of northwest China—Lanzhou, Xining, and Urumqi—which had an enduring impact on local art scenes, and were milestones that marked different stages of the development of contemporary art.

 

Image: Painting by Liang Zongmeng, circa 1970s. This work is said to have been exhibited at the <i>Small Star Art Exhibition</i>. Courtesy of Liang Zongmeng.
Image: Painting by Liang Zongmeng, circa 1970s. This work is said to have been exhibited at the Small Star Art Exhibition. Courtesy of Liang Zongmeng.

 

Unofficial Art Exhibitions in Northwest China from the Late 1970s


Introduction

Though the dizzying pace of art infrastructure construction in northwest China produced—and perhaps still produces—a sort of futuristic optimism among local art communities, it also raised new questions. Under what conditions do the improvements in art institutions guarantee artistic longevity and influence? How might art practitioners relate their work to both local contexts and larger art circles beyond the region? Are there alternatives to existing institutional forms, and what, after all, is a good institution to begin with?

This essay series traces ten unofficial experimental art exhibitions organised by Han artists based in three major cities of northwest China—Lanzhou, Xining, and Urumqi—from the late 1970s to 2010s. The selected exhibitions had an enduring impact on local art scenes, and are milestones that mark different stages of the development of contemporary art in the region.

This focus on exhibition history is mainly based on two observations specific to northwest China. First, while a lack of institutional support for securing exhibition venues and funding experimental art was common throughout China before 2000, art writings and art publications dedicated to experimental art in the northwest were also scarce.1 Thus, unofficial exhibitions organised by local artists have been the pivotal, if not the only platform for local artists to present their work and interact with others. In addition, exhibitions in the northwest were unique occasions for introducing art from beyond the region.

These findings are based on primary materials I gathered during my fieldwork from 2016 to 2017, including several interviews I conducted throughout the region. In addition, a few local art practitioners have begun tracing the development of contemporary art through oral history projects and self-biographies, and access to these secondary materials has been invaluable.2

This research will be published in three parts, each of which focuses on one stage of exhibition history in the northwest, organised chronologically and around the key issues of the relevant exhibitions. Part 1 traces the emergence of unofficial art exhibitions in Lanzhou, Xining, and Urumqi, which date back to the late 1970s. Part 2 will focus on the mid-1980s to mid-2000s, which was characterised by “influences” and “anxieties”—influences from other art centres, and anxieties unique to the local art environments. Part 3 will examine how “institutional practice” became a prevailing model from 2010 onwards.

I would first like to elaborate briefly on the geographic scope and art communities concerned.

 

Geographic Scope

The scope of this research in northwest China covers Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai. Partly a legacy of China’s administrative system enacted between 1949 to 1954, these provinces and regions were ruled under the ultra-provincial level administrative unit known as the Northwest Region, which regulated various aspects of social life.3 Under the planned economy, for example, a person was allowed to move, but in most cases only within the provinces and regions of northwest China—so these population flows strengthened links in the area, gradually consolidating a regional identity of a “northwesterner.” Of course, administrative policy enacted after the foundation of the PRC is but one of many historical forces that influenced inter-regional migration patterns, with other significant factors including wars and famines.

While imagery of the region has often been associated with natural landscapes and rural scenery, its contemporary art scenes emerged within urban centres over the last few decades—with experimental art activities especially concentrated in three provincial capital cities: Lanzhou in Gansu province, Urumqi in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and Xining in Qinghai province.

 

Art Community Scope

From the perspective of cultural geography, Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Xining are among dozens of cities that dot the frontier between China’s “core area” (dominated by Han Chinese culture) and the “western region” (“xi yu”; largely populated by non-Han ethnic groups, including the Mongols, the Tibetans, and the Uighurs, among others). In general, artists of different ethnicities tend to operate in separate communities with distinct goals and practices—ethnic minority artists, for instance, have been more concerned with the question of connecting their art practice to their own cultural tradition, and generally show more interest in art trends from outside China. Han artists, on the other hand, have developed complex responses to the cultural mainstream in the “core area” of China.

Such complexity is inherent to the frontier cities. Since the dynastic history of China, centrally planned “in-migration” of the Han population (from the core to the frontier) was the main strategy for consolidating territorial claims. Such practice is still retained by the PRC government, but in association with new ideological or economic values. As a result, a large number of intellectuals, scientists, students, trained workers, and soldiers were sent into the northwest after 1949, whether self-initiated or coerced, and a significant number of them settled in the region permanently.4 Most of the Han artists in northwestern cities, then, are second or third generation immigrants from this large influx, and often hail from multiple regions. In my interview with Yinchuan-born artist Mao Tongqiang, for example, he mentioned that the last three generations of his family came from eight different provinces.

One of my objectives is to understand the significance of these migration patterns on art practices, and so this research focuses exclusively on activities organised by artists who are ethnically Han. Contemporary art by ethnic minority artist groups require different narratives and frameworks, and is not within the scope of this essay.5

 

Image: Painting by Cheng Li, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Cheng Li.
Image: Painting by Cheng Li, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Cheng Li.

 

The Emergence of Unofficial Art Exhibitions in Northwest China

Throughout China, official art exhibitions are organised by national art agencies like the Chinese Artist Association and its local branches. These agencies hold the power to decide the selection of artworks in official exhibitions, from the municipal to national level. The northwest is often distinguished by ethnic symbols, historic and cultural sites, and natural landscapes, which in turn remain the dominant paradigm of official art exhibitions encouraged by the state. And so, in order to be included in these exhibitions and gain general and professional recognition, local artists must submit works that conform to these paradigms.

Since the early 1990s, the art market in China has played a significant role in breaking the monopoly of official art agencies, opening an alternative field for artistic diversity. In the northwest, however, such institutional change did not take place, and official art exhibitions remained the only way to gain general and professional recognition. While works by artists in the region have been purchased by collectors from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and were exhibited and sold outside Mainland China by as early as the mid-1980s,6 these collectors tended to show strong preference for works that represent the regions’ “natural and cultural characteristics.” This served to consolidate, rather than to challenge, the dominance of official art paradigms.

In response, artists turned to self-organised exhibitions to explore alternative approaches beyond official art models. Through tracing the earliest cases of unofficial exhibitions organised by local artists in Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Xining—which were responses to limitations on artistic freedom—one begins to see the potential of self-organising exhibitions as a method, and how the foundation for local art practitioners in the next stage of “institutional practice” was laid.

 

Small Star Art Exhibition

Dating back to the late 1970s, Small Star Art Exhibition was one of the earliest unofficial art exhibitions, organised by a group of amateur artists in Lanzhou. According to organiser Liang Zongmeng, the decision of holding an exhibition was made when the artists read in a newspaper about the Beijing Star Art Exhibition in September of 1979, in which a group of twenty-three artists hung 123 of their works on a fence outside the National Art Museum of China. Their action took place on the eve of a national exhibition that celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which was to be held inside the museum. The Star Art Exhibition attracted thousands of visitors, and is considered one of the earliest and the most influential unofficial exhibitions after the Cultural Revolution, as it demonstrated the artists’ determination to struggle for individual freedom in art at the time.7

Inspired by the Star Art Exhibition, artists in Lanzhou staged the Small Star Art Exhibition in White Tower Mountain Park, a popular resort located at the southern edge of Lanzhou. Held in a Buddhist temple severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution, it featured works from about ten artists. Most of them were born in the 1950s, and were stage designers at Gansu Opera Ensemble or amateur painters from other work units. Cao Yong and Cheng Li,8 two artists who would actively promote experimental art in 1980s Lanzhou, were among them.

Although their works represented a wide range of styles, these artists were similar in educational background and social status. Deprived of formal art school training due to the Cultural Revolution, they were self-taught and became interested in Western modernist art (which was criticised by China’s official art agencies at the time). Their art practice also deviated from narrative paintings, which mainly served the needs of propaganda. However, within local art circles, these amateur artists were sometimes looked down upon, and were not considered “serious” artists because of their lack of professional experience or training.9

 

Image: Painting by Cheng Li, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Cheng Li.
Image: Painting by Cheng Li, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Cheng Li.

 

In this light, the emergence of an exhibition like Small Star Art Exhibition was not accidental, but was the result of a group of amateur artists persistently pursuing alternative art models for over a decade.

After the founding of the PRC, Lanzhou was considered a significant site of construction in the northwest, and a large number of intellectuals and experts were allocated to work in universities, research institutes, and other work units here. This well-educated group not only brought knowledge and experience, but also many publications, including art catalogues from foreign countries. In the succeeding years, these catalogues were scattered and circulated through informal channels, such as second-hand bookstores or book exchanges between acquaintances. For some artists, their first encounter of Western modernist art was through these publications. Liang Zongmeng, for instance, mentioned that he saw Henri Matisse’s work for the first time at a very young age from a catalogue that a Lanzhou University professor gave to his father.

After 1949, the Department of Fine Arts at Northwest Normal University was the most significant institution of art education in Gansu province. However, in the 1970s during the Cultural Revolution, teaching was suspended. As a result, the most interesting experiments did not occur within art schools, but instead were undertaken secretly in various “work units” like the Gansu Opera Ensemble, where staff was trained to master elementary art skills and worked as designers.

Because there was no visual documentation of the Small Star Art Exhibition, I had to base my inquiry on oral history. The exhibition was remembered by most local artists for its demonstration of artworks painted in ’”Soviet grey’’ style—a term they coined to refer to the harmonious composition of greyish colours, characterised by the works of several Russian oil painting masters.10

 

Image: <i>Tribute to Mikhail Vrubel</i>, 1977. Courtesy of Cheng Li.
Image: Tribute to Mikhail Vrubel, 1977. Courtesy of Cheng Li.
Image: Painting by Liang Zongmeng, circa 1970s. This work is said to have been exhibited at the <i>Small Star Art Exhibition</i>. Courtesy of Liang Zongmeng.
Image: Painting by Liang Zongmeng, circa 1970s. This work is said to have been exhibited at the Small Star Art Exhibition. Courtesy of Liang Zongmeng.

 

It was said that most participants of the Small Star Art Exhibition were students of Cui Chengxun,11 a senior staff at Gansu Opera Ensemble, and this colour preference was the result of Cui’s pedagogy. According to Cheng Li and Liang Zongmeng, they were impressed by a group of Russian painters from Cui’s collection, but they represented a broad range of artistic genres and styles, and were not necessarily “Soviet” in nationality. They were brought together under a loosely defined term only because their works were in stark contrast with the predominant “red, bright, and shiny” that characterised the Chinese version of socialist realism at the time.

The reception of Small Star Art Exhibition differed from Star Art Exhibition in Beijing and the Grass Society 1980s Exhibition in Shanghai, in that the latter were controversial for their apparent representations of a dissident ideological stance. There were artworks that directly commented on China’s sociopolitical condition, attracting considerable attention from foreign media. The two exhibitions were politicised to such a point that, for some participating artists, their life was completely changed after the event.

The Lanzhou exhibition, however, was seen by its audience as an exploration in art—not an event of political significance. The organisers did not make much effort in promoting the exhibition, and the site had little traffic. Thus, the exhibition received limited attention from the small local art circle that was more likely to be sympathetic to alternative art practices. Liang Zongmeng recalls that the exhibition did not receive much criticism, but was acclaimed for its innovative breadth and approach by local artists.

After the success of the first exhibition, the same group of artists organised an exhibition in 1981 in another public park located in central Lanzhou.12 The exhibitions demonstrated to local artists the possibilities of self-organising—particularly essential for those marginalised by their education background or social status.

 

Twelve Men Painting Exhibition13

In Xinjiang, the limitations imposed by the official art paradigm were even more evident. In East and South China, oil painting had been practiced since the eighteenth century, and the modernist notion that painting should be practiced for the sake of personal interest had been wide spread and gained many supporters among artists, especially in places like Shanghai. Yet even though socialist ideology was prevalent after 1949, the cultural authorities rejected this idea and modernist art was banned. Artists in these cities were nonetheless able to learn about art styles beyond socialist realism through personal connections with elder artists, and also through art catalogues circulated privately.

However, in Xinjiang, it was only after 1949 that oil painting—not merely as an idea, but also as an institutionalised practice—was introduced with the establishment of the Xinjiang Art Academy, as well as through the inception of official art agencies such as the local branch of the Chinese Artist Association.14 Under these institutions, oil painting was promoted under the presumption that art should present the bright future of Xinjiang under Communist rule, and local themes were exploited to symbolise the strength of new China. There were hardly any alternatives to this.

The situation did not change, even after the 1980s, because of the region’s general lack of channels for circulating information. As a result, the official art paradigm became the sole criteria for estimating an artist’s work. Even today, it is essential to emphasise local cultural and natural characteristics, as it is the only possible route for local artists to join official exhibitions, to receive awards, to sell works to public museums and private collectors, or even simply to get a job in the field of art.15

In light of this, undertaking experimentations in art purely for the sake of personal interest was regarded as odd, and so the biggest challenge faced by more experimental artists may not have come from being stifled by authority, but rather from self-doubt and isolation. The small community formed through Twelve Men Painting Exhibition, a self-organised group show, undoubtedly provided emotional comfort and encouragement to its members; and one of the unusual characteristics of this serial exhibition was its longevity. From 1987 to 2004, seven editions of the exhibition were held at irregular intervals. Through the 1990s, it was held almost every two years. The exhibition’s recurrence for over a decade made it the most representative unofficial art exhibition.

 

Image: Photo taken onsite at one of the <i>Twelve Men Painting Exhibitions</i> in the 1990s. Courtesy of Yan Li.
Image: Photo taken onsite at one of the Twelve Men Painting Exhibitions in the 1990s. Courtesy of Yan Li.

 

The first and largest edition of Twelve Men Painting Exhibition was held in May 1987, at the XUAR Exhibition Center in Urumqi. Except for six core members who participated in all the exhibitions,16 the “Twelve Men” were not an artist collective with regular members; instead, participating artists varied from edition to edition. None of the participants were professional artists, except for Yan Hongkui, who was with the Xinjiang Painting Institute. Yan Li and Guo Bu, the initiators of the exhibition, were magazine art editors. Zhang Yonghe and Qin Feng were stage designers, while Zhang Jianxin was a factory worker. Some of them were self-taught; others studied in art-related divisions in professional training schools; but none of them received a formal art education.

It was their travel experience, rather than education, that played the decisive role in their study of art. In the early 1980s, most of these artists had the opportunity to travel to Beijing and other cities in southeast China, and were exposed to new art trends through visiting art exhibitions in these cities. For instance, Yan Li, one of the initiators, recalls that during the early 1980s, he and his wife Wang Shaoping, who also participated in the Twelve Men Painting Exhibition, had travelled to Beijing several times to visit Western art exhibitions there. Yan Hongkui, who worked as an editor of the visual art section of Xinjiang Arts magazine from 1981 to 1985, also travelled frequently to Beijing for editorial matters. He saw most of the major exhibitions of Western art in Beijing, and built connections with editors at Fine Arts in China, one of the most important art publications at the time. His paintings were also influenced by his encounter with the ‘85 New Wave Art Movement.17 Another younger artist, Zhang Yonghe, was then a stage designer at the Art Troupe of Changji Prefecture, and was selected to attend the Shanghai Academy of Drama. In Shanghai, he studied after Li Shan, an active experimental artist at the time.

By the mid-1980s, these artists were aware of the gap between the conservative local art world and the vibrant art scenes in other cities. Their purpose of initiating the Twelve Men Painting Exhibition was to breathe new life to the local art world. However, its goal was not to propose and articulate new artistic ideologies. In the artists’ own words: “We don’t paint in the same mode, nor do we share the same interest in art.”18 Instead, these artists sought to invent a new mode of exhibitions which guarantee individual artistic freedom. Discontent with the hierarchy between artists and the authorities in official art exhibitions, organisers allowed artists to decide on the selection of their own works in all the editions.

On the question of whether the Twelve Men Painting Exhibition continued to introduce new art practices from China proper to Xinjiang during the decade that it lasted, Yan Hongkui, the eldest artist of the group, believed that “the ‘Twelve Men’ had gradually become a conservative group.”19 What he meant was that while contemporary art had evolved greatly in other cities since the 1990s, artists of the Twelve Men group did not take part in the trend and withdrew themselves from the burgeoning contemporary art scene in China. But Yan shows no regret for their choice, and believes that the group’s core members remained loyal to their own views on art.

Documentation of the exhibited artwork in the fifth edition of the exhibition, held in 1997, shows that Xinjiang artists’ works bear hardly any trace of art practices from other regions. Was this because the artists’ conception and knowledge of art made it difficult for them to understand new art practices, or was it due to the oft-cited reason of restricted information flow?

After interviewing many of the group’s core members, I came to the preliminary conclusion that their perception of contemporary art had been shaped by what was most frequently reported in 1990s mainstream media, including “political pop” and the Yuanmingyuan artist village. Experimental art, on the other hand, was usually discussed in small informal publications that were not circulated in Xinjiang. Since mainstream reports often emphasised performance art with exaggerated coverage, it left the public with the idea that “performance art” was ambiguous in meaning, problematic in artistic quality, whilst employing extreme methods to gain attention. This left a negative impression on Xinjiang artists who avoided the mainstream art circle in China.

Since the fifth edition of the Twelve Men Painting Exhibition, some artists whose background and experiences differ from the core members have joined the exhibition, including Li Jun—who transferred from Karamay to Urumqi to teach in Xinjiang Normal University—and his wife, artist Sun Ge. In 2002, they participated in organising the grand contemporary art exhibition ReStart in Urumqi, which we will return to in Part 2.

 

Image: Photo taken onsite at the <i>Six Men Painting Exhibition</i>, 2001. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.
Image: Photo taken onsite at the Six Men Painting Exhibition, 2001. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.

 

Image: Photo taken onsite at the <i>Six Men Painting Exhibition</i>, 2001. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.
Image: Photo taken onsite at the Six Men Painting Exhibition, 2001. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.

 

The Six Men Painting Exhibition

In Qinghai, the earliest record of an unofficial art exhibition dated back to October 1986. It is reported that a group of over twenty young artists, under the name “Qinghai Youth Art Society,” independently organised and self-funded the Cold Dew Painting Exhibition at the Qinghai Art Museum, featuring about sixty oil paintings that were “experimental and innovative in nature.”20 However, no other material was found about this exhibition so far. The next unofficial exhibition that left traces in the memory of local artists took place in 2001, when several Xining-based artists organised the Six Men Painting Exhibition in a temporarily unoccupied ground floor of a building that would later turn into a shopping mall.

Six Men Painting Exhibition explored abstraction, expressionism, and surrealism—which according to local artists were generally categorised as “weird pictures” with a pejorative connotation. Previously, such experiments were made in private, because not only were they rejected by official and mainstream art standards, but were also despised by local artists who prioritised realist technique—those who chose otherwise were not considered “serious” artists. For this reason, the works were shocking for audiences at the time, but nonetheless marked a starting point for experimental artists in Xining to work collaboratively for visibility and exposure.

 

Image: Photo of an artwork by Wang Haiyuan exhibited at the <i>Six Men Painting Exhibition</i>. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.
Image: Photo of an artwork by Wang Haiyuan exhibited at the Six Men Painting Exhibition. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.

 

While the participating artists were then in their mid-thirties, the exhibition also inspired artists of a younger generation.21 Two such visitors of the show were artists Gao Yuan and Liu Chengrui, both of whom were born in the 1980s and studied at Normal University of Qinghai at the time. They were impressed by their innovative spirit and befriended the artists. A few years later, Gao and Liu encouraged these elder artists to experiment with new media such as installation, photography, and performance through workshops and exhibitions. In 2005, Gao and Liu co-curated What Is This? Comprehensive Exhibition of Qinghai Conceptual Art in Xining, the first art exhibition in Qinghai to include artworks of new media. These activities will be discussed in Part 3.

 

Conclusion

Before 2000, in the absence of mutual influence, each of the three cities had developed distinct art practices. Although communication between their art communities was negligible until recent years, there were notable similarities in the evolution of their contemporary art practices, the result of common factors that influenced artists across the region, such as institutional constraints and sources of influence.

The initiators of these exhibitions shared similar backgrounds: most of them lacked systematic training in formal art schools; and hardly any of them were professional artists who worked for official art agencies or received a salary for making artwork, instead labouring as art teachers, designers, and art editors. For many of them, having a stable, paid job in their own city was reason enough to remain.

Instead of being organised by unified groups of artists who shared similar aesthetic positions, these exhibitions were eclectic in nature, presenting artworks that cover a wide range of subjects and styles. The primary significance of these exhibitions was the platform provided for artists unable to participate in official art exhibitions—affording them a degree of artistic freedom, and rendering alternative artistic practices visible to a wider audience.

 

Image: Artwork by Ma Yongjin exhibited at the <i>Six Men Painting Exhibition</i>. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.
Image: Artwork by Ma Yongjin exhibited at the Six Men Painting Exhibition. Courtesy of Xie Yunyuan.

 

Art news from beyond the northwest played a key role in the formation of unofficial art exhibitions here. Most of the artists had travelled to other cities in China, and were aware of art trends there before organising exhibitions in their own cities. During this stage, rather than connecting with the wider art circle beyond the region, these artists were driven by a willingness to bring new breath to the local art scene.

By the 1990s, however, when the distribution of resources for artists and art infrastructure development grew more and more uneven across different parts of China, artists organising unofficial exhibitions in these “remote” northwestern cities felt a new urgency to engage with the “mainstream.” We will examine this turn in Part 2. 

 

Xie Congyang is AAA's Research Associate specialising in Greater China.

 

Notes

1. In the 1980s, there was limited exposure of Lanzhou’s art exhibition in publications like Fine Arts in China (more in Part 2 of this series). In the early 1990s, the Black Cover Book series, edited by Ai Weiwei, featured Lanzhou experimental artists’ works; and the less known serial publication China Battle Line, self-published by artist Zhuang Hui, who was born in the northwest himself but moved to Henan Province at a very young age, also included activities of northwestern artists. However, this coverage was ephemeral—as were the platforms that carried them—and to a large extent limited to reproduction of artwork images. Their efficacy for forging art discourse, especially among the readership in the northwest, is thus negligible.

2. A notable example is Tian Weige’s Lanzhou Memories and Northwest Memories (Beijing: Higher Education Press, 2008). The two-volume publication compiles interviews with over fifty art practitioners based in Gansu Province. Also, Shi Xiaoming’s anthology, Contemporary Art in Xinjiang, published by the Xinjiang Art and Photography Press in 2008, gathered his writings on Xinjiang artists and art exhibitions during the past two decades that were originally published in local newspapers and other publications.

Some surveys were also presented through retrospective exhibitions and were held in northwestern cities. For example, in 2009, the exhibition Thirty Years of Lanzhou Contemporary Art was held in Lanzhou, featuring past and recent works by thirty artists based in or from the city. The exhibition also published a companion that gathered interviews to the participating artists. In 2013, Zeng Qunkai, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Xinjiang, conducted research on experimental art activities in Urumqi since the mid-1980s. Based on the research, he curated Scattered into the Enlightenment: New Art in Xinjiang Province Since 1985 as the inaugural exhibition of the museum.

In addition, some artists based in or from the northwest have begun to organise documentation of their work from the past and publish self-biographies. Artist Cheng Li’s self-published volume, A Person’s Art History (APAH), in which he integrated diaries, memoirs, drafts of artworks, and numerous photographs, is a notable reference of Lanzhou’s experimental art scene in the 1970s to the mid-1990s.

3. The Northwest Region was one of the six “grand administrative regions” of China from 1949 to 1954. The other five were the Northeast Region, the East China Region, the Central and South China Region, the Southwest Region, and the North China Region. See Yang Huolin, The Political System of China During the Common Outline Period (1949–1954), PhD thesis at School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 2005, 63–8. (in Chinese only)

4. See, for instance, June Teufel Dreyer, “Go West Young Han: The Hsia Fang Movement to China's Minority Areas,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 48, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 353–69; Lynn T. White III, “The Road to Urumchi: Approved Institutions in Search of Attainable Goals during Pre-1968,” The China Quarterly, no. 79 (September 1979): 481–510; and Michel Bonnin, The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China's Educated Youth (1968–1980) (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2013).

5. For some of the recent developments of contemporary art practice among the Uyghur artist community in Urumqi, see Darren Byler, New Silk Road Artworlds: The Art of the Hybrid and the Marginal at the Xinjiang Contemporary Art Museum. Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art. 4.1. Nottingham, England: Intellect Books; and from the same author, "Dispatches From Xinjiang: On The First Uyghur Contemporary Art Show."

6. Author’s interview with Yan Hongkui, artist and former editor at Xinjiang Art magazine.

7. See Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, Blooming in the Shadows, Unofficial Chinese Art, 1974-1985, China Institute Gallery, 2011.

8. Cheng Li uses his original name, Chen Mingsu, in exhibitions and signatures of artworks prior to the early 1980s.

9. Liang Zongmeng (b. 1956), for example, enrolled in the Gansu Opera Ensemble as a salaried apprentice at the age of fourteen in 1970. In the ensemble, each student follows one or a few designated senior staff to learn professional skills, until they gain competence and hired as staff. They are responsible of designing stage settings, posters, costumes, props, and other materials for the ensemble. In an interview with the author, Liang said that in the late 1970s, he wished to apply for the Central Academy of Fine Art to receive formal art training and become a professional artist, but his supervisor did not approve, so he had to stay in the ensemble. Liang admitted that although he had been working in the “literary and art circles” (wen yi jie) for decades, he always hoped to enter the circle of “fine art” (yi shu jie). The distinction of terms indicates the hierarchy between artists with different educational background and social status.

10. These artists were active from the late-nineteeth century to the first half of the twentieth century, and include Mikhail Vrubel (1856–1910), Martiros Saryan (1880–1972), Nicolai Ivanovich Fechin (1881–1955), and Deyneka Aleksandr (1899–1969).

11. Cui Chengxun was an influential teacher in the opera ensemble. He was born in Qingdao and graduated from the Central Academy of Drama. Unlike other teachers, he let students draw freely first, and then directed them to different references from his personal collection—which included catalogues of Western art printed in foreign languages—according to what was suitable for each student. Cui not only inspired them in visual art but introduced them to musicians like Debussy and Shostakovitch. It is fair to say that in 1970s Lanzhou, Cui’s place was a magical enclave for the arts.

According to his former students Liang Zongmeng and Cheng Li, Cui was born into a rich and intellectual family. He was condemned as a rightist, and was sent to Lanzhou in the late 1950s during the anti-rightist campaign, away from his family. By that time, Cui was already suffering from mental illness, traumatised by the fact that his father had committed suicide under political persecution. Ironically, his mental illness protected him from further pressure and punishment, and he was able to preserve books then considered “poison weeds” elsewhere, circulating them among his students. Cui lived a stoic and solitary life at the opera ensemble and was an avid reader.

12. In the absence of primary documents, there are several conflicting versions concerning the title, venue, and exhibition period of the show.

13. Shi Xiaoming’s article “Twelve Men Painting Exhibition in Retrospect,” included in his anthology Contemporary Art in Xinjiang, provided a brief but clear account for the serial exhibition. Reviews of the third and fourth edition of the exhibition by other authors were also published in Xinjiang Arts, no. 3 (1995): 58–9; no. 3 (1996): 39–40.

14. In the absence of primary material and substantial scholarship, the early presence of oil painting in Xinjiang before 1949 is difficult to trace. It is reported by some writers that oil paintings were first brought to Xinjiang by Russian officers, missionaries, and businessmen living in northern Xinjiang at the turn of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, these works were private properties and were not shown in public. A Russian whose name was transcribed in Pinyin as “Ge lie ya zuo fu,” and who was said to be a White émigré, was the first painter who openly practiced and taught oil painting techniques in Kashgar in the 1930s, before being recruited as faculty staff at the Xinjiang Arts Academy in the 1950s.

15. Indeed, except for a limited number of artists employed by official art organisations, the most common occupation for artists was “art teacher” in schools at different levels. Publishing artwork in official art periodicals, for example, was a requirement for securing positions—to say little of promotion and advancement. But in order to be published, the work had to conform to the official criteria.

16. The group members are Yan Hongkui, Yan Li, Wang Shaoping, Jiang Zenghui, Zhang Jianxin, and Sun Guangxin. They mostly work and live in Xinjiang. They share similar artistic preferences and maintained close relationships. Except for Wang Shaoping, who did not attend the first edition because she was pregnant, these artists participated in all seven exhibitions.

17. See the artist’s statement included in Yan Hongkui’s Painting, self-published catalogue of the artist.

18. See exhibition invitation.

19. Yan Hongkui’s interview with the author, 2017.

20. Shi Daocheng, Wang Jun, eds., Handbook of Avant-garde Arts Knowledge, (xin chao wen yi zhi shi shou ce) (Lanzhou: Gansu People’s Publishing House, 1989), 186–87.

21. All six artists were born in the 1960s and early 1970s, and had received education from Normal University of Qinghai and Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts. Ma Yongjin and Jia Yu had studied in Beijing and attended advanced classes organised by the CAFA in the mid-1990s. Four of the six artists are full-time art teachers in middle schools.

Imprint

Author

XIE Congyang, 謝從暘

Topic
Essays
Date
Thu, 11 Oct 2018
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APPENDIX: Chinese Characters of Selected Names and Terms.pdf

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A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006 上海展覽史:1979-2006
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A History of Exhibitions: Shanghai 1979–2006 上海展覽史:1979-2006