The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bu Hua: Beijing Babe Loves Freedom

Bu Hua, Beijing Babe Loves Freedom No. 2, 2008, giclee print, 100 cm diameter,
image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
With the arrival of my first grandchild (4 weeks old and, of course, completely gorgeous) I have been in a reflective frame of mind. A new baby throws you back forcibly to the long nights you spent cradling your own infant children, and even much further back in time to your earliest memories. Waving knitted toys and rattles at my tiny grand-daughter to amuse her (or, perhaps, just to entertain me), I began thinking about the power of childhood objects to evoke primal responses. 

Before language, before logical thought, these things are imprinted. Digging through cupboards I found rattles, teething rings and slightly moth-eaten teddy bears from the childhoods of my two daughters, and even an antique doll of  my own, with a 1950s plastic perm, eyes fallen back inside its head. It's a kind of time travel, this generational remembering, and it recalled my experience of visiting Bu Hua's extraordinary studio last year, where every wall and flat surface is crowded with old dolls, mechanical and wind-up tin toys, train sets and puzzles. Every conceivable childhood totem is here somewhere, arrayed like devotional objects in a shrine. Indeed, it is a shrine - to the artist's memories of a Beijing long gone, before eight-lane highways tore through the city and the hutongs were almost entirely demolished. 

In Bu Hua's studio, 2015, photo Luise Guest
I have wanted to write a piece about Bu Hua for a while, with a focus on her use of memory, and her nostalgia for her Beijing childhood.

Bu Hua in Beijing, 2015, photograph Luise Guest
1960s meets 1990s in Bu Hua's studio, photograph Luise Guest

Bu Hua was born in 1973, during the Cultural Revolution, but her focus is on a Beijing of memory: bicycles and willow trees; hutong laneways and tight communities. There are certainly dangers in romanticising the past , and Bu Hua's teenage years were times of dramatic change as China opened to the world marketplace, but like many Chinese people, she now sees an unrecognisable place of monstrous greed and unstoppable corruption. It is not surprising that people look back to a time of greater simplicity with a degree of regret.
Bu Hua, Sami, giclee print, 100cm diameter, image courtesy the artist
(I chose this work for an exhibition 'Half the Sky: Chinese Women Artists' shown in Hong Kong and Beijing in April 2016. The Hong Kong Gallery were most upset at the subject matter, but in Beijing it didn't raise an eyebrow!)

Growing up surrounded by artists, Bu Hua ‘learned the language of lines’ from earliest childhood. Her father was a printmaker, painter, and a professor of Fine Arts in Beijing. Connected to the renaissance of printmaking that took place in the years following the Cultural Revolution, influenced by German Expressionists such as Kirchner and Kollwitz, he expected his children to follow in his footsteps. Bu Hua studied the techniques of ‘shui mo’ (water and ink) painting, and attended a specialist art high school before studying at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Fine Art. After her father’s death, she travelled to Germany for a major exhibition of his work. During her European travels, visiting galleries and exhibitions, she discovered the work of international contemporary artists, completing postgraduate study in the Netherlands.
Bu Hua, World 6, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas, 120 x 360 cm, image courtesy the artist
Japanese cartoons were newly available to Chinese TV audiences in her childhood, and Bu Hua loves the vintage nostalgia of ‘Astroboy’, and the wonderful animations made at the Shanghai Film Studios during the 1960s, such as ‘Havoc in Heaven’, an adaptation of the traditional tale of the Monkey King. One of her favourite films is ‘Fantastic Planet’, a French/Czech stop motion animation about a planet ruled by giant humanoid aliens. Now recognised as a significant figure in the vanguard of digital animation in China, an innovator with vector graphics software, she adapts and blends influences from Surrealism, Japanese anime and manga illustration with the strong flat planes and linear qualities of woodblock prints and traditional Chinese folk art. Bu Hua’s practice adroitly navigates the sometimes perilous boundaries between ‘high art’ and popular culture, fine art and graphic design, cuteness and satire. 
Bu Hua, As Soon as China has a Space Station on the Moon, it can Begin to Consider Establishing a Communist Party There, No.3, 2008, giclee print, 100 cm diameter, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
Bu Hua’s happy memories of a secure Beijing childhood provide the source of much of her imagery today. The red corridors and grey walls of traditional architecture, and the white bridges and willow trees of her city recur in her paintings, digital prints and animations. The same protagonist appears in many of her works: a defiantly sassy, pigtailed ‘Young Pioneer’, with her red scarf flying as she navigates a strangely dystopian universe, she represents the artist herself as a child. In Beijing dialect this character is ‘sa mi’ () – a feisty girl with kick-ass attitude. She swaggers and pouts through animations such as Anxiety (2009) and LV Forest (2010), confronting monstrous machines and strange hybrid beasts. Sometimes she takes aim with a slingshot at flocks of birds that morph into fighter jets, sometimes she rides a dinosaur through lush jungles, and in other works she stares into the middle distance, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette.

Bu Hua, What is Left Belongs to You, Acrylic on Canvas, image courtesy the artist
Bu Hua communicates her anxiety about the social transformation and ecological destruction of China, and what she sees as the growing selfishness and narcissism of its citizens, fusing western and eastern traditions of art and design. The rising or setting sun is a recurring motif, reminding us that Mao Zedong was often depicted in propaganda posters, framed by the rays of the rising sun. In Bu Hua’s ironic vision, though, darkness is coming. Her fearless young protagonist, a lonely child in a terrifying universe, confronts a nightmare landscape of marauding machines and hideous skeletal beasts. In Vowing not to Attain Buddhahood until all are salvaged from Hell No.3 (2008) she stands astride the skeleton of a deer in a desolate landscape lit as if by the flash of a nuclear explosion. Red fronds of foliage hang from above like tentacles. Birds, beasts and insects dart around the circular composition, an ironic inversion of the traditional Chinese moon window, designed to frame the serene beauty of a scholar’s garden. In this work only the naked child is calm and unmoved, a witness to the apocalypse.
Bu Hua, Vowing Not to Attain Buddhahood Until All Are Salvaged from Hell No. 3, giclee print, image courtesy the artist
Savage Growth (2008) is an animated allegory of industrialisation, pollution and militarisation. Bu Hua’s Young Pioneer stands atop a building, conducting a flock of birds that morph into pairs of white gloves, flying above a devastated landscape in which distorted trees grow out of pools of oil. Other birds become military aircraft, casting ominous shadows over an abandoned amusement park as they shoot down the flapping hands. A row of sexy foxes (fox spirits, in Chinese folklore, are dangerous seductresses) dance backwards and forwards to a sound track that evokes the rhythmic metallic noise of a factory assembly line. Bu Hua represents the environmental devastation wrought by rapid development in China, the unintended consequences of urbanisation and greed. In contrast, Bu Hua also wants to show beauty and tenderness, through the innocence of a world of memory, of small animals and clockwork toys, harking back to a simpler time.

You can read more about Bu Hua in my book ''Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China", Piper Press, Sydney, 2016. A detail of her feisty protagonist graces the cover, beautifully designed by John Dunn, an unmistakeable representation of the power of female ambition and achievement against a sometimes stacked deck. 

The book is available in selected bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne, in Beijing through Beijing Bookworm ( and online through the Queensland Art Gallery HERE