Bringing memories back home to share

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Ma Hui is a well-established as an artist in northern Europe, but her roots go deep as a child of the Cultural Revolution - a period of turmoil in China that forever changed her life and the lives of countless others. The 53-year-old left her homeland 25 years ago and moved to Europe. But she has returned to China to face her past and to seek recognition from Chinese art lovers for her unique form of abstract art that incorporates materials such as ropes, chains and keys.

When and why did you start to draw and paint?

When I was very young, I wanted to become an architect. But I could not get the proper mathematics education in those days of political unrest during the Cultural Revolution. I was living in [the northwestern autonomous region of] Ningxia at the time. I was told that I could draw very well. All of my childhood memories in Ningxia were so beautiful and poetic: the wind battling with the trees, grey grazing grounds on the banks of the Yellow River, the yellow earth, a single red dot in the sky, rapids in the stream, this never-ending road. That's why I eventually decided to enrol in the only academy with a fine arts department in northwest China. That was the Xian Academy of Fine Arts. It had a good reputation and a strong Chinese identity.

As a child, you spent eight years in the countryside, forced into labour. Why was this?

My father was an intellectual and also a high-ranking Communist Party official in the 1950s. I was born in Beijing. When I was just one year old, my family, including myself, my two sisters and my three brothers, moved to Ningxia. We lived in a big house with a walled garden and lots of servants. I must have been eight years old when Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) started to put an end to 'capitalist roaders' [seeking to restore the political and economic rule of capitalism]. The so-called Red Guards initiated a witch-hunt against intellectuals. Almost all young people in urban areas were forced to go to the countryside to be 're-educated through labour'.

Who were your parents? Why did their background affect you so much?

I had to spend most of my formative years in the countryside, simply because I was the daughter of a 'capitalist' who disagreed with the Communist Party. My father was forced to step down from the post of party chairman in Ningxia and was jailed for years. My mother, a doctor, was also detained. Our family was split up. More than eight years of hard physical labour followed, working in the fields, planting rice at three o'clock in the morning, standing knee-deep in icy waters. I also had to carry heavy loads on my back. I was alone, without the possibility of visiting my parents. I was very lonely in the countryside. Other children were not allowed to play with me. I started drawing and writing poetry as a way to console myself. I became familiar with all sorts of materials - needles and thread, rope and string - while working in a textile factory. I still tap into these memories for inspiration for my artwork. My first catalogue, produced in Europe, was called The Landscapes from my Childhood. In the late 1970s, the end of the Cultural Revolution meant the end of suffering, along with the possibility of beginning a normal life and registering at the academy.

When and why did you move overseas?

I met my husband, a Dutchman, in Tibet in September 1985. Two years later he asked me to join him. He was working as a journalist for Dutch media in Geneva, Switzerland, covering the United Nations. It was quite difficult to obtain a passport and leave China in those days, but it was a little easier as an art student. I always wanted to travel overseas and broaden my horizons. Europe seemed like an option, mostly because of its splendid art history. In Holland, I wanted to improve my techniques. Graphic design was not immediately on my mind, but there was an opening to join an etching course in Utrecht in 1987.

How did you build up your career?

When I emigrated to Europe I started to feel free to express my intense feelings for my country, my people and my past. I incorporated threads, rope, keys, silk embroidery and Chinese elements into my etchings, as a form of mixed media to express myself. I also like to sew red ropes to my Chinese ink wash paintings. These items always remind me of Ningxia, which I loved as much as I hated. When I created works, I felt I was still in China and suffering through the painful 1960s and 1970s. But at the same time, my works also expressed my happiness and hope for a new life. This process resembles an artistic crossover between the two different cultures of the East and West, making my works attractive and unique in the European art market. I developed a network of art contacts in Switzerland. Galleries in Holland, Belgium and Denmark asked me for exhibitions, and the city of Amstelveen, near Amsterdam, offered me a studio. Since then, I have held regular shows in Taiwan, Denmark, Switzerland and Belgium. In 2008, the owner of the Tolman Collection, an American named Norman Tolman, who has galleries in New York, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong, invited me to show my etchings in Shanghai and at ARTSingapore [Asia's longest-running contemporary art fair]. It was quite successful.

What do you plan to do in China?

Many of my friends who moved abroad 20 or 30 years ago have come back to be recognised in their own country. For me, it is more important to gain respect in my motherland than it is in Europe. The art of using comprehensive materials in etchings is still quite new for Chinese art lovers. I hope I can promote such abstract art to encourage Chinese people to express their feelings and concerns about their society. In June, the Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art will organise a unique group event with four female abstract artists from the Netherlands, Germany, Taiwan and China. I'm one of them. The four of us are all trying to create abstract work about common concerns regarding China's industrial rise, with all of its consequences. I will exhibit a wall of 1,500 anti-pollution mouth masks that I collected on the mainland to show how severe pollution is in China. In September, I will exhibit old drawings of Tibetans in Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Other shows will follow with the help of my contacts - artists of my generation who were the first to graduate after the Cultural Revolution.

Are there any hurdles to developing your career on the mainland?

Commercialism is taking its toll among colleagues here. The avant-garde of the early 1980s has been widely copied and exploited to please Western art collectors. It is tempting to follow the mainstream, looking solely at commercial benefits. Some are quite lost, forsaking their initially pure intentions. I want to talk with Chinese artists and art lovers and encourage more people to enjoy and respect non-mainstream art. Personally, I believe that if I'm ever forced to compromise my art to accommodate potential buyers, it will be time to go back to Europe.