Artist finds little to smile about as he commits social injustices to canvas
Dou Bu talked to Priscilla Jiao
Since July last year, artist Dou Bu, originally from Baoji, Shaanxi province, has focused on social injustice in his oil paintings- mostly featuring prominent victims. Dou, 38, has painted a series of incidents, including the 'my father is Li Gang' car accident in which a Hebei University student was killed by a drunk driver who is the son of a district police chief. Others include the death of a Zhejiang village chief, crushed by a truck after seeking a payout for requisitioned land, and a Beijing-based artist and signatory to the Charter 08 political manifesto accused of attacking police.
How did you get into painting?
I came to Beijing in 1993 when I failed the university entrance exam and learned to paint for two years at the Central Academy of Arts and Design. I've done quite a few things since then- including stage and movie acting, designing and TV programme editing- until I got into painting and installations full-time in 2004. But I also painted in that time as I wanted to forget what I had learned about painting- the Soviet-style techniques that used to be popular and the exam-oriented set patterns of painting. It's like I had to throw up the bad stuff that I ate in school. My painting style has completely changed from what I did in school. I organised my first solo exhibition of impressionist oil paintings in 2005.
Why the focus on social injustice?
I've been following social issues since I worked to help rural women get better health facilities for five years from 2000. I was also a member of the non-government public bathhouse project Green House, in Maojiazhuang, Shaanxi. Reading about social injustice in the news, I wanted to reflect on and do something about it as an artist. Last July I started painting a series of 'evidence'. The first was about Wen Qiang [the late former Chongqing police chief who was executed for crimes ranging from rape and corruption to protecting and conniving with organised crime]. I wanted to paint once a week about the news that touched me most and record what I'd been thinking about for over a year, which also gave me a better understanding of myself. I'll exhibit the oil paintings and other works from this time later this year.
Is it a satisfying theme to paint?
Not really. When I finished each painting I felt even more frustrated and powerless because I can't really change anything. I sometimes feel angry or helpless in the middle of a painting and each one carries my emotions at the time. I tried to capture the powerlessness of the mentally ill workers enslaved in factories in Xinjiang . There was nothing they could do to change their fate. And I felt the same after I finished a few paintings about them. I couldn't care less about politics, but we need to see through some basic wrongs and rights.
Are other artists focusing on this?
I know quite a few. Some of them follow one area, like petitioning or home demolitions. The time of artists only reflecting beauty in their work is over. Artists should be stimulating their audience, pushing the bounds and inspiring imagination. Art schools on the mainland mostly focus on technique, which limits free thinking and imagination. In this society, you have to abandon what you've learned in schools so you can think independently, which takes many years. But mainstream artists who are privileged with resources won't abandon their set-up in exchange for independent thinking. About 70 to 80 per cent of my buyers are from overseas. But I think my paintings will grow on younger people who have grown up with the internet and are likely to go for something real that offers thoughts and ideas instead of a pretty picture. I myself have been through this change.
Have your family and friends supported you?
Some of my friends have said it's a good idea and others say it's not as they are worried about my safety. I think as long as my paintings reflect the facts my safety is not an issue. If my exhibition causes problems, I can defend myself by saying that my paintings are based on facts. My family sometimes say I'm not capable of smiling. My wife is worried I might get caught up in fighting against social evils.
What's on the easel this week?