Friends of the Australian Tapestry Workshop’s Lecture Series: Guan Wei

On the night of Thursday 8th February, art-lovers gathered at the South Melbourne premises of the Australian Tapestry Workshop to hear the renowned artist Guan Wei talk about his life’s work and latest project, the tapestry Treasure Hunt. It was both ironic and twistedly appropriate that the nice old lady sitting next to me asked if I was related to the artist – identity and the legacy of colonialism have been recurring themes in Guan’s later works.

A Beijing native, Guan began painting in 1978, at roughly the cusp of what has been commonly referred to as the Chinese avant-garde movement. Though socialist conventions still held a certain sway over art in the People’s Republic of China, ‘western’ influences like cubism and impressionism had begun to make inroads. Such hybridity was to inform Guan’s artwork, reaching a new intensity when in 1989 he accepted a residency at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart.  Unlike the ‘dark’ style and nature of his earlier works, Guan recounted how his colours became brighter since his move to Australia from landlocked, industrial Beijing. The natural environments of his adopted home were to provide new motifs for him, such as the ocean and water in general.

Such cheery style however, has since been used by Guan to explore themes of dire gravity. For instance, the Test Tube Baby series examines the dilemmas of Faustian science and reproductive technology through the auspicious Chinese folk-art motif of small children. The Great War of the Eggplant series uses the introduction of cute vegetables by the Chinese to offer an alternate settlement history of Australia, and as symbols for humans’ dealing with war and change. Arguably, it is with such interpretations of national history and identity that Guan offers his most radical visions. Treasure Hunt is another work in this vein.

The tapestry is based on a painted mural from Guan’s 2006 exhibition Other Histories at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. A work in progress, it is currently being completed by several master weavers from the Australian Tapestry Workshop. Inspired by the adventures of the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He, it depicts an imaginary landscape populated by fantastic creatures. In the style of an old-seafarer’s map, the cardinal directions and mountains are marked in Chinese characters. Gigantic sea monsters reminiscent of Chinese dragons prowl the oceans. A stylised kangaroo prances in one corner as does an equine creature, somewhat incongruously, in the sea. Giraffes inhabit an island, and small, dark human figures cavort on one of the landmasses. In a particularly telling detail, a line of European sailing ships frames the bottom edge of the tapestry. Dark silhouettes partially obscured by clouds, they move from left to right, as if sailing off the edge of the map.

Treasure Hunt suggests a dissolution of boundaries, mocking Eurocentric history and dogmatic attitudes on Australian national identity.  The slowly departing sailing ships indicate the displacement of European settlement as a fundamental locus. The land itself stands front and centre, needing no coloniser to give it worth and value. Viewed in the larger context of Guan’s more recent work, such themes are unsurprising. For instance, his A Mysterious Land series (2007) traces the adventures of faceless pink figures in images inspired by traditional Chinese landscape art, where bamboo is replaced by eucalypts. The naked pink men huddle together in fear, gasping and exclaiming at their new surrounds. The dark silhouettes dash between the trees and peer at them. Some are Aboriginal warriors, though a Ned Kelly caricature, a galloping horseman and ominous-looking gunmen are others.

More sedate, yet explicit is Echo (2005), where various elements are grafted onto a famous landscape by the seventeenth century Chinese painter Wang Yuanqi. Warring Europeans and Aboriginals depicted in realist fashion, and big red targeting reticules contrast against a serene sepia backdrop. Guan notes his deliberate play against triumphalist depictions of Captain Cook, replacing the raging, violent sea beloved of European painters with Wang’s harmonious setting. The swagger and strange dress of the Englishmen appears out of place and even laughable. They are an obvious visual blight on the Chinese landscape, which itself is in balance with the Indigenous characters moving gracefully through the environment, like immune cells attacking an infection. Temporal and spatial divisions blur, raising issues around migration, violence and indigenous resistance. Treasure Hunt continues the spirit of these works in a refreshingly idiosyncratic fashion.

Having worked closely with Aboriginal artists at a 2006 art camp in Darwin, Guan has previously acknowledged his art’s indebtedness to Indigenous Australian epistemology. Noting the colonial depictions of the outback as a desolate and hostile place, he turns this trope on its head, portraying the natural environment as a rich source of life, history and lore. He was struck by the similarities between Indigenous and Taoist philosophy, such as all living things having a spirit, the fluid boundaries between heaven and earth, and the need for unity between nature and man if a harmonious existence is desired. The disruption of this balance by oppressors and invaders, whether comical pink blob-men or British sailors, provides the dramatic impetus to Guan’s work. It is appropriate that Treasure Hunt’s departing ships underline his more vibrant and happy images.

The decolonial import of this art should not be overlooked. In recent decades, Indigenous and Chinese-Australian studies have gained increasing interest in scholarship and popular discourses. Yet these have largely been treated as self-contained histories, two spokes radiating out from the central point of the dominant Anglo-European narrative. In actuality, Chinese and Indigenous peoples have had a long and rich shared history in Australia. For example, until 1911 there were more Chinese in the Northern Territory than Europeans, and ‘miscegenation’ between Chinese and Aboriginals was a favourite bugbear of white society.

The overturning of stylistic conventions and motifs in Guan’s work is an act of agency over narrative. Treasure Hunt and similar works create a new Australian mythology which is Sino-Aboriginal rather than Anglo-European. He uses powerful symbolism to centre the yellow and black (wo)man and break through the imposed barriers separating the two. There is no pleading on behalf of a marginalised group, but an assertion of selfhood independent of a superior. As such, minorities are de-minoritised,  a radical technique amidst a public discourse plagued by multiculturalist orthodoxy. What gains may be had from Australia’s ever-increasing Chinese population engaging with Indigenous struggles? Guan’s work hints at a world of possibilities.

As Guan himself observes, the fundamental pillars of his art are humor, knowledge, and wit. Such properties are necessary to deal with heavy themes deftly, and for artists to respond to a constantly changing world.  He recounts with mirth his evolving reception by Australian society. Initially merely a ‘Chinese artist,’ with increasing success and exposure he has since been regarded as a ‘Chinese-Australian artist,’ then an ‘Australian-Chinese artist,’ and finally an ‘Australian artist.’ Guan Wei’s at operates at the intersections of places, histories and identities, both uncovering and suggesting a conceptual universe beyond convenient, hegemonic myths of what it means to be Australian.

Austin Tseng is currently undertaking a MA in Asian Studies at the University of Auckland. His research work focuses on the history of Chinese diaspora in the Asia-Pacific.

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