Disturbing Beauty

Writer: Charles J. Dukes
Editor: Maryse Parent

(Printable Version)


(Originally published in “Welcome to China, Beijing” (“Beijing Huanying Nin”), Volume 12, No. 7, July 1999. © Charles J. Dukes)

Listening to yourself can be a daunting thing.

But for Beijing-based painter Wang Nanfei, it is a source of artistic inspiration that results in sometimes colorful, if disturbing; sometimes colorful, but not so disturbing paintings.

Recent sales have given her a lift, but in the form of a mixed blessing. Often, buyers prefer more decorative or representative pieces she has produced, even though conversations usually center on her more introspective works, the ones she values.

“I really like the small paintings,” a woman from Texas said of a grotesquely painted female in “Deviate From,” who is portrayed smoking and looking to her left. The legs of a man in the background suggest many things, perhaps the subject’s inability or lack of desire to deal with or please him.’’

“But,” the buyer added, “I don’t think it would look as good on the wall at home as the one I am buying (“Hello 1,” a figure on a bicycle). “I really want something that will remind me of my trip to Beijing.”Girl on Bicycle, 12" X 12", oil on paper

Another buyer, a Nigerian woman who will soon return to and reside in the United States, said, “I can tell there is something special happening here, but where would I put it in my home in New York? It is so disturbing.”

The comments made by people about paintings they cannot or will not buy fuel the 26-year-old artist, who was raised in Changsha, Hunan Province, and Tong Hua, Jilin Province, the daughter of a People’s Liberation Army bomber pilot and middle school teacher in Tong Hua. She pushes on with a life in Beijing that some might regard as difficult and fraught with uncertainty.

“I paint for myself,” the artist, who refers to herself simply as Nanfei, said, referring to her critical fans and close friends who wince at the paintings. “Sometimes my friends don’t want me to exhibit my self-portraits or the expressionistic ones.

“They say they are ugly and they are right. They are ugly, but you cannot avoid it. They are the truth; they represent the way I felt when I painted them. I had no money. Life was difficult. We must show that too.

“One thing is certain: My paintings with my likeness in them are the real me, a reflection of my thinking at that moment.”

So here we are in this moment with a talent emerging whose work insists that we deal with our self-conceptions while contemplating hers. But, self-exploration is considered frightening by some, perhaps even dangerous. It is far easier to drown the consciousness in beer in Sanlitun, by watching television or submerging ourselves in work, recreational pursuits, socializing. Self-examination can be bad for business, because the answers given by the soul may require drastic change. The soul may yell, “Leave your job! Leave your spouse! Change your life! Get out of your rut!” or, just the opposite, but once it calls, it can be hard to ignore.

Nanfei is an artist, who, not minding being there herself, directs us inward without trying. She instructs without judging, as with an expression of a wish.

“As you wish,” is her typical response to someone asking her advice, which many of her friends do.

“My paintings are not sexy paintings or feminist paintings. They are about what people think when they are alone. By that I don’t mean just lonely, but when they are alone. I like solitude. I enjoy the time I have to myself. My most recent work is happier in appearance, but it’s all coming from the same place within me.

“These paintings express thoughts of a woman alone, but they are not about women only. They are about all human beings. I express them through the image of a woman because I know how a woman thinks. I do not know haw a man thinks so I cannot portray this idea through a male image.”

Happy III, 48" X 54", oil on canvasIn another painting, “Hello III,” nude or semi-nude women confront each other on a street in Beijing. Attitudes are displayed that anyone familiar with Beijing’s bicyclists, male or female, would be aware of. But more deeply still, these are human beings in nature. Their freedom is exhibited in their lack of clothing and lack of concern for self-images.

“People in Beijing must get up early in the morning and ride their bicycles to work. How can they be happy doing this every day in difficult weather? I hope one day people in Beijing will ride their bicycles because they want to for fun, to be free like the women in the painting.”

From the images on the walls of the caves of Dordogne, to the mosques of Islam, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing or Monet’s expressionism to Picasso’s “Guernica,” all art is an expression of its time.

The art of Nanfei calls us into a conversation with ourselves during this time. It is after these kinds of conversations that we make contact with a wider modern world and bring our conceptions that we make contact with a wider modern world and bring our conceptions as thinkers and doers, as managers and staffers, as scientists and artists and as humans in nature to bear.

This art helps free us to do that. It recognizes the legitimacy of private moments, private thoughts and private lives. It recognizes a common thread of humanity that runs through us all, that most private of moments when we have no choice but to confront ourselves and our actions. Alone, there is no other conversation to have. Alone, the conversation cannot be avoided. As individuals we confront the global development of men and women and join in the decision about what our future will be. And this adventure is just beginning.

“I was five years old when an army friend of my father (then stationed with the PLA in Changsha) took me to the store to buy an erasure. I saw what I thought was a red erasure on a shelf in a package, but it was really a red tube of water color paint. I said I wanted it.

“He knew it wasn’t an erasure; he bought the whole package of paint. When I got home, my father spanked me and scolded me because he thought I had asked his friend to buy the paint, but since it was opened, he let me keep it and began showing me how to paint.

“I began by painting airplanes and other things around our house in Changsha.”

Schooling was irregular during those early years when her father and mother were separated by their duties, he in Changsha and her in Tong Hua. But things settled after her father retired to Tong Hua.

In her third year of middle school, a teacher entered Nanfei’s oil painting of a forest in a competition in Jilin. She won first prize, which was awarded in front of the whole student body.

As a university student at Northeast Normal University (Dongbei Shifan Daxue), her goal was to be a teacher. Being an independent artist was the farthest thing from the mind of a young woman who once considered joining the PLA and whose mother obtained a long-for membership in the Communist Party of China in the late-1980s. But her career was encouraged and is still encouraged by her parents.

“They both spent a lot of time teaching me.”

After graduation from Northeast Normal in 1995, and while searching without success for a job teaching art, Nanfei was recruited and joined the staff of “Nightlife” (“Yewan Shenghuo”) magazine in Jilin as an illustrator and art columnist. But the magazine’s advice column for the lovelorn was considered too racy for its time and the magazine was closed after a year and a half.

She found a long-sought teaching job at the Jilin School of Opera and Drama, but learned teaching was not as it was cracked up to be.

“I went from making 1,000 yuan a month with an apartment at the magazine to 500 yuan a month and I had to pay for my housing at 200 yuan a month,” she said.

She said she decided to go it alone after losing her magazine job.

“A friend told my mother I lost my job and it upset her so much I decided never to upset her like that again. I want to be on my own and paint. I will deal with family matters and children later. I have decided to take things as they come.”
She accepts life with equanimity. Responses to questions for advice from friends are likely to receive the response, “As you wish.”

Like many of her counterparts in the West, she decided more education might help settle her future so she moved to Beijing to apply for entrance to a local university, but the application was never submitted.

“I was afraid of rejection. My English is not so good.”

She was rescued from life in an art colony and from a shack in a rural area east of Beijing by people from Beijing Television (BTV), who had become aware of her artistic ability. She began reporting for BTV in 1998 and recently participated in the development of and reports for a show dedicated to the arts, “Hua Zhen Mo Bao” (“Pen and Ink Treasures”), which airs on Beijing Central Television-4 (BCTV-4).

Despite living in a dusty, tiny, art-choked, one-room apartment in a hutong in western Beijing, an apartment without running water, air-conditioning, a toilet or much privacy, Nanfei considers life in Beijing the best thing for her and her art at this time.

“Here, I can help my cousin (a photographer), report for BTV, help others with illustrations or do other things to make money. This allows me access to art exhibitions and other creative people and I can get money for my materials.”

Word is slowly, but surely, spreading about this unique character whose work was exhibited in the China National Art Gallery (her first showing) in August 1998 and at the China National Art Exhibition at the China International Exhibition Center shortly thereafter.

The daily struggle for an independent existence in an increasingly competitive world city continues, but with humor.

Ending the interview, she said, “Now you should ask, when are we going to eat?”



Errata: My father was a navigator, not a pilot, of a Hong 5 bomber.

Images that originally ran with the article included:

Facing Tycoon

I Love You

Christmas Party