Striving for a more simple life

Chinese painters from Naxi minority depict a peasant world being lost to modernity

by Matthew Larking

The paintings in “The Naxi Lifeworld: Native Painters in Northwestern Yunnan” by Zhang Yunling (b. 1955) and Zhang Chunting (b. 1958) proffer a simple and honest way of life, steeped in the seasons, nostalgia, and the pictographic Dongba script of the Naxi people of China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. While the two have attempted to retain something of their traditional practices as part of cultural pride, they are also in the bind that contemporary inheritors of folk painting find themselves: the easy slide from authenticity to contested tradition.

The Naxi are an ethnic minority who number in the few hundreds of thousands. Agriculture has been their main occupation, as it was for Chunting who worked as a farmer after graduating from junior high school.

Born in the Naxi Autonomous County of Yunnan Province, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he produced propaganda paintings for the Communist Youth League and then movie posters in the ’80s, before becoming a “peasant painter.” Indebted to the realism of his training in art for the masses, Chunting makes realist figures that he places inside perspectives that his counterpart, Yunling, shuns.

The painting “Over the phone, a mother tells her daughter far away, ‘study hard’ ” (2003) is a scene done in a conventional realism style of a mother anxious about her daughter’s progress at school. The woman calls from a public phone in the market place, indicating that they are poor and educational success is a necessity.

For many, such a scene would seem kitschy and sentimental, but Chunting has made a career out of trafficking in accessible realism and popular, cloying subject matters. In other works he conjures nostalgic remembrances of the past, as in “The smell of my kitchen in my childhood” (2003). Authentic traces of Naxi culture are only found in the pictographic characters that border the paintings.

It is in his pursuit of purely pictographic works — which number the fewest — that Chunting is most interesting. In “Don’t forget me” (2006), he refrains from conventional representation and goes instead for a grouping of characters, one of which appears to be a human silhouette gathering rain in her arms, as well as mountains, a building with two roofs and what looks to be a horse’s head. How these go together deserves some explanation, but this is unfortunately left entirely to the viewer to discern.

Yunling was also born in the Naxi Autonomous County. He entered the Yunnan Art College in 1975, graduated five years later, and returned to home to study traditional Naxi Dongba painting and pictographs. Yunling pushes his painting style about as far as can be from Western representational practices, portraying a preindustrial world whose people live in harmony with nature.

The composition for “Plowing and seeding in spring” (2002) is stratified, with a flock of birds all going in the same direction at the top, more the repetition of a motif than individualized birds; then round blue mountains below, and under these, two laborers and oxen who till a field. The artist trained himself into naivete to give the imagery an unskilled appearance, actively seeking out provincialism to be as seemingly faithful to local traditions as possible.

Yunling severely abbreviates his figures, who for the most part amount to little more than a pair of eyes and eyebrows attached to stick legs and arms, as in the pipe players in “The Fun of the Festival — Winter Landscape”‘ (2002). In the painting, people gather around a bonfire, dance and chant, and the animals on the mountain listen in. There are no lofty conceptual concerns, only the simple pleasures of living in accord with the land.

This focus on premodern agrarian values means that Yunling attempts to maintain ignorance of outside cultures, despite his early training and exhibitions in Tokyo, Seoul, and the United States. In recent years he has apparently introduced Chinese verse inscriptions into his paintings, an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the mainstreaming of rural cultures to a more unified Chinese script.

In Chunting’s work there is the fusion and collusion of painting practices from different cultures, but his uptake of realism ultimately spurs his art, put to use to depict his village’s communal memories and tender moments. His use of pictographic scripts seems marginal, arguably a contrivance to spice up the dominating realism. And that is the problem with maintaining folk traditions. The contemporary reality is such that it is practically impossible to remain free from the influences of larger surrounding cultures in the 21st century, and so contemporary folk art’s innocence is feigned, seldom pure.