‘Outsider’ Artists: Leo Tien and Shao Qihua

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This summer, the Chinese Museum’s two exhibitions, ‘Modern Folk Art: Peasant Paintings by Shao Qihua‘ and ‘The Unruly Art of Leo Tien‘, will showcase the paintings of two artists who are not quite artists in the traditional sense. Though wildly different in style, the works of Shao Qihua and Leo Tien might be labelled ‘outsider art’ or ‘naive art’, due to their practices being outside the confinements of the mainstream art world. Often, ‘outsider art’ might also refer to the work of untrained or self-taught artists, which is the case for Leo Tien.

Looking only at their ‘outsider’ status, however, overlooks their unique creative visions, as formed by extraordinary social, political and cultural contexts.

Leo Tien (1920 – 2001)

We can’t be sure when Tien first felt the urge to paint, and we can’t be certain what motivated him to begin this creative journey, but when we look at the body of work he created in Australia from the 1980s until the early 1990s, it’s astonishing how much he accomplished.

Leo Tien was a man of many parts. As a young man, Tien was ordained as a Catholic priest; after the upheaval of WWII and China’s ensuing political turmoil, Tien left his home in China’s Shandong Province for Rome, where he worked in the Vatican Library. In the latter part of his life, he would move once again, settling in Melbourne. It’s here that Tien would leave the priesthood, marry and flourish creatively as a painter and poet.

While his remarkable life is a testament to his unique capacity to adapt and change, his art becomes a reflection of an intensely personal story. His subjects range from his relationships with friends and family to his identity as a Chinese Australian; commentary to social and cultural issues to his rich spiritual engagement with world religions and iconography.

Tien creates vivid images with religious themes — from his painting of the Chinese Madonna and Child (1994) to a portrait of his parents and siblings with a religious tableau in a red frame at the top of the painting. Tien’s human family from the past in China comfortably co-habits with his spiritual family in the present. Even his paintings of cathedrals and pagodas seem to emanate a special radiance of deep reverence and affection. He plays with the notion of art history and western values with his painting The Last Supper (1989) where Jesus and his disciples all have distinctly Chinese features and the meal consists of dumplings and the eating utensils are chopsticks.

Shao Qihua (1965 -)

A ‘peasant painter’ from from Jinshan –dubbed China’s ‘hometown of modern folk art’– in the outskirts of Shanghai, Shao Qihua’s works revolve mostly around rural life. They show the ‘simple’ pleasures in farming, community and family gatherings, and seasonal festivities. At times, commentary on China’s urban-rural divide seeps through, yet rural peasant life is never painted through a critical lens. The vibrant colours, intricate patterns and Shao’s strong graphic aesthetic dominate these scenes, reflecting the fondness and attachment with which Shao herself has for her peasant roots: despite having lived abroad briefly in places like Australia, she cites eating rice, talking to her neighbours, and the soil and air of her home town as the true sources of her inspiration (link in Chinese).

The works of Shao Qihua reveal a lot more than China’s rural context; specifically, they also invariably infer Shao’s own social and cultural standing. As a painting style, ‘Peasant Painting’ is inextricably entwined with the conditions arising from the Cultural Revolution. When ‘peasants’ were encouraged to take on art, peasant art ‘institutions’ like the Jinshan Peasant Painting Academy, where Shao was trained, were established decades later. Today, the style remains on the periphery of mainstream art; despite exhibitions in China’s major cities as well as in the international sphere, critics often deem the peasant style as too ‘naive’ or commercial.

Nevertheless, Peasant Paintings allowed for the emergence of women artists like Shao, who combined  their creative vision with their skills in embroidery and weaving – crafts that were traditionally seen as more ‘domestic’ and ‘feminine’.