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Panda man asks kids to create pandas

FAMOUS panda-centric artist and showman Zhao Bandi asks 15,000 Chinese kids to create pandas - anything by the stereotypical creature eating bamboo. One kid makes a panda Transformer out of garbage his family collects. Wang Jie reports.

Zhao Bandi, who soared to fame with his often bizarre and biting panda-themed art, is one of China's most controversial artists for turning that fuzzy icon into a social critic - and cashing in on panda mania.

Alternative artist Zhao is famous for taking his toy panda with him everywhere and for taking a series of pictures of himself in conversation with the panda - which speaks in sarcastic thought bubbles about topical issues.

All his works involve pandas though the issues are wide ranging. Sometimes the panda, a symbol of China, is anything but roly-poly and mild; it may have razor-sharp teeth and fierce eyes. Zhao's panda is an anti-hero.

Never one to shy away from publicity, Zhao himself is often seen carrying a toy panda and wearing a panda hat. He has designed bizarre panda-themed clothes for the catwalk in Shanghai and Paris and uses the panda in multiple ways. He has blackened kids's eyes with paint, giving them panda eyes and setting them off on a charity race.

"Vulgar" and "shallow" are words typically applied to him and Zhao is often misread as arrogant and odd.

"I don't care what I am in the eyes of others," he responds. "What matters is that I know who I am."

Zhao's latest project is about pandas and kids' imagination. He has asked around 15,000 kids from Henan, Sichuan and Taiwan provinces to create pandas - by drawing, painting, photos, sculpture, dance - anything that gets the panda message across.

"I told them that I didn't want to see any stereotyped pandas eating bamboo. They can create whatever panda they like, even an ugly panda but not a panda eating bamboo," he says.

All the works are for sale, and the proceeds form the kids' art will be donated into a special designated account to build a nursing home in Lankao County in Henan Province.

Letting children help lonely old people makes it more than an art project.

Asked why he chose Lankao instead of Sichuan, a famous panda habitat, he says, "Lankao is a poverty-stricken area and it has 3,000-4,000 elderly people but no place to care for them. This area along the Yellow River is the cradle of Chinese culture, but it has been forgotten by many Chinese people."

One home is far from enough but it draws public attention to the problem of services for China's rapidly increasing elderly population.

Some people question whether this project is similar to artist Xu Bin's children's art project, as Xu also sold children's art to fund tree planting in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

"But it's not the same project. Xu deals with the popular global subject of environmental protection, while I focus more on the Chinese people and their current life."

Born in 1966 in Beijing, Zhao graduated form the oil painting department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He was once regarded as a genius painter and sometimes says he regrets abandoning a formidable future as a great painter in China.

"I want to do something meaningful and different. For me, painting has limits," he says. "On the surface, I seem to be an alternative artist, but to tell you the truth, I prefer classical artworks. I also think contemporary artists today should delve into the real lives of ordinary people."

The vast number of children involved in this project, 15,000, means complicated coordination and administration.

But the effort is worth it and one boy stands out.

"His family lives on collecting and recycling garbage and the boy plans to create a Transformer panda using all kinds of scrap materials. Won't this be a magnificent installation artwork, though the boy has no idea about installation. Most important, this work comes directly from his life and family - something seldom seen in today's contemporary art world."

Kids are creating all kinds of panda works, including dance.

Zhao invited four children from Henan to sell their clay panda models at ShContemporary, one of the biggest art fairs in Asia, and some sculptures were quite popular.

"The kids were so excited and proud," he says.

Zhao says the "best of the best" works will be exhibited in November in the newly built Zhengzhou Art Museum in Henan Province. Others will be showcased inside the future nursing home.

"One kid kept asking me: 'Teacher Zhao, you said we needed to express our creativity. But can you show us your creativity in panda paintings?" Zhao says. "This is a real challenge and I need to prove myself in front of these kids. I don't know whether I am able to create a piece that won't disappoint them. "


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