Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Artist turns his back on profit and materialism

ALMOST 40 years after leaving his home in ancient Dayan Town in southwestern China's Yunnan Province, Wang Rongchang, 61, still speaks heavily accented Mandarin.

The dark-skinned artist speaks little English despite living for 12 years in the United States. To his foreign friends, he is better known by his Naxi name, Naruo.

Under this name, he has created a language all of his own, painting vividly colored scenes of his home and people based on the unique Naxi pictographs.

The only pictographic writing system still in use, these detailed drawings describe the lives of generations of the Naxi people, whose kingdom survived in what is now southwest China from the 8th century AD till 1274.

His paintings have been exhibited around the world, but Naruo has disdained fame and fortune, saying the purpose of his creativity is to sustain the culture of his people in a rapidly modernizing world.

Since his retiring as an art teacher at Beijing's Minzu University in 2008, Naruo's major works have been based on more than 200 figure drawings, which he drew 30 years ago in the village of Dayan.

All his figures wear traditional Naxi clothes, their faces are tranquil: a shy young girl sits near a hen roost, an old lady spins and a young man shoulders a hoe.

Many of the traditions depicted have disappeared and many young Naxi people no longer speak the language or wear the traditional clothes, Naruo said.

Naruo believes few artists now have the patience to spend the time drawing ordinary people. "I drew the people after living with them for two months, so I had enough time to watch and understand them."

He plans to keep the paintings for himself: "I don't want to change them for money. I am not painting them for business."

He says modern society is undergoing a chaotic materialization, and many people have lost their innate sense of morality and basic principles.

However, everyone needs the support of their national culture, he says. "They will realize the sorrow in their hearts one day and return to the original national culture."

And Naruo believes this will be the appropriate time to display his work.

"I'll let the world see my paintings when everybody feels a void in their spiritual life and in need of real art," he says.

He has no desire for luxuries, which he says can destroy an artist. The pension offered by the university is enough for his daily life and work.

"An artist has to live in a relatively tough environment, or he will lose the driving force for creation," he says.

A native of Lijiang City, Naruo studied art at Minzu University, the country's top academy for ethnic studies, from 1972 to 1975, as a "worker, peasant and soldier university student."

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), universities chose students from workers, peasants and soldiers according to the recommendations of local authorities. He was recommended on the strength of his work with the local propaganda department, including his 12.26-meter-tall carved statue of Chairman Mao Zedong, which still stands in Lijiang's Red Sun Square.

He taught Chinese painting and drawing in the university after graduation, but decided to go abroad to learn more.

He left the country for the States in 1986, arriving at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. In 1989, he moved to Washington DC and lived in a lawyer friend's flat, which he also used as his studio.

He was encouraged by the fact that his paintings, which extol Naxi life, the beauty of youth and the snow-capped peaks and torrential river valleys of his home, were warmly accepted by Westerners.

"I sent 14 paintings for the first time to a gallery and six of them were sold," he says.

From his student days he had longed to see the Austrian-American explorer Joseph Rock's collection of 3,342 original Naxi manuscripts housed in Washington's Library of Congress.

Believed to be the largest collection of Naxi manuscripts outside China, it was accumulated largely by Rock, who spent 24 years in southwest China from the 1920s to the 1940s and was enthralled by Naxi culture.

Naruo spent long hours each day copying and interpreting the ancient texts. Throughout these years he continued with his art, supporting himself by selling paintings, both his own ideas and commissions.

He was increasingly inspired by the form and meaning of the pictographs of Naxi Dongba, or shamanistic priests. He used typical pictographs, such as the sun, birds and water, as themes.

In 2000, at the invitation of his alma mater, he returned to Beijing to teach and continue his research on ancient Naxi pictographs.

In his book, "An Annotation of Ancient Naxi Pictographs," published by the Ethnic Publishing House last year, Naruo describes his 20 years of research as "lonely and happy" and his current life as "quiet and happy."

The book, a collection of more than 800 pictograph words and almost 100 sentences, introduces the skills of "writing" and painting, and shows his oil paintings with typical motifs selected from ancient Naxi texts.

He plans to publish more books when he has enough money, but he won't sell them. "I give them to my friends who really like the Naxi culture. I think it's a better way to spread the Naxi culture," he says.

His simply decorated and barely furnished apartment near the campus is full of painting materials.

Almost 20 pairs of shoes are lined up in the corridor next to the door.

"It's convenient for me to put them on when I go for a walk," he laughs.

Naruo recalls visiting the artists' town in Songzhuang, on Beijing's eastern outskirts, which has become one of the centers of the city's burgeoning art scene over the last 10 years, drawing artists with its cheap rents and proximity to the capital's growing markets and galleries.

But he disliked the atmosphere. "An artist needs quietness and loneliness. I prefer staying here," he says.

Every day he rises early, spending half the day painting and the other half walking in the campus, visiting friends or reading.

Although Naruo looks down on commercial artists, money was once the biggest obstacle to realizing his dreams of cultural preservation.

In 2000, the year he returned to China, he spent 50,000 yuan (US$7,400) on a half hectare of land together with houses in his hometown to build a cultural center, where leading foreign and Chinese artists could live, communicating with local artists and residents.

"They could get inspiration from the local ethnic lifestyle and have a better understanding of the Naxi culture, while local artists and children who were interested in art could learn from them," he says.

He refurbished the houses as accommodation for artists and studios. However, he had to abandon the project due to a lack of follow-up investment three months after its establishment. He sold it to local businessmen and now it is a teahouse.

Sometimes, after finishing a painting, Naruo sits at a small desk on the balcony of his 17th-floor apartment, looking out at the city, writing his life story with a Chinese ink pen and a notebook.

He disdains computers, especially the Internet.

"There is too much useless information on the Internet, which distracts me from focusing on creation," he says.

He avoids the artists' salons that have become popular as the art market has developed. "The persistent topic of such salons is women, not art," he says.

He seldom returns to Lijiang as he says it has been too much commercialized.

"The culture is in my mind. There is no need for me to go somewhere to look for it," he says.

From time to time, US universities invite him to give lectures on Naxi painting, murals and culture, always arranging interpreters for him.

"Why do they still invite me although I don't speak English?" he asks, "because I have things that they don't."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend