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Pop singer finds new life as painter

POP singer and songwriter Ai Jing shot to stardom with her song "My 1997" about the return of Hong Kong and her love for China. That was in 1992, and she went on to record numerous albums.

In 1998, one song from her album "Made in China" was rejected by censors for being negative (the ban was lifted in 2006), and Ai was devastated.

She backed away from music for a while and turned to painting to express herself. In 1999 she began to study with famous painter Zhang Xiaogang in Beijing. She still sings and records, but she's less commercial.

Today she has a solo show, "Love in Shanghai," running at Hwa's Gallery after her show "All About Love" was well-received in Beijing last November.

"I am reborn physically and mentally," says Ai, who now lives in New York. She attended the opening of her exhibition of abstracts and bright colors, some of which spell out "LOVE."

The show features 50 works, including 30 new pieces created for the show. "I Love the Pearl Tower" and "I Love Shanghai at Night" are among them. Another 17 works are in memory of the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008.

Time doesn't seem to have left much of a mark on Ai, who wears long straight hair and a bohemian-style black-and-white dress.

Ai, who is aged about 40, was one of China's first pop musicians, born to an artistic family in Shenyang, Liaoning Province. Her father is a folk musician and her mother a Peking Opera artist.

Ai joined the Shenyang Ensemble in 1986 at the age of 17 and the next year she joined the China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble. She studied at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing and played the leading role in a TV series in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

She appeared in the Taiwanese movie "Five Girls and the Rope" (1990).

Ai's name became a household word in 1992 because of her song "My 1997," which she composed about Hong Kong's return to China in 1997. Her style was fresh and natural and she became quickly known.

The song was widely performed on TV, including state-run China Central Television. The album sold 200,000 copies within one month on the Chinese mainland and was also released in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.

In 1992 the film "Five Girls and the Rope" was selected as the opening film at the Golden Horse Film Awards in Taiwan. Ai attended.

Considered both an actress and a musician, she received numerous awards and toured extensively.

"I never thought the song would be such a big success," says Ai, "but it's full of my true emotion."

Another language

Her life changed in 1998 while Ai was working on her fourth album "Made in China." She wrote all the songs while studying in New York; the album was recorded and produced in Los Angeles.

"I found strength during my trip abroad," says Ai. "I am a symbol of China and I am 'Made in China.' "

The album expressed love for homeland but the title song was rejected by Chinese mainland authorities. The entire album was released in Taiwan and Japan.

The rejection dealt a severe blow to Ai.

"I was so sad at the time, I felt like the sand in the ocean, sinking to the bottom, confused and disappointed," she says.

Ai started to look at her life from a different perspective.

"So many years of a musical life had brought me happiness, but I suddenly realized that the world wasn't limited to music. I started to learn painting, cutting all connections with music and became absorbed in another world of art."

Some of her first works featured a death's head with angel's wings and New York City in a cup of cappuccino.

"Actually I fell in love with art as early as 1994 during my first trip to Paris," Ai recalls. "I strolled through the Louvre, where I admired Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and Boticelli's Venus."

She traveled to museums and around the world and also learned from New York street artists.

In 1999, Ai began to study painting in Beijing under famed painter Zhang Xiaogang. A year later, she had her own studio in New York.

"Finding another language besides music gives me another kind of existence," she says. "Art opened another door to me. I don't have to care about any comments on my work or permission to release an album. I can breathe more freely."

Independent curator and art historian Eric C. Shiner wrote of Ai's work:

"The idealization of life might fuel Ai Jing's artistic processes, but its reality is what ignites the viewer's imagination when interacting with her work."

In 2006 she had her first solo show. After Shanghai, the next stop will be New York next year.

"I am satisfied with my life now," says Ai. "I will work for art for the rest of my life, and still play music forever."

Ai has never stopped making music. She wrote a song "My 2008," but today she doesn't care about recognition and awards.

"I will continue to make music and release new albums," she says. "But I will never write songs and sing for commercial success."

"Love in Shanghai" exhibition

Date: through June 7, 10am-6pm

Venue: Hwa's Gallery, 3168 Hongmei Rd

Tel: 6401-6277


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