Chinese American artist Pei Zhuangxin talks about his lifelong love affair with Tibet

By He Keyao Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/31 19:33:39

Pei Zhuangxin Photo: He Keyao/GT

 Dance on the Grass by Pei Zhuangxin Photo: Courtesy of Pei Zhuangxin


When Pei Zhuangxin first went to the Tibet Autonomous Region in the early 1970s at the age of 15, he never imagined that he would one day become a celebrated artist. He also never expected that this remote plateau would remain a continual theme for his creations throughout his artistic career.

Pei, the well-known Chinese American painter who has had studios in both New York and Beijing, is known for his Tibetan-themed works. His representative works, such as Nomads Family and Dance on the Grass, are widely known and have been highly praised in fine art circles. Painting Tibet for more than half a century, he uses his brushes to express his deep love for the place that is intimately tied with his youthful memories of the 1970s and 1980s.

Eternal memories 

"To me, Tibet is not only a source of artistic creation, but a place that carries unique values and memories. Drawing it has already become an essential part of my life," Pei told the Global Times.

Pei started to work as an auto mechanic in Tibet's Changdu area in 1971 after graduating from middle school. Like many young people at the time, known as "Zhi Qing" or educated youth, Pei decided to devote himself to the development of the country's border areas. However, his talent for painting distinguished him from other colleagues in the auto shop and ended up changing his life.

"First, I just helped paint posters for local events and gradually I was given the opportunity to work as a full-time painter. I feel grateful to Tibet since it kicked off my artistic pursuits," Pei said, talking about his early years living on the plateau.

The beautiful natural landscape and local people's lives provided him rich sources of inspiration. In 1978, he enrolled in the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, but returned to Tibet to work in a museum in Lhasa after he graduated in 1982.

During the next seven years, Pei entered a productive heyday, producing many well-known realist artworks based on real life in Tibet, including Wearing a Red Cassock, In the Jokhang Temple and Nomads Family, the latter of which was published in a Hong Kong art magazine, a rarity for a mainland artist at the time. Some of his works are now part of art institution collections in the US, Japan, Germany and France.

Pei's fascination with the unique culture and religion of the region is vividly reflected in his work. Rich colors, subtle usage of light and the exploration of life and religion, happiness and love are common features in his works.

Pei's deep connection with Tibet isn't limited to his artistic works. As someone deeply in love with the highlands, Pei also established the region's first fine art training class and first art gallery, the Tibet Gallery, while he worked in Lhasa. Many of his former students have become well-known artists in their own right in Chinese art circles.

"Some of them made it to the professional art academies later and we still keep contact for one reason: common interest and love in Tibet," said Pei.

Surprising development

Pei went to the US for further his art education during the late 1980s, but Tibet remained a touchstone in his artistic creations. During lonely nights or hard days living far away from his motherland, putting his memories of Tibet on canvas was a source of comfort and spiritual strength.

"I feel that Tibet has already become an abstract existence that has integrated itself into my creations, consciously and subconsciously," he said.

Over the past 10 years, Pei's work has reached another stage, one that is a combination of realism and expressionism. Tibetan elements have penetrated into each stroke of his paintings, which are free from specific concrete images or real scenes. Wild use of colors and imagination have injected new life into his art.

Over the past five decades of painting Tibet, Pei has been deeply impressed by the "astonishing changes and development" the region, and China as a whole, has experienced since the country's opening up and reform began in 1978.

"It is a miracle. No country other than China could have developed this fast," Pei commented.

He remembered that when he left Tibet for the US in the late 1980s, a bike was something rarely seen in Lhasa, while now the place is a big city with three major highways encircling it, which to him is something that he never imagined possible at the time.  

Together with the rapid economic development of the country, the art market has also flourished.

"People in China are paying more and more attention to art and artists and Chinese artists overseas are willing to come back," Pei said, noting that tolerance and acceptance of diversity and freedom in art has been greatly enhanced in China, which in turn has helped the Chinese art market to become more prosperous than in the West.


Newspaper headline: Art on high



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