Cultural Silk Road
In his work The Silence, Ecuadorian artist Nicolas Herrera depicts an African woman with her eyes covered. The beautiful and powerful painting has been a tremendous draw at a recent show, inspiring visitors to question female rights in a patriarchal society.
The work is part of the 7th Beijing International Art Biennale, which features 601 works by 567 artists from 102 countries, of which 411 pieces are by foreign artists and 190 by Chinese artists, on display at the National Museum of China. Works were selected from over 10,000 submissions by 4,000 artists from 120 countries. Alongside the theme exhibition are six special exhibitions. Four highlight the contemporary art of the countries of Georgia, Greece, Indonesia and Mongolia, alongside “Tour of Art from Tintoretto to Lilanga” and “Special Exhibition of Donated Art from Previous Beijing Biennales.”
The theme of the 7th Beijing Biennale is “The Silk Road and World Civilizations.” In 1877, German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen first coined the term “silk road” in reference to the ancient line of communication connecting the continents of Asia, Europea and Africa. During the Han (206B.C.—220A.D.) and Tang (618—907) dynasties, bustling trade along the Silk Road enabled China’s silk, porcelain and paper to reach the world and introduced foreign products and concepts such as Buddhism and spices into China. The Silk Road was a route not only for trade but also cultural exchange, facilitating communication and mutual learning between world civilizations.
As it has done for many years, the 7th Beijing Biennale still features paintings and sculptures complemented by some new media forms like installations and video. Focusing on the theme, these works employ diverse forms of artistic expression, from the figurative to the abstract, from realist to surrealist. Though most works depict cultural relics of the ancient Silk Road, customs of different countries and symbolic images, they do not mourn for days of yore nor to explain political terms. Rather, they emphasize the expression of the Silk Road spirit—mutual learning and integration among world civilizations instead of confrontation and conflict.
During the exhibition, the two curators, Ding Ning, professor at the School of Arts of Peking University and Miguel Angel, vice president and editor of Studio International (world’s longest running art magazine, founded in 1893), granted exclusive interviews to China Pictorial.
China Pictorial: As a curator, what is your main responsibility?
Ding Ning: The Beijing Biennale has a curatorial team. I am one of the curators for the international group. I need to guarantee that the exhibition is international. I am glad to see artists from more than a hundred countries join the event. Also, I need to maintain the diversity of the works. A good exhibition, especially such a largescale one like the Beijing Biennale, should include a rich variety of arts. Facing tens of thousands of submissions, curators must have sharp eyes to spot the outstanding ones. Actually, it was really difficult for curators to decide on the most exceptional work because of so many submissions. And sometimes, we may appear biased due to the restrictions of cultural background. Fortunately, we had a team and could brainstorm, helping the exhibition be more inclusive. I think this is an advantage of the Beijing Biennale: Its diversity and quality are not to be compromised due to the curator’s personal knowledge and experience.
Additionally, we tried to balance the
theme exhibition and the special exhibitions, which are the two parts of each Beijing Biennale. Even though the theme exhibition is big, it is still not big enough to accommodate more than one work from each artist, which is a pity. So we set up special exhibitions, which make up for that limitation to some extent. Some special exhibitions are tremendously significant and enable spectators to see different arts. Miguel Angel: As a curator, I looked for art that showcased the theme of the Biennale as well as artists who created very distinct and powerful work. I submitted a list of recommended artists to the organizing committee. I am pleased that five of them were included in the Biennale. All the artists I chose have unique view of their culture. Their works are all culture-based. But my criteria went beyond that. I think this exhibition is a good chance to display what is happening in every culture all over the world. So I looked for works that said something about humanity and something about the commonality between all people. Just because we look different does not mean we don’t share the same feelings.
CP: How do you interpret the theme “Silk Road and World Civilization?”
Ding: The theme reflects the host nation’s sense of responsibility for the world. As is well-known, China has proposed the “Belt and Road Initiative.” So the theme “Silk Road and World Civilizations” alludes to ancient China’s contributions as well as the country’s future role in the world. The theme can foster an awareness of mutual learning and cultural exchange. Some think it is political. But I think every exhibition is political to some extent. Even without any political factors, an exhibition that purposely avoids politics is making a political statement. I intend to point out that the theme “Silk Road and World Civilizations” can encompass endless topics and that it was a big challenge for artists to display the theme distinctively. Angel: My understanding is that the theme encompasses every culture because the Silk Road was not only a trade route but also a cultural exchange route, where people met people from different cultures. To me, the Silk Road is what the internet is today. The Silk Road opened a door to the world for China as well as a door to the East for the West. Its function was very similar to what the internet does, allowing people from different cultures to communicate. It was like the first internet. So, the theme is about exchange of ideas, about culture and about humanity.
CP: What’s the highlight of the 7th Beijing Biennale?
Ding: This time around, the number of participating countries has topped one hundred. Such a large-scale exhibition could be called a blockbuster. But we know quantity does not guarantee quality. To ensure quality, we only chose pieces with high artistry focusing on the exhibition’s theme. And thanks to the increasing number of participating nations, the audience can admire less familiar works like those by female artists from the Middle East, artists from Eastern and Northern Europe as well as young artists from Western Asia and Africa. Angel: I haven’t seen all the works. So I can only comment on the artists I recom- mended. Mexican artist Patricia Guzman’s Flowers in the Desert depicts an elderly woman with a heavy lines and a lot of history to be seen in her. The work shows a fantastic use of color, light and shade resulting in emotion and power. Indian artist Shad Fatima’s Untitled is an abstract work that appears like a landscape of falling buildings. It’s very captivating. Even though everything is destroyed, the lights produced within create forms and shapes like you’ve never seen before. Maryam Najd from Belgium submitted a work titled Utopia, inspired by people moving from Syria to Europe. Many European people did not accept and welcome them. In the work, a man is standing on a rock with a sort of flag. It is very thought provoking.
Remember You by Ilona Kosobuko (Belarus), oil and graphite on canvas, 120cm×130cm, 2016
Fable of the Blind Painter by Dario Ortiz (Colombia), oil on canvas, 170cm×270cm, 2016
Flowers in the Desert by Patricia Guzman (Mexico), acrylic on canvas, 150cm×100cm, 2012
Storm Approaching by Vladimir Vitkov (Israel), digital art on cardboard, 66cm×50cm, 2015
Utopia by Maryam Najd Javadipour (Belgium), oil on canvas, 180cm×120cm, 2016
Piazza San Marco, Venice by Fang Xiang (China), ink and color on paper, 248cm×124cm, 2013
Fig Trees by George Gavriel (Cyprus), oil on canvas, 150cm×200cm, 2016