On Monday 17 April, students of Australian Studies at Peking University were privileged to hear a guest lecture from the esteemed artist Chinese-Australian Zhou Xiaoping. Zhou, whose exhibition in Beijing successfully closed last week and will travel to Nanjing and Chengdu in the coming months, spoke about a number of topics including the importance of cultural exchange between China and Australia, the unique position that Aboriginal visual art plays in Australian culture and his long time experiencing indigenous Australia firsthand. His talk was enthusiastically received.
As a deeper interaction with Zhou, students also asked questions about Australia’s multiculturalism and Zhou’s interaction with Australian leaders, two themes which have been at the core of Professor McCarthy’s Australian Studies course. Feedback from students following the lecture was positive and focussed on the uniqueness of hearing about indigenous Australia through the experience of a well-established Chinese-Australian Painter.
The lecture was an eye-opening experience for the students who learned a lot not only about the Australian Aborigines culture and their art. Following the lecture, the Australian Studies Centre intern Jacinta Keast interviewed Zhou to learn more about the artist’s work and his contribution in spreading Aboriginal art and culture.
Interview with Zhou Xiaoping
PKUASC: Could you tell us a bit about how you came to engage and live with Aboriginal groups in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land regions?
Zhou Xiaoping: After my first exhibition that was held in Melbourne in 1988, I went to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and met some Aboriginal people. I was stunned to see them the first time. I was so interested in finding out how they painted their colourful paintings, so then I went to the local Aboriginal Land Council to ask. Through the council’s introduction, I was very lucky to be put on the right path and meet some Aboriginal artists. At the same time, the people from the Council were also surprised that a Chinese artist was so interested in Aboriginal art, and wished to form friendships with the local Aboriginal people. In 1988, it was rare to see any Chinese around town. They then sent me up north to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. It was an amazing experience for me as someone who came from the city. I very quickly felt at home with the people and the natural environment, and soon developed friendships with Aboriginal families in the bush. I lived and hunted with them. Since the first trip, I visited them every year. As time went on, I was adopted by Johnny Bulunbulun’s family and become one of them.
PKUASC: Currently, how do you think Chinese people view Aboriginal Australian culture? Do you hope that your work might change this perception?
Zhou: Chinese people seem to have little knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal Australian culture, but they are keen to learn it. I hope to share with others the accumulation of so many years of experience, and deepen people’s understanding of Australian Aboriginal culture through my art. In 1996, I curated a joint exhibition with Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike in my hometown of Hefei for the first time to introduce Australian Aboriginal art to China. Over the past 30 years I have curated and participated in several major exhibitions, including the exhibition titled Trepang: China & The Story of Macassan, Aboriginal Trade in 2011 at the Capital Museum.
Currently, the exhibition Dialogues with The Dreaming – The Art of Zhou Xiaoping in Australia has also achieved significant outcomes. I have seen the Chinese people’s interest in Australian Indigenous culture increasing. Several universities in Beijing, such as Peking University, Renmin University, Beijing Foreign Studies University and Inner Mongolia Normal University, have all invited me to give talks and lectures. Five floor talks have been managed by the Today Art Museum. I believe that my art has played a very important role in raising awareness about the Australian Aboriginal culture.
PKUASC: Have you ever tried using any of the traditional mediums used by Aboriginal Australian artists (e.g. ochre)?
Zhou: I do use them sometimes in paintings and installation works. Its appearance gives the work different meanings, much like the symbolism of rice paper.
PKUASC: Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences and views on painting Australian Aboriginal people and presenting their life and inner world.
Interview conducted by Jacinta Keast, intern of PKUASC
Zhou Xiaoping’s art creation can be viewed at http://www.xiaopingart.com/