Q. Your surname is Hu (for cry or shout), which doesn?t sound like a Han surname. Is
A. In China people who are surnamed ?Hu? in that sense are certainly not Han. There are two versions. One goes that they are of Northern Xiongnu (Hun) origins and were exiled by Emperor Wu of Han [BC156 to BC87-Ouyang's note] to zhongyuan [Central Plains, comprising the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River-O/N]. In Hu Family Village in Guanxian County, Shandong Province, there are only a dozen of families by the surname of Hu. Another version goes that they are of the Yellow Banner, belonging to the Manchurian nationality.
Q. You used to be an army woman. How does that influence your paintings?
A. I joined the army at the end of 1970 and retired from it at the end of 1989. In my 20-year army life, I worked as radio broadcaster, librarian, film projectionist, army nurse, club director, secretary in charge of cultural activities, special effects designer for August 1st Film Studio and etc. I rose from the ranks, from a G.I. right through to a deputy regiment leader. Then, from 1979 to 1983, I studied traditional Chinese painting in a university.
When I joined the army in the 1970s I was 15 and when I left it I was 35. I spent all my youth in the army. 15 years overseas, two thirds of my dreams is still related to the army. My dreams often smell of the army women baths where women soldiers rubbed each other?s backs in a stuffy and wet situation. In my dreams, whenever there is a military exercise and march I often lag behind. If there is an emergency muster, I forget to bring Quotations from Chairman Mao and I have to shoulder the bicycle because one is not allowed to ride it in those circumstances, the ground strewn with charred bodies. In summer, we have to walk the scorchingly soft asphalt road to chase the trucks. When I wake up, I remain dazed in the dark night?.
Q. What made you go overseas? Why first New Zealand, then Australia?
A. I went overseas under the impact of the general trend then. After the June 4th, the ?Victorious Escapade? seriously began in Beijing. Nearly all in my circle of friends went out. In addition, my first marriage broke up and I wanted to go for a change. I then went to New Zealand where I studied English and then got a job with W.B. Animation doing cartoons for them. When I got my green card, my second marriage began. Eight years subsequently, my second marriage existed only in name. I wanted to go back to China when I met my current boyfriend, Bob. In 1999, both of us began living together in Sydney, wanting to give it a go. We have since been living together. I like my boyfriend and I also like Australia.
Q. You?ve taken Australian citizenship but why do you still cling to China?
A. Nationality is an abstract concept to me. What is concrete is my Chinese stomach and my Chinese language system that carries the Chinese language. When I listen to Chinese songs I cry. And if I paint, I paint Chinese girls. In the last couple of years, I often feel that I am here just on business and once I complete my task I shall return.
Q. You have a well-placed Aussie boyfriend. From a cultural exchange point of view, is this important to you?
A. Bob is my alter ego. I am a failure in marriage. Living with a man for three to four years, it feels like both the man and I are brothers or comrades and the man gradually takes me for someone to just while away his time with. Bob is a wall around my life. For a woman who wants to do something, this wall can save you a lot of trouble. Because there still exists a huge language barrier between us, one gets a sense of distance that somehow one does not get burnt when near the fire or frozen when near the ice, a lot of time saved and friction avoided that naturally results from being too near. As for cultural exchange, either side has to work out for itself.
Q. Does your work reflect your ?transcontinental? experience? If so, in what ways?
A. This ?transcontinental? experience is not obvious in my work. However, my life in a foreign country has helped me gain a much clearer respect for and love of human beings, nature and animals.
Q. You like portraying female nudes, particularly the army female nudes. Why?
A. Portraying female nudes is my forte. I use the direct images of the female nudes to reflect the mental status of the women soldiers and their youth in a specific time.
Q. But no male nudes ever appear in your paintings. Are you naturally disinclined towards them or is this a result of the Western feminist influence on you?
A. I can portray females with relative facility and it is easier for me to grasp the spirit of the characters. However, it is very hard to find the real feeling in doing the males. It is not exclusion but a lack of confidence. I know little about Western feminism and I haven?t made a serious study of it. In my opinion, though, the sexes are equal and mutually penetrative in the human creative thinking. Putting too much emphasis on the sex consciousness is not scientific. There has been research on the role of women in society from ancient times. I have just finished reading Revolutionary Women and Women in the Revolution by David Goodman, in which the Krugers started researching this issue from the end of 1947. As they pointed out, women?s position is very low in all societies. They quoted a woman?s comment that goes: Men talk about issues on the streets but we never dare take part in them. When someone pushes the door open and asks, ?Is there anyone here?? we women may say, ?No, no-one.? Women are not considered to be real human beings. The key of the issue is not that there is no-one in the house but that women just treat themselves as women, not normal human beings. This is attributable to people putting too much emphasis on the consciousness of the gender issue. In fact, the sexes in the human propagation only use their own sexual organs to engage in a series of sexual contact in order to complete their propagation process with little difference from other organisms or animals. The problem is that human beings impose the spiritual, the moral and the emotional elements on the process of human sexual contact, to an excessive degree, thus making the human sexual behavior not healthy and natural enough. Although I am not a scholar in this regard but if one can imagine that one day mankind may discover from their experiments that human beings can also be reproduced from single cells without relying on the other sex then the spiritual activities of both sexes may become very relaxed, thus reducing the consciousness of the gender issue. So, if we do not focus on the biological improvements and evolution of the human body structure any research into gender equality and feminism would be a vain attempt and become a drug for the human spirit. In my artistic work, while depicting the spirit and gender of women, I have borrowed from men?s muscle because, for me, mere appearance of either man or woman is not perfect. In my canvasses, I try to clone what I think is the beautiful image.
Q. You seem to put more and more Chinese-style ?props? in your paintings such as bricks and ears of corn. Is this done on purpose to attract the eyeballs of the Western viewers?
A. Painting is a way of life for me, and, of course, I do this to please the people I love. At present when most people indulge in materialism I still look back in search of the shining memories, eyes that can move me, arms that are powerful, feet that are sexy, buttocks that are reproductive, a heap of bricks, a bowl of dumplings and a string of red chilies. If these can attract people?s eyeballs, that may be some unexpected harvest.
Q. Have you ever thought of exhibiting your work in the mainland Chinese? If not, why not? If you have, what is the response?
A. In the late 1980s, I had a solo exhibition in Beijing?s Laboring People?s Culture Palace, all of traditional Chinese paintings. If there is a chance in the future, I shall go back to hold my solo exhibition in oils.
Q. Do you think you are a Chinese artist or an Australian artist? Or you don?t think this sort of identity question makes any sense to you?
A. I don?t regard myself as someone belonging to any particular countries. I am an independent being. If I can do my paintings with more individuality I am confident any passports will accept me.
Q. And you also like literature and have made many literary friends. Apart from a personal interest, is there any deeper reason behind it?
A. In fact, I am very careful in making friends. Once I make a decision, I won?t leave a friend nor will I waste my time with non-friends. I had a passion for literature from when I was a kid. After I became a soldier at 15, I was alone responsible for the library work. The central hospital where I worked had a long history as its premises used to be the residence of Cao Kun the big warlord in Tianjin city. Many of the buildings were French-style while the landscape was Chinese. During the Japanese occupation, it?s the Japanese General Hospital and later became Kuomingtang?s General Hospital at the end of the Anti-Japanese War. After 1949, it became the central hospital of the Logistics Department of Beijing Military Region. The library was quite large, with its number of books second only to that of Tianjin City Library. In 1970, not long after the Cultural Revolution had begun, I actually entered this two-storey French-style building, stepping across the foot-thick ?sealed books?. I spent my spare time picking up one book after another from the floor, filing them, repairing them, making covers for them, shelving them and sealing them. Every Sunday I would bring a piece of steamed bread, some pickled vegetables and a kettle of water with me and hide myself in the small building to read the books, and it would last the whole day. During that period, I read a large number of famous works, Chinese or foreign. When it got dark I would take some back by stealth and read them inside my quilt. On one occasion, I found a little pamphlet featuring human bodies portrayed by Michelangelo in Japanese. I was literally shocked by the strong bodies and their muscles. I looked at them repeatedly and copied them. When someone from the Political Division found this he confiscated it. I can still remember Director Song gravely criticized me, saying, ?You have very complicated thoughts for a young girl and you do not strive for progress.? The bodies painted by Michelangelo have since become fixed in my mind. At the moment, I am writing an autobiographical novel about my past life as a woman soldier.
The Market and Others
Q. You ran an artist?s shop in New Zealand and is it because of this that you targeted the market as soon as you began painting?
A. In Auckland, New Zealand, I did have my own studio beginning from 1993 and I did sell a lot of paintings. But my painting sale for a number of years is like the blind cat running into a dead rat, as the saying goes, for I never deliberately try to research the trends in the art market.
Q. Someone told me that there was an American client who liked your paintings so much that he ordered them from you, to have them painted according to his way of thinking. You don?t see any conflict between this and the art itself?
A. There is indeed an American art collector who purchases my art but it is not customized. He sometimes orders the paintings based on my drawings by paying half of the deposit and when the paintings are finished they are handed over to him. Sometimes the completed paintings are very different from the rough drawings. He seems to pay a lot of attention to collecting my paintings featuring women soldiers.
Q. How do the Australian art critics look at your work?
A. There are reviews on me and my paintings in both Chinese and English but I think the most accurate ones are done by Mabel Lee [translator in English of Nobel-prize winner Gao Xingjian-O/N].
Q. How would you comment on other artists who came to live in Sydney or Melbourne before or after June 4th, 1989?
A. I respect all my artist colleagues. When I first arrived in Sydney I asked a qualified artist, ?How are the Chinese artists here?? He said, half-jokingly, ?Most of them slap themselves on their own faces most energetically. He who makes the loudest and the most accurate slap sells the best because the yangren [literally, ?ocean-people?, or foreigners or Westerners-O/N] like the Chinese slapping their own faces. Up till now I am still wondering about this slap thing: Do I really have to slap my own face?
Q. In the art world that is Australia, where do you place yourself?
A. I changed from the traditional Chinese paintings to the oils and, so, mine is not the real thing and cannot be compared with my colleagues who started off with painting the oils. What I did in my paintings is what they would do their utmost to avoid in the study of how to do the oils. My paintings often flabbergast my colleagues who specialize in the oil paintings. In my opinion, because there are many colleagues they easily conform to the tired conventions and fall into the old trap of putting too much emphasis on the skills. I do my own thing by taking my own road regardless whether there is a road or not. I persist in my loneliness and only in so doing does my self reveal itself more clearly, more resolutely, and is my style more affirmative and complete.
Q. How do you look at the group of Chinese artists (including the ones in America and Australia) who were exiled overseas after the June 4th, 1989? Do you think they have any impact on world?s paintings, particularly the Western paintings?
A. For their own survival, Chinese artists in any corner of the world are ?model laborers?; they?d be lucky if they do not fall into the pure passive business operation. In regard to whether artists should become integrated into the mainstream I think one should be very careful. The process of integration is also that of loss. And of course survival is also a kind of loss, including the loss of the opportunities artists need and sentiments that cannot be found back. In the end, I have chosen not to be integrated even though this may mean my paintings wouldn?t have any impact on the Western paintings. All I want to achieve is a natural status of being, a situation in which my limbs remain relaxed.
(translated at 9.46pm, 22/6/06)