Hu Ming’s artistic revolution

When Chinese artist Hu Ming looks for beauty she finds it in the female form. The subjects of her paintings are muscular, classical beauties. Like the young Chinese women depicted in the propaganda images of Mao’s Cultural Revolution they’re wearing the army uniform. Yet in the hands of Hu Ming, herself a veteran of the People's Liberation Army, these highly sexualised women are individuals and symbols of cultural liberation.

Hu Ming’s painting career is marked by the twenty years she served in the PLA. Joining as a 15 year old, Hu Ming rose to the rank of Major. She worked as a librarian and film producer, and in army hospitals where her duties ranged from administering injections to soldiers to treating burn victims and assisting in the morgue. However Hu Ming’s rebelliousness and propensity for challenging directives stunted her career progression. She was given leave to study painting at Tianjin University, where she flourished, but had little opportunity to pursue her art upon return to the army.

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 Hu Ming was making films for the army’s propaganda unit. Her husband Ai Duanwu, editor of a radical magazine and the brother of artist and activist Ai WeiWei, had become a figure of suspicion. He made the decision to leave China for the United States. Hu Ming did not follow. Instead, she applied to study English in New Zealand and in 1990 left Beijing to start a new life in Auckland. Almost a decade later she moved to Australia with her partner Bob Burns.

In her Kangaroo Valley studio, south of Sydney, Hu Ming has found artistic freedom. She fills her days painting, tending her vast vegetable garden and listening to classical music and history programs on the radio. Yet her art and her cultural touchstones are still deeply rooted in the traditions of her home country.

For Chinese New Year, Hu Ming has been commissioned by the City of Sydney to paint an image that represents the year ahead. In the year of the horse Hu Ming has turned to her mother for inspiration, the woman who guided her army career and supported her artistic ambitions in equal measure.