Anita Yan Wong is the 4th generation of Lingnan masters specializes in both traditional and modern arts.
She received her B.A. (Honors) in Graphic Design from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, and her M.F.A. and M.A. in Digital Photography and Digital Arts from Maryland Institute College of Art.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 02 issue
celebrating International Women’s Day 2018
China-underground: When did you realize you wanted to be an artist? What motivated you to get into art?
Anita Wong: I knew I wanted to become an artist from a very young age when I was around 5 years old. My mum encouraged me to become an artist when she found me drawing and loving it so much, while other children were playing outside in the playground. I started learning Guo hua (Chinese painting) from a Master – 辛鵬九 – a world-renowned Lingnan style master and one of the first pupils of Chao Shao An. I decided I wanted to be an artist at the age of 6 with the encouragement of my mum and my mentor, Guo hua master. I don’t really know what motivates me to get into art and dream of being an artist, it just comes naturally. Each day I wake up and I am glad I am an artist.
Lingnan style Guo hua was a traditional Chinese art with open mind and heart, it has humbly opened its doors to western influence during the most difficult time.
What are the main topic and focus of your art?
Nature is the main topic of my works, I like exploring the movements of my subjects and the movement of time with my brush. My focus is to develop unique styles of Guo hua and modern arts that speak to both Eastern and Western viewers. I am amazed by the beauty in both Eastern and Western arts, but find it very challenging to combine them. I don’t want to force or rush into a style because of some trend. I want to create something that I’m happy with, and my ultimate dream as an artist is to continue developing unique styles of Contemporary traditional arts that speak to viewers in the Millennium.
Who are your biggest influences?
I don’t have a particular artist or a particular art period that I follow because I want to be influenced by many great artists. I try to follow both Western and Eastern art, I equally admire works by Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, and the beautiful brush works found in Asian rice paper paintings. I am influenced by both traditional and contemporary works, I try to get my inspirations online and offline.
How do you keep yourself creative?
I keep myself creative and up to date by doing research, like reading online art magazines, blogs, and websites. Online materials are very inspiring to me, as the World Wide Web has brought us closer, brought cultures closer, and brought a different style of art closer. I also find it very important as an artist to take a break from making art. It is important to not force myself to work, I have to feel it and I will be naturally creative when I feel the idea. It is also nice to network, going to local galleries, shows, and museums to see what’s out there.
How did you find your personal painting style? How long did it take to develop it?
I found my personal painting style (something that belongs to me and represents me) in 2017, in the painting series titled “Tiger”, “Rooster” which continued to the 2018 abstract Dog painting series. These paintings are more abstract and expressive than my older ink works. I am keeping an open mind and I don’t intend to keep nor change my personal style, I don’t want to follow any trend either. I believe my personal style will change as I change with time.
Does your art have a philosophy message or reflect your personal philosophy of life?
Yes, my art is a reflection of who I am. What interests me as an artist is the sensitivity in the intersection between tradition and modernity. I’d like to revisit the time between old and new with my own artistic background in Guo hua and western painting; explore the potentials and styles without worrying if it’s labeled as modern or traditional. I consider my current paintings very personal bridges I built between the old and new. As an artist, I don’t want to give up traditions without a very good reason, they are beautiful to me and very human. However, I also don’t want to be stuck in any boundaries. There is a lot I want to say but I trust that my paintings say it better than me putting it into words.
“She believes it is important to take ones time to understand the root, the theory and true beauty in Guo hua, in particular Lingnan style Guo hua, master the brush and skill of this profound art form before attempting to transform and develop it into Modern art form”
Can you tell us about your art project inspired by “Nüshu”?
My great grandmother and part of my grandmother’s generation had to bind their feet to be able to marry. It was considered beautiful, and it was a display of status—they didn’t need their feet to work, they were called lotus feet. But in fact, that’s very painful; they do it when the girls are extremely young, three years of age maybe. So the girls can’t work and can’t go outside. Women are not allowed to do many things. They don’t have the status men do. So there’s no freedom. Women have forbidden any kind of formal education for many centuries, and they developed the Nüshu script in order to communicate with one another. Then, right before they got married and after they got married, the women would write to each other in the secret language of woman: Nüshu.
When men look at it, they can’t understand because it’s a language created by women and exclusively used by women. Those writings are very poetic, often in the format of poems, letters, or songs. It’s always about how they suffer, how they miss their family. When you read it, it’s very emotional. So, I want to learn more about Nüshu. I want to learn more about what they wrote because I’m a Chinese-American artist and I have all the freedom in the world, and when I look at my grandmother’s time, not so long ago, women didn’t have anything. But now that I have the freedom to express, what do I want to say in my art? So, this project was fun at first.
I didn’t realize until later that it was an act in my own personal space that touched me on a very personal level. I somehow connected with these women, their stories, through this project. I came to realize how lucky I am, as a modern Chinese woman, to be educated and most importantly, allowed to express myself with my art. I look forward to getting up every morning because I can create art. Now this project means a lot to me not only on a personal level but also because not many people know about Nüshu; it’s invisible paintings etched on glass. These paintings and stories are revealed when the viewer shines a light on them. This action contains the meaning of discovering the secret letters of these women. This action connects the viewers to the hidden secrets and the women that wrote them.
What did it mean for your artistic path living outside Asia?
I think my international experiences shapes who I am. I am thankful for my international experiences, they make me appreciate the beauty in different cultures. I don’t really know how to label myself because I have lived my life internationally…in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, and U.S. I know they are all home to me and dear to me. When I feel lost about who I am, I look at my art and found myself again.
What is the biggest challenge about being an Art Professor during social media era?
I love social media and technology, I was teaching electronic media and culture for many years and I believe we could achieve a lot when we combine Art and Technology together. I recently started a meet up “Silicon Valley Art and Technology” and I’m very excited to be the host who connects artists with technologists. In terms of challenge, I think traditional art is a different game, it requires a lot of practice. Yet guo hua and calligraphy were once practiced in everyday life among Chinese, the practice is no longer by many as the society rely more and more on computers in generating information. Students cannot rely on the “undo” button when making a rice paper painting. It takes years and years of practice. I believe perhaps it is our human nature to take an easier path sometimes. I think the best way of preserving a tradition like rice paper painting is to make it adapt to the current time and Culture, this gets students excited and want to explore traditional arts.
You are the Founder and Curator of the Behance Asia Team. How this social media for creativity effectively helps in self-promotion?
I love Behance and I feel very honored as the founder of Asia Team. I have met many talented artists and became friends with people on other continents, someone I would not have met otherwise. Behance is a great place for artists/ designers to showcase their portfolios. It is also a support system for artists to connect with others that are equally passionate about their art.
Photo courtesy of Anita Wong