Xiaoning Lyu is the founder of Viva La Vida, a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme, German Chancellor Fellow, Sherpa of China at G20 Young Entrepreneur Alliance, Global Shaper of World Economic Forum, and Forbes 30 under 30. In January 2018, when Lyu Xiaoning crossed the threshold of La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s family home in Coyoacán, Mexico, she was touched by a particular painting named Viva la Vida. Her last work was completed in 1954 following complications from an amputated leg, just eight days before she died. Frida never allowed her physical disabilities to knock her down. She was inspired by Frida that converted all the pain and sorrow she experienced in life into the liveliness and boldness of her paintings. Kahlo’s experience allowed Xiaoning to feel the power of painting. She invited passers-by to paint out their lives, encourages people to illustrate their answers to that question: “What does your life look like? She went on to introduce her experiment to many streets and countries. She hopes this could be a starting point where people get inspired and begin to think about what their lives really mean to them. Viva la Vida has now a global community of people from different countries who have vast curiosity and compassion towards fellow human beings and continuously collect their stories.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I’m Xiaoning, nowadays based in Berlin and Beijing. I’m the founder of Viva la Vida, also a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme, German Chancellor Fellow, Sherpa of China at G20 Young Entrepreneur Alliance, Global Shaper of World Economic Forum, and Forbes 30 under 30. I am passionate about the field of creativity and cross-cultural communication. I founded Viva la Vida in 2018. It is a global community in 50+ countries where people connect and share their life stories through art. Later I initiated a charity fund focusing on using art and creativity to improve the mental health condition of young people. A hundred Olympic Champions have become our ambassadors since then.
What do you love more about art? What is your artistic philosophy? What had art done for your personal life?
It is human nature to make sense of events happening in our lives. I do believe the process of making art can be a very powerful tool for us to look inward, understand, and then express with creativity. And this whole process of making sense and getting clarity out of the chaos and confusion heals us. The special part about art, compared to other mediums we use to make sense such as philosophy, is that art embraces emotion and spontaneity. It is not a rigid and logical process like philosophy. But it is the fluid nature of art-making, that makes it closer to our heart and soul than any other medium. Besides, the aesthetic value of art can simply give joy to us. And the artwork we create acts like a messenger that carries our understanding of self and contemplation of life at this specific moment, then transcends time and physical space, to help connect with similar minds and souls for us. That’s how art makes our transient existence in time eternal. How beautiful that is.
You are the founder of “Viva la Vida”, how did this global art experiment project come to life?
My grandpa passed away in the autumn of 2017. I started to question the meaning of life: If no matter how fabulous your life was, one can leave nothing after his death, then what is the meaning of living? By accident, I watched the movie Coco and got to know the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture. I was very much inspired and decided to fly to Mexico City to explore more. There I “met” Frida Kahlo, and her famous watermelon painting named “Viva la Vida”. Her life story and attitude inspired me and made me wonder again – what is the meaning of life, for me, and for many others? The next day I went back to Frida Kahlo’s museum and started to sit on the street, and asked passers-by to make a drawing to answer the question – what is the meaning of your life. In three hours there were 70 people who drew their lives for me. The works were fabulous. That year I traveled to ten countries. Wherever I went, I would carry this little street experiment with me, sitting on the street and inviting strangers to draw. Later some people who drew their lives for me thought this concept pretty cool and started to go back to their own neighborhood and ask more people to draw. Within a year it went from a simple and spontaneous street experiment to a global art movement in more than 60 countries. We had 20K people draw their lives for us and we put the drawings on our website as an online gallery. This is a perfect example of how art can transcend borders, religions, and languages, and create.
Viva La Vida is a global art experiment that explores the meaning of life. In this project, people are invited to answer a simple question “What is your life” by drawing a picture on the spot or online. Viva La Vida encourages people to use the artistic medium to deeply think about and explore the purpose of life. The first offline event was held in Mexico City where the founder Xiaoning Lyu collected ~70 pieces of artwork in four hours. So far, Viva La Vida has gradually become a global open-source art movement that anyone can host a Viva La Vida offline art experiment to collect people’s drawings. VIVA joined hands with Beijing Star Power Charity Foundation, a non-profit organization formed by more than 120 Olympic and world champions, and founded a charity program supporting the mental health of youth. The program aims to establish consultancy services across middle schools and offer mental health courses, developed by professional experts. VIVA aspires to help people better understand themselves and thus learn how to better communicate with people from different backgrounds. Viva la Vida aims at building the largest humanity database and has partnered with organizations including UN, Facebook, China Unicom, Vanke, G20 YEA, etc. It combines the power of technology and humanity, using the algorithm of image recognition and machine learning to analyze the cultural implication behind the drawings.
“We have invited people from the slums of Kenya, a children’s cancer hospital in Romania and a treatment center for autistic children in China to sketch the most brilliant and frailest parts of their lives.” – Xiaoning Lyu
What is the “Viva la Vida” mission? What goals and milestones had it achieved so far?
As I mentioned previously on the power of art and creativity in making sense and healing, I believe the mission of Viva la Vida is to invite more people onto this journey, to understand better who we are through creativity. We don’t need a therapist to sit in front of us and make sense of our lives for us. What we need is a fluid creative experience with a proper guiding framework, so we can from time to time remind ourselves to come back to the purpose of this activity (i.e. understanding of the self), and not easily get lost in the waves of emotions and emergence of ideas. I believe technology has a central role in this process. Through technology, the art-making experience can be much easier and more convenient – after all, not everyone is a professionally trained artist but every one of us has the human instinct to create. Technology can also enhance connectivity – through sharing our artwork and viewing others’, we see more possibilities thus are able to make a conscious choice of what we want for life. That’s what we believe – art-making with the help of technology, for not just professional artists but for everyone, can become a very powerful tool to enhance our mental well-being. Right now with VIVA’s charity fund, we’ve developed workshops and sessions for young people to tackle daily life challenges through art-making and better understand the self. The next steps would be developing a tech product to achieve the mission stated above.
“I hope to provide students with a place where they can portray their innermost uncertainties and receive the right guidance,” – Xiaoninig Lyu
What about people’s reactions? From your perspective, what are the main difference in the response from country to country? Do social media had leveled cultural differences nowadays?
People have asked me this question a lot – what is the pattern that you’ve found after inviting so many people to draw their meaning of life. Of course, I can give you some answers – some people draw what is important to them in life (e.g. important people, dreams, what they believe, etc.), some people draw important life events or moments, some people make drawings out of abstract concepts (e.g. love, truth, beauty, etc.); people from tropical countries tend to draw more colorfully, while drawings from cities that are financial centers (such as Hong Kong and Singapore) tend to be a bit more tedious and lack of creativity. But no, I don’t and do not want to see things in this way. Art-making is a very personal experience that carries a lot of deep and intimate meaning for the person who creates it. It is dangerous to deal with art in a statistical way – especially if we are to look at the artwork that concerns profound issues such as the meaning of life. Thus instead of generalizing and categorizing the artwork we collect, I would encourage everyone to look at each piece of drawing as if they are meeting this lively human being who created it, to try to understand what matters to this person and why he/she draws in that way, and to accept and embrace the way he/she is without judgment but with your heart. Because for me, the very endeavor to understand is to love. And to love strangers who have absolutely no connections with your life is to love your own life in the most abundant sense.
The theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022 is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. What are your best wishes and pieces of advice?
I would encourage every woman to look at herself and gender differences through a more positive lens – being a woman means having this amazing feminity by birth, and feminity means beauty, elegance, sexiness, sensuality and sensibility, fluidity, strength, etc. We have so much by birth, and all of them are powerful. If we want to be perceived and treated with more equality and respect, we have to first perceive and treat ourselves in a loving manner. So, be the love and home for yourself, be strong, be passionate and determined, be beautiful and sexy and dare to fly.
“This really inspired me. If art is the connection between Frida and her life, what are the connections between other people and their lives? How do people perceive life differently? That’s where this art project comes from. ” – Xiaoninig Lyu
Photos courtesy of Xiaoning Lyu
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