What Chinese Artist Liu Xiaodong's Paintings Reveal About Migration And Local Communities
Liu Xiaodong spent the spring of 2019 in his Beijing studio, painting monumental portraits and landscapes from photos he had taken that year on a trip to the US-Mexico border. He worked for months trying to capture the arid, cactus-studded Texas terrain, the faces of migrants who had been arrested for crossing the border illegally and the uniforms of the American policemen who locked them up. In June, Liu decamped to London, where he set up his easel in plush homes in the city’s ritziest boroughs, painting wealthy Chinese expats who call the British capital home.
The stark disparity between these places was not lost on Liu, 56. Within six months he’d gone from meeting desperate asylum seekers in the Chihuahuan Desert to sitting in leafy west London with entrepreneur Veronica Chou, daughter of billionaire textiles tycoon Silas Chou, and eating dim sum in Mayfair with Victoria Tang-Owen, creative director of Shanghai Tang. But he did not dwell on it. “I’m used to dealing with all sorts of people,” Liu says, speaking through an interpreter. “I deal with people who are extremely, extremely wealthy and the poorest people on Earth. But people are people. What matters to me is how they behave and the way they conduct themselves in their lives, not their personal wealth.”
In fact, Liu explains, it was not what divided these groups that interested him, but what they had in common. “My work is always about movement, about migration,” he says.
Liu most famously tackled this topic in his series The Three Gorges Project in 2003, when he painted portraits of some of the 1.3 million people who had to relocate after the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province flooded their ancestral villages. These works were shown at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2006, an exhibition that earned Liu international acclaim for his lively, bold brushstrokes. Critics also marvelled at the way he injected new life and meaning into realist painting, a medium that historically was used as a propaganda tool in China and elsewhere but, in Liu’s hands, became a nuanced means of exploring the complexities of life in the 21st century.
Since then, he has travelled as far afield as Israel, Bangladesh and Cuba, portraying people who have been forcibly displaced as well as those who chose to migrate in search of a better life. His two new series—the London paintings, which will be shown at Massimo De Carlo gallery in the British capital in October, and his pieces from the US-Mexico border, slated to be exhibited at Dallas Contemporary in early 2021—are the latest additions to this large, globe-spanning body of work.
Liu is drawn to migrants because their personal stories often reveal the impacts of geopolitical forces, whether economic boom or collapse, regime change or the climate crisis. “In today’s world there are conflicts and contradictions everywhere,” he says. “As an artist, I shouldn’t avoid those topics or these places. It’s almost an artist’s duty to narrate, to depict the conflicts in the world.”
Creating art that resonates with locals
Whenever he is invited to exhibit his work at galleries and museums internationally, Liu makes it his mission to create art about these big, global topics in a way that will resonate with local communities. “There’s no point holding an exhibition in Dallas, close to the border between the US and Mexico, and not paint local people,” he says.
The show at Dallas has been years in the making. “This was a long-term, three-year, discussion with Liu Xiaodong about a possible exhibition for Dallas Contemporary,” says Peter Doroshenko, executive director of the museum, adding that it took a year alone to plan Liu’s travel to Texas and Mexico, working out what Liu most wanted to see and who he should meet to spark ideas.
Liu ended up making two trips to the Lone Star State. The first involved an eight-day-long, nearly 2,500 km drive in February 2019. Liu and his team zigzagged back and forth across the border—spending the day in Mexico and then returning at night to sleep in the US—meeting migrants, policemen, photographers and journalists, priests, nuns and directors of shelters who support asylum seekers.
One notable encounter happened when a group of Cuban women, whom Liu met at a shelter in Ciudad Juárez, told him how they had been abandoned in the Panamanian jungle by their guide, left with only two days’ worth of food for a six-day trek. Later, after successfully crossing a dangerous river, they watched as the bodies of less fortunate travellers were fished from its depths. Another day, Liu visited an abandoned factory in the violent border town of Piedras Negras, where 1,700 migrants were locked up, guarded by the army and police. Military helicopters roared overhead as Liu gestured to the detainees through a chain-link fence. They had been jailed for 15 days, unable to request asylum.
But there were moments of happiness, too. Liu saw the bar that claims to be the place where the margarita was invented, and met families who happily called the border region home, shuttling between the US and Mexico every day for work. One migrant from El Salvador greeted Liu in Mandarin, then told Liu about his favourite Chinese author, Mo Yan, who happens to be a close friend of the artist. Liu took photos of all these people as he travelled, some of which he turned into paintings back in his Beijing studio.
Although Liu prefers painting from life, working from photos means he can take his time completing works. Liu spends an average of 20 to 30 days recreating an image from a photo on a two-by-two-metre canvas; if someone is modelling for him, he finishes a work of the same size in roughly four to seven days.
(Related: Why China's Chen Man Is Regarded As One of The Best Fashion Photographers Today)
On his second trip to the border, which took place this January, Liu dedicated all of his time to one piece: a two-and-a-half-by-three-metre group portrait of sheriff Tom Schmerber, his family and his deputies, who posed for Liu for more than a week so that he could paint them from life. “When I first met Tom, I liked him very much,” says Liu. “The first time I met him, he said, ‘I am the son of immigrants. My ancestors were all migrants, either legally or illegally.’ His grandparents were from Germany and his mum, I believe, is Mexican. So, he connects with migrants, he’s very understanding, he listens a lot.
But nevertheless, he said, ‘This is my job; if you cross the border illegally, I have to arrest you, I have to put you in jail.’” After completing this work, Liu travelled to his apartment in New York City, where he has remained with his wife, the artist Yu Hong, ever since due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “It has been no big deal for me. I’ve ended up painting watercolours,” he says. Those pieces were shown in an online exhibition in July hosted by Lisson Gallery.
The friendships Liu formed in Mexico and Texas, and people’s willingness to discuss the moral quandaries they face every day living and working in such a place, were key to this series. “Liu really connected with each person he ultimately painted,” says Doroshenko. “The paintings encapsulate a specific time period of various locations and individuals living and working on the border. The works are mirrors to current life.”
Up Close And Personal
Building relationships was just as important when Liu travelled to London, where he painted young, successful Chinese professionals. This community has received international attention in recent years after being satirised in Crazy Rich Asians, but behind the glitz and glamour Liu saw in them many of the same migrant stories he had found in Mexico and around the world—questions of family, community and belonging.
To get an especially intimate look into their lives, Liu asked his subjects in the UK to suggest meaningful locations to have their portraits painted. Many welcomed him into their homes. “I want to get to know people’s family background, what’s happening in their lives, because once you have these stories out in the open it’s easier to get along, easier to establish a working relationship,” says Liu.
One of Liu’s sitters was particularly open. “A man called Stanley asked me to make a nude portrait. Having the model ask the artist to make a nude portrait is very unusual. It’s a very good chance for an artist. I agreed right away. But when we went over to his place, I chose a pose for Stanley that meant he didn’t have to show too much. But he wanted to, he wanted to be painted down there,” says Liu, laughing. “He was very easygoing, very fun to be around. He shared so many stories. I enjoyed speaking to him a lot.”
Liu has maintained a sliver of Stanley’s privacy by leaving his family name out of the title of the piece, something he has done for everyone featured in the series. Some of the sitters, however, are easy to identify. The star of the work Duncan and his Qiumles is sportsman Duncan Qiu, the most prominent Chinese polo player in the UK and the founder of the Surrey-based Kylin Polo Team. Veronica Chou, founder of sustainable fashion brand Everybody & Everyone, appears in a painting with her twin toddler sons. Victoria Tang-Owen features in another piece with her brother, Edward, art advisor and director of global fine arts at Sotheby’s.
Liu has titled the series New England, a nod to how many of this well-heeled community are adopting and reshaping British traditions, something that is hinted at in many of the portraits. At first glance Duncan Qiu, for example, appears to be dressed exactly like any other polo player you might see galloping across English fields. But closer inspection reveals he’s clutching a protective faceguard, an item he developed to protect himself from swinging mallets after reading about masks worn by ancient Chinese warriors who fought on horseback.
As hard as he tries, Liu knows that there’s a limit to the number of details he can pack into each painting. “When I travel, I meet so many people, I see lots of things; it’s not possible for me to put it all on canvas,” he says. So, to expand the number of stories he can tell through his work, Liu employs a filmmaker, Yang Bo, to trail him when he’s on the road. Yang then cuts the footage into a documentary about each of Liu’s series. The latest films will debut alongside Liu’s paintings at the respective exhibitions.
But the stars of the shows are sure to be Liu’s lush paintings, many of which are life-sized. “When I do portraits, I often want my canvases to be human-sized,” says Liu. “If it’s one person, I need it to be two-by-two metres. If it’s a group of people, like with the migrants in Mexico, then the canvas needs to be bigger. I want the audience to build a dialogue, to build relationships with the people in my paintings.”
In the Hot Seat
Liu Xiaodong painted Victoria Tang-Owen with her brother, Edward Tang, at China Tang, the London restaurant founded by their late father, David Tang. Here, Tang-Owen recalls the experience of sitting for Liu:
"It all started when Flavio Del Monte, director of institutional relations at Massimo De Carlo gallery, contacted my brother, Edward. Flavio said that there were going to be portrait sessions with Liu Xiaodong in London and asked if we wanted to take part. It was a very exciting opportunity. Liu is a great artist; I’ve liked his work for a long time. His brushstrokes are so distinctive, and it’s amazing how he creates a narrative in his pieces.
We sat for Liu for one day for six hours straight in July 2019. Being in the room with such an important artist and sitting as his subject is fascinating. Liu wanted to paint us somewhere really personal to us. My brother and I both used to live in London and it is still a big part of our lives, but after my father passed away my brother went to live in New York and I’d already come back to live in Hong Kong. Most of the other sitters were being painted in their homes, but we suggested China Tang. It was like a second home to us, we had so many family meals there. Liu loved the idea.
We all jointly decided on the pose––me leaning lightly on my brother’s shoulder. Liu had given us free rein over what we wore; he just wanted it to be authentic to us. I wore an orange top and Edward wore a baby blue top, so the colours worked really well together. Liu himself wore an apron and this really slick hat, which gave him such authority. It was a camel-coloured fedora with a feather in it.
First Liu did a sketch on the canvas, which he always does first, to get the composition. Then he whipped out a table with his palette of beautiful colours. Liu is very quiet and very still when he’s painting. He’s very sure of his hand, very confident. Occasionally he would pause for a minute, sit back and admire the canvas; sometimes he’d take a picture of the work on his phone. It was a full-on six hours. You have to try not to move, but you also want to give him something to work with—you want to be alive. But it was never uncomfortable and then, by the seventh hour, it was all over, the painting was complete. It was such an experience—and being able to share it with my brother was very special.”
New England runs from October 7 to November 21 at Massimo De Carlo gallery, London. Borders is scheduled to open in spring 2021 at Dallas Contemporary, Dallas
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