Monday 14 July 2014

A Chinese Outsider Artist from the Streets of New York

In October 2013, I saw these colourful drawings on a wall outside a shop in New York City's Chinatown district. I almost passed them by, thinking they were regular street posters...

...but a closer look revealed they were handmade artworks, lovingly (if clumsily) executed on paper with ink and watercolours. The artist had a definitive style and a clear angle - he loved to represent animals and beasts iconic to China. I set about to photographing as many of his works as possible.

Two magpies huddle together on a cherry tree. These birds are symbols of happiness and felicity in Chinese culture.

Two pandas celebrate their birthday with a cake. I think this picture was referenced from a photograph.

A tiger at rest.

The rooster is another symbolic Chinese animal. It stands for pride, flamboyance, honesty, vigilance, etc... That's a lot of symbolism!

A yellow-headed crane...

...and its counterpart, a white one. This was one of my favourite pieces by this artist.

A big, happy-looking catfish, with red and green things attached to its tail.

This was the only representation of a human in this artist's work. I think this is meant to be a portrait of Confucius. 

The unknown artist's repertoire extended to more vernacular subjects. Here, a sand-yellow cat stalks its unseen quarry.

A cheetah on a graceful run.

Most interesting, however, were the street artist's pictures of Chinese military might. This was an unmistakable portrait of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, which was built around a titanic, unfinished ex-Soviet hull named the Varyag. A Chinese company purchased the derelict under the pretext of turning it into a floating hotel, and tugged it all the way from the Black sea to China. Once in China, the floating hulk was turned into an aircraft carrier with full military capability. I actually watched the Varyag pass from the Bosphorus en route to open seas, all the way back in 2001. It was funny to encounter it again in New York.

Another one of my favourites was this naive illustration of a nuclear bomber, most possibly a representation of the fabled "H10" aircraft, an adaptation of the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M bomber.

There were a few more pictures in the selection, but I could not get their close ups as a man suddenly emerged from the adjacent shop and warned me to take "no photo!" Nevertheless, this was a neat and surprising discovery - and a welcome break from the repetitive torrent of "street art" found in big cities such as New York. "Street art" looks cool, spectacular even, but let's face it - it is also instantly forgettable.

These tiny watercolours were remarkable because they told the story of a particular person; an immigrant in America, and his romantic nostalgia for his native China. From birds to dragons, tigers to aircraft carriers and nuclear bombers, this artist had stamped his little corner of the city with naive yet proud symbols of his distant homeland.

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