National identity circulates from within a country to diasporas near and far. For Sydney-based artist Louise Zhang, Chinese culture flows through the nearness of her parents, travel to China and her art practice.
Louise Zhang at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV Australia) is a mini-retrospective. Comprised of five recent paintings and a sculpture, the exhibition is a collaboration between the NGV and cosmetics retailer MECCA, in which selected works were both adapted for MECCA’s sleek packaging and acquired for the NGV collection.
The endorsement of each organisation was significant in different ways. “The support of the NGV was super exciting,” says Zhang. “To acquire work by an emerging Chinese-Australian artist and keep showing it as part of the collection; that isn’t token. It’s long-lasting support.” On the other hand, MECCA took Zhang’s work out of the gallery to a wider audience. “Sometimes art can be inaccessible,” says Zhang. “This project moved past the language barrier. People like my parents, who aren’t art-literate and don’t read English, they understood it straight away. They could bring it home, show friends, and say ‘this was made by my daughter’.”
Growing up in Australia with Chinese parents, Zhang initially managed her cultural identity by compartmentalising it. “At home we were Chinese,” she says, “but being Chinese wasn’t part of my school life. I felt pressure to fit in. I wanted to be a regular Australian, not Asian or even Chinese-Australian. I would get mad at the way we lived at home. My poor mum would make me food that fitted in at school. My lunchbox never had rice in it. I think she felt that pressure too, but expressed it differently.” This feeling was deepened by the Zhang family’s involvement at church: “Much of Chinese culture could not be celebrated or taught to me, because to Christian eyes it was seen as folky, idol-worshipping, or belief in the supernatural.”
It was in art school that these partitions dissolved and Zhang’s excitement for Chinese lore was kindled. “Art practice allowed me to move beyond the person-of-colour tale and bring my culture to the forefront,” she says. In multimedia artist Jason Phu, Zhang found a kindred spirit. Phu’s quaint riffs on traditional ink painting acknowledged his culture with sangfroid. “It gave me encouragement to see him go ‘that’s who I am, I’m going to use it’,” remembers Zhang. “I saw that I could do it.”
Zhang soon got to express her confidence at scale. Awarded a 2016 exhibition at central Sydney’s Gaffa Gallery, she worked with curator Luke Letourneau to develop New Year Rot!, a polychromatic adventure into the tradition of Nianhua (年画), pictures hung on the door at Lunar New Year. Zhang’s confidence as an agent of subjective cultural expression was instated, and led to residencies in Beijing and Chongqing.
Nianhua emerged in the Tang Dynasty, over 1100 years ago, later adopting the euphoric colour and mass production of communist propaganda. “They show chubby babies hugging fish, and peaches to represent good health and unity,” explains Zhang. “The motifs communicate with everyone, regardless of class or literacy.”
Zhang first encountered the kitschy jubilance of Nianhua New Year posters in her aunt’s restaurant on Wenzhou, Qidu Island (涠洲岛), in the South China Sea (her ancestral home). Biannual visits afforded familial comforts: from viewing the grand, hand-printed tome of her father’s 400-year family history to the heartwarming flavour of her grandma’s hand-cut breakfast noodles. “The trips are a time to learn more about my relatives, the beauty of farm life, the land.”
In the studio, Zhang meditates on different ways to articulate her life and ideas. Chinese motifs, from rolling cumulus to the flowers of herbal medicine, taught by her mother, trickle from her internal library and coalesce in splashes of cerulean, turquoise, coral, pink and indigo. Colour is important to Zhang. It recalls the peaceful naivete of childhood, and helps approach difficult subject matter; a torch shone into the dark. Sherbet-pink and lavender underpin Devil’s Lion, a 2019 painting based on a Bible verse in which the devil prowls as a vicious beast. “The whimsical colours help to pad and digest the darkness,” says Zhang.
Another of Zhang’s themes is the impact of chronic pain. Without an overtly visual presentation, pain is easily overlooked, yet it lurks close, Zhang explains. “In the arts, serious burnout is unfortunately an accepted part of the culture. That’s how I got it.” Zhang’s newly-established Rockdale studio is a “second home”, shared with six female and non-binary artists. It’s privately leased, eliminating unwieldy migrations between short-term studios. This has afforded Zhang and her partner Dylan Batty the stability required to modify the space for Zhang’s work and chronic pain: a larger worktable, casters, assistance with lifting materials.
That Zhang has weathered 2020 with an NGV spotlight and a permanent studio demonstrates her gumption in the face of the prejudices stirred up by Covid-19. “There’s a lot discrimination towards Asian people living in the West,” she says. Zhang saw her family teased and glared at, and herself retreated from public transport. “Society carved a difficult path for us,” she says. In response, Zhang redoubled her exploration of Chinese culture with characteristic heartiness, to “stand up for my voice and for the younger generation. It’s important not to be quiet.”
This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.