You make art by blowing things up: why do it that way?
I use gunpowder – it is the uncontrollability and spontaneity that builds anxiety and expectation. I find this quality alluring, and the transformation of energy in gunpowder, the beauty and effect it creates, cannot be replaced.
You grew up with more traditional art forms. How did you get started with it all?
I was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China. My father was a painter, and I grew up surrounded by his work. He used to draw small landscapes on the back of matchboxes with a fountain pen and say, ‘This is our homeland.’ On the matchbox, there would always be an overwhelming landscape that included waterfalls, pine trees, rolling mountains and a vast ocean, but I learned later that our ‘homeland’ where my grandfather lived was really just a small bay – only a few sailboats and a small mound.
You started in a very tumultuous political climate: did that influence your art?
In elementary school, I used to make Communist propaganda paintings on our school’s notice board. I once drew a portrait of Chairman Mao that I thought was quite lifelike. When I showed my father, he said I should not show the work at school, for fear that I may be arrested because my work was not as true to Chairman Mao’s face as I thought.
Growing up, I intentionally steered clear of ink painting and calligraphy, the traditional arts that my father practised. I tried to find my own voice as a contemporary artist through oil paintings, watercolour and sculpture. Yet one day – it’s hard to say when – I realised the matchbox drawings my father made had left an indelible mark on me. They taught me that art is about drawing the world that lives in your consciousness; whatever your hands touch can be turned into art.
What subjects do you focus on?
This is constantly evolving. For this exhibition I was inspired by the ocean and the Arabian Gulf, which is almost a gateway to the rest of the world, and which connects Qatar with my hometown of Quanzhou, China. When I saw the ancient rock carvings in Doha, I saw these traces relating to the theme of travel, boats or maritime journeys. These traces that originate from what feels like the beginning of time – they reminded me of the Islamic inscriptions I saw on the Muslim tombstones of Quanzhou that date back 1,000 years ago. Essentially the exhibition for Mathaf has been a way for me to contemplate my relationship with Arab culture.
Growing up in Quanzhou, I saw evidence of Islamic and Muslim heritage constantly. I was always aware that my hometown was different from other Chinese cities – that it had a maritime history with a strong Islamic influence, evidenced in the architecture and a large population descendent from Islamic settlers. I remember the Great Mosque was one of the largest buildings in the city, dating back to the Song Dynasty in the 11th century.
What are your impressions of Qatar so far?
When I went to Qatar, I saw the land was very arid, that the living conditions would have had been very, very harsh and yet these people who migrated to China – to Quanzhou where the landscape is very different, very lush, where they lived for generations and generations – they were still in their hearts thinking of their native land. I can relate to this as I have also lived in the States and Japan, but on spiritual level I still have great nostalgia for my homeland.
So is there an Arab connection in your art?
Thematically, for the Gunpowder Drawings in Doha I am in part inspired by miniature paintings and Islamic decorative materials like local textiles and embroidery. But it is about a dialogue of materials, for example I am using porcelain for one of the works, because it was one of the most traded materials on the Silk Road. However, on an even more direct level, the creative process and the outcome for all the artworks are very tightly interlinked with the culture and the people.
What keeps you going?
As a person, I’m quite conservative. Making art opens me up, and art is a channel that enables me to converse with others and the world. Art also allows me to make friends and give back to society. It is fun and keeps me happy. Outside of art, I’m useless at everything else.
Why do this kind of art, though?
In this day and age where global politics, economics and culture are so complex, to do this project so carefully and passionately is for me very exciting. The works themselves convey the message. They represent the millennial journey from my hometown. Through the creation of the newly commissioned works in Doha, my dialogue with the local community and culture, I am hoping this exhibition will inspire younger artists to see how traditional mediums and cultural iconography can be transformed into contemporary art.
The workshop is free and open from Oct 22-25 9am-6pm, Oct 26 9am-1pm, at Al Riwaq, the exhibition hall next to the Museum of Islamic Art. A unique work will be produced at the end of each day, to be featured in the exhibition ‘Cai Guo-Qiang: Saraab’, from Dec 5 at Mathaf. Volunteers for assisting the artist must be 16 or over and non-smokers, with an application deadline of Oct 16. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.