There is an innovative cross-cultural artist from Nanjing who has illuminated the Christian art world. Whatever it is you do, whatever you are interested in, let me say this about that: Must See. Must See. Must See. He Qi (pronounced ho chi, not Quie) does two absolutely remarkable things. I’ll tell you about them one at a time.
He Qi is a professor a Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, Nanjing, and is categorized as a Contemporary Christian artist, a rare commodity to come out of the People’s Republic of China. The paintings in this exhibit are of biblical motifs, both New Testament and the Hebrew Bible, and they are wonderful compositions that seamlessly combine many different styles. In a nativity scene with he Magi, he has traditional folk elements of peasant portraiture combined with modern avante pictures of the Wise Men, each in a style accurate to their background from Asia, Europe and Africa, as the tradition tells us. Yet the gift that is centered in the picture is a blue-and-white vase from the Chinese tradition that is rendered so accurately it might have been cut out and pasted into place. In a quasi-abstracts portrait of a story, this telling detail is the only thing painted realistically, and he chose a work of art.
The colors he chooses in his gouache pieces feature bright jewel tones and soft pastoral organic backgrounds. His effort to cast Mary as a Chinese woman, or the finding of the foundling Moses by a Chinese princess, is a conscious effort to make the Christian story less foreign and more familiar, less western and more universal. This is as it has always been; Jesus is the Greek name given Yeshua by the Greeks, a blue-eyed Jesus has been featured for many years on Scandinavian calendars; african nativities have African shepherds gathered around an African mother and child. To take this action is not new, but to pull it off in such an honest and compelling style has got to be seen as exceptional.
Qi was getting ready for his reception when I had a few short words for him. I asked about the difficulties of being a follower of the Christian faith in a communist country. “During the Cultural Revolution, all the foreign missionaries were sent out. I was put out in the country, but i couldn’t do the hard work. They needed people to make statues and paintings of Mao, to worship him. I thought, that’s a good job for me. So I got that job for my area. At night, I would paint soft pictures of the Madonna.
“I felt our people had the struggle-spirit too much. Every day, struggle. I wanted to create peaceful scenes. We need to hear the peaceful voice of heaven.”
His studies of medieval paintings in Europe have shown off well in colors like blue and green that seem as bright as stained-glass. He also draws the color palette from minority folk art traditions, which carry vibrant tones of red and yellow. Combining these with modernistic design components, he renders work that is fully Chinese and fully Christian, being of one substance, as it were.
The paintings are bold, deeply colored and strongly evocative of the story portrayed. “Out of the Garden” has the angel casting Adam and Eve from their secluded paradise, which is surrounded by a small wooden fence and a tiny gate. “Abraham and the Angels” has a skeptical Sarah in the back, a welcoming and hospitable Abraham as the proud householder, and three faceless, bi-gendered angelic guests, mysterious and yet casting a beautiful shimmer through the room. “Elijah and the Raven” is a countryside portrait of the prophet in hiding, being brought food by God’s raven. Elijah looks at peace, in comfort, amazed and grateful by this inexplicably miraculous act of generosity from the God he is serving. The colors are more muted and flat in this one to convey a more realistic tone, a more landscape texture to the still modernized figurative creatures portrayed. Any one of these pieces would grace any wall.
Oh, and the second amazing thing? There’s another dozen pieces that are as beautiful, as amazing in their color and composition, and thematic content, and they are made from silk, woven into tapestry. This is the part that has to be seen to be believed. It’s one thing to experience a great artist doing moving, profound work; it’s quite another when that same level of excellence is run through a process one has never encountered before, never even heard of. Each silk strand is dyed carefully by silk artists who have been building the skills of the craft for many thousands of years (the country’s name was originally silk)
and under the watchful eye of He Qi, they take about a month constructing these pieces. The light changes and jumps as you move past each peace; some landscape backgrounds are done in several shades of green, and as you walk by they shift in emphasis; the magnificent jewel tones and the classic modern compositions stay true tot he artist’s forms in his paintings. There is no way to do this work justice in words; Go See. Go See. Go See. It’s a brand new thing to me.
Ruth and Naomi are done is a swirling abstract of rounding forms, feminine yet undefined as people, a merger of two souls. The Song of Solomon has a collection of motifs drawn from the book of erotic love poetry ( the best-kept secret in the Old Testament) that pairs the gorgeous half naked lovers with he metaphors they use to describe each other in lingering, hot-breathed longing. Sleeping Elijah is a symphony of green silk, a cascade of wandering colors that glitter and murmur with each passing. The effect is stunning.
The silk pieces range in price from $1,800 to $4,900. and the paintings go from $4900 to $12,000, with most around $9500.
Premier Gallery, 141 South 11th Street, Downtown Minneapolis. 612-338-4541