The architects, designers and construction engineers are mostly sat behind computers but the men who did the physical work are painted in uninhibited natural poses, working and relaxing. Climb the stairs they built, to the temporary exhibition rooms of the Ashmolean and see them, not as photographs catching a moment, but discover their personalities, in the work of artist Weimin He. The Queen, at the official opening, was presented with a copy of ‘Building the New Ashmolean’, Weimin He’s book of 324 drawings and prints and examples of his woodblock prints. One of his brush and ink sketches shows more, at a glance, than pages of script- so a great souvenir for Her Majesty.
Manchurian born, Weimin He was involved in the superb exhibition of Chinese Prints, in 2007, and was asked to stay on as artist in residence, in 2008. He began sketching his colleagues including Shelagh Vainker, who co-wrote ‘Chinese prints 1950-2006..’ with Weimin. The assistant keeper of eastern art is painted with Chinese artefacts on her desk and books in Mandarin, on the shelves. But Weimin couldn’t help watching the men at work outside and spontaneously began to sketch them. He said, ‘Some colleagues saw them and encouraged me. The construction company, BAM, liked them too and supported me and didn’t object to my presence on the scaffolding.’ Museum Director, Christopher Brown described the outcome, ‘a distinctive figure, standing amid swirling dust and dripping rain with sketch pad in hand to catch moments in the building construction, making many friends and admirers in the process.’
My impression of Christopher Brown’s time at the Ashmolean has been one of bringing people together as a team, and this exhibition reflects that ethos. Among the subjects portrayed are Chris, Lee, Jarnail, Yvliyan, Stefan, Biggy, Ramunas and Prem. These names reflect our city and nation today and also the theme of the museum itself, ‘Crossing Cultures – Crossing Time’; peoples from all over the world influencing each other.
The largest of the 300 works on show is a huge panorama of five panels. Weimin explained, ‘I allowed my imagination to run free in making this and let some men fly! I combined reality with a new perspective in celebration of this historic enterprise. For me, a really free style can be achieved only through strict control and persistent practice sparking inspiration.’
You have until the end of the month to see the exhibition at the Ashmolean but that will not be the end of Weimin He’s passion for Oxford. He has become artist in residence for Oxford University Estates Directorate with the aim of recording the development of the Observatory site. You can see from the picture that he has already begun.
So what life journey brought Weimin He from Manchuria to Oxford? I know, from another Chinese artist, born, like Weimin, in Heiliongang, and also with Ashmolean connections, Qu Lei lei, whose ‘Everyone’s Life is an Epic’ was such a tremendous success, that the province can be rather inhospitable. Lei lei described an experience working as a peasant during the Cultural Revolution. ‘When I woke up the next morning, there was frost on my eye brows, and the part of the trousers (used as an extra blanket) surrounding my mouth was covered with small icicles where my breath had frozen.’
Yet this great northern wilderness has produced some very fine artists. At the Chinese print exhibition, I was struck by the fabulous colours of the Manchurian prints. Weimin was a discerning curator, because he himself is a superb print maker and was awarded (among many prizes) the Lu Xun Prints Prize for outstanding printmakers of the 80s-90s..Apart from many shows in his native China, he has exhibited around the world from St Petersburg to the USA. Much of his recent mature work has been in the United Kingdom. After a period as visiting professor of art at Harbin Normal University, (I can’t help wondering what an abnormal university is like!) he studied for a PhD at the University of Ulster in Belfast. From there he won the Christensen fellowship in Chinese painting at the Ashmolean.
Art is in a part of his nature for, even as a young child, he would paint a thousand sketches a year. He says, ‘For me drawing is a way of observing, analysing, reassembling and expressing- drawing with a brush ( the Chinese way) is, I feel, like using the violin bow to play a chord, it is the art of tempo: melody rhythm, one’s personality, emotion and energy all flowing through the movement of the brush.’
So, if you pass the Observatory site during 2010 you may well observe him, observing and having come from Manchuria, he is not just a fair weather outdoor artist!
Building The New Ashmolean: Drawings and prints by Weimin He is on until 28 Feb