I am grateful to editor Tim Metcalfe for commissioning this feature titled Brushstrokes in Time after my novel which Claret Press will publish in early 2016. Its origin was extended interviews with the artist Qu Leilei. Although my interest in China goes back to when I was eighteen, the story he was telling was new to me. Qu Leilei was one of the five founders of The Stars Art Movement (1979). At the Royal Academy, until December 13, there is a show by another Chinese artist whose career started with the Stars. His name is Ai Weiwei.
Qu Leilei described to me his overwhelming emotional reaction when he first saw reproduced in a book, work by the Impressionists. He had heard the word ‘Impressionist’ but during the Cultural Revolution it had been used as an insult because Western art was capitalist and criminal. That is the background in which the Stars were nurtured.
When, after the death of Mao, they were exposed to Western art they too wanted freedom of expression. The artists, poets and democracy activists started underground magazines. They mostly knew each other and were part of the on-going process of opening China to new ways of living, and they risked life and limb to do so. The Stars founders Huang Rui, Ma Desheng, Qu Leilei, Wang Keping, and A Cheng tried to arrange an exhibition but no gallery would let them show their sensational new work. Having agreed to call themselves Xing Xing (The Stars) they mounted an exhibition for twenty artists ,including a very young Ai Weiwei, by hanging their work on the railings outside the Beijing National Gallery. ( See pic below)
When the Stars artists’ western inspired exhibition was closed down by the police, they organised a march to Tiananmen Square demanding artistic freedom: to be met by serried rows of white uniformed police! Their story inspired me and I was surprised that so few people outside China knew about The Stars and their art movement although one of them, Ai Weiwei, has become a ‘star’ throughout the world. In this brief period, art was instrumental in edging China towards free speech and self-expression. At that time Deng Xiaoping allowed the Democracy Wall and hope was in the air.
After learning about the Stars I set myself the task of telling their story. I felt that it would communicate better in the form of a novel. Brushstrokes in Time will be published by Claret Press in spring 2016. I invented a fictitious artist, Little Winter, telling the story of her life I weave real events and the Stars artists (including Ai Weiwei and Qu Leilei ) with the fictional. I hope her moving story shines a light on the internal workings of China and portrays an engaging heroine who rises above oppression to discover love, hope and success.