The painted tribes
When you look at an exquisite Shen Ming Cun painting, you are immediately struck by the incredible skill and craft that has gone into the making of such a work, the whole process and attention to detail. These delightful portraits of young, innocent girls from the tribes of the Miao, Yao and Dong, who are found only in the remote Guangxi region of China, have earned Shen Ming Cun international acclaim and his work features in many prominent collections.
Shen was born in 1956 and graduated from the Guangxi University of Arts, where he is now a professor of European Art, an interesting aspect to his practice. He paints in the mode of representational realism, a traditional form of portraiture using oil on canvas much akin to the European studio painters of old. This is where cultures and traditions collide – the very point where East meets West, a subtle and even nuanced moment captured in Shen’s charming work.
The subjects are painstakingly, even lovingly, painted, reflecting the dedication and craftsmanship of the brightly adorned traditional costumes that the girls have sown by hand with their ornate jewellery crafted in the village. This is a slow art, an art that corresponds to their pace of life, that has been unchanged for centuries, that is, until now.
The temptation of a Western lifestyle, the draw of the bustling cities with all its’ opportunities and diversions has proved too much for many young tribe folks, who have left their ancestral lands and time-honoured traditions for a so-called “better life”.
Whilst contemplating his work, I wondered, if Shen had painted these tribes in contemporary clothes in the same stylistic way, what would our reaction be? I am certain there would be less intrigue. The classical approach frames these figures within a context of a time and a place. Even though they are recently painted, they could appear to be socio-historical portraits, in the manner of the great English painters of the 18th century, such as Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. The finery belonging to a different class, a different ‘tribe’ but in the era before photography, the paintings are a visual record of the norms and customs of those times. Are we looking at Shen’s intimate portraits as contemporary time capsules?
We feel the empathy, even the adoration that the artist has with these endangered people, as he grew up amongst them in Guangxi. “I have spent a long time researching the richly colourful cultural heritage of the Yao and Miao nationalities and the Dong minority of southern China. Over the years, I have lived amongst them and become friends with these beautiful people who radiate pure goodness and simple love of life. Cultivating their ancestor’s achievements, they turn life into immortal art,” he states.
In other work, Shen Ming Cun captures the whole community and their basic way of life. These are paintings of small domestic settings, often featuring the womenfolk tending to the cooking and sewing. The soft glow of light emanating from an open fire is reminiscent of Old Masters of Dutch still-life and you can be sure that Shen studied the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rembrandt and of course Johannes Vermeer.
What we have with Shen Ming Cun is a fine ‘Modern Chinese Master’ who has the knowledge and skill of some of the greatest European painters and combines that ability to dedicate his referential art to the history, the land and to the people, that he loves and fears for. “The fact that I choose ethnic minorities as my main creation subject is related to my art education and my living environment in Guangxi. Growing up in a specific multi-ethnic environment, I have been influenced and guided by the art theory of creating works of art with national characteristics in addition to a local complex. It is more of a mission for me to represent the minorities in Guangxi,” explains the painter.
In Shen’s latest series of work, the girls are both innocent in terms of their age but also of other worldly understandings, the far-off cities rife with sin and desires. Will these girls be tempted to leave? Trusting in their fate and fortune, they leave behind their elders, who desperately cling onto their culture as they do to the hope for their children’s well-being and their eventual return to the village.
Shen Ming Cun’s artworks can be seen at the ArtCatto Gallery in Loulé
“I have represented Shen Ming Cun for many years. Starting at my gallery in London and now here,” states Gillian Catto, founder of the ArtCatto Gallery in Loulé, where some of his works are currently on display. “I wasn’t sure that the Algarve would embrace this highly skilled cultural work. But, in fact, he has sold so many works here that I’m continually asking for more. He works on huge commissions for the Chinese government as well. I collect his wondrous work myself.”
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