A decades-old Chinese art form still strong
Gu Peilian, a 64-year-old farmer, never thought that her silkscreen painting would be shortlisted for the China National Peasant Painting Exhibition – one of three selected works in Shanghai.
“I’m lucky,” the resident of Chedun City said with a big smile. “What I have portrayed in my work, ‘The countryside is full of beauty’, is my birthplace, the place in the world that I am most familiar with.”
His photo shows large plots of rice paddies covered with golden ears of wheat, around which farmers drive tractors for a bumper harvest. The old villagers sit along the field and chat happily, while the children play hide and seek in the woods.
“I paint where I grew up and what I observed,” Gu said. Born on the Huangpu River, she was inspired by nature, her daily life and her childhood.
The scenes she brings to life are captivating – the celebration of the harvest, farmers toil in paddy fields, locals fishing in a pond, chasing a lost pig, and weaving on a longline.
One of the most common methods of creating a silkscreen stencil is to use negative images. The image is printed on a clear sheet and placed on the wet emulsion so that only the uncovered emulsion dries, creating the stencil. One color requires a silkscreen block. That is, if an array has five colors, it needs five blocks.
The painters belonging to the “primitive camp” use striking colors. Rather than exploring modern urban reality, traditional rural themes, such as fishing, fabric dyeing, spinning, and market scenes are preferred. The characters and objects are drawn in a way that most people can think of as childish, with thick straight lines, while producing a powerful visual effect.
Screen printing is a popular folk art in the city of Chedun. In the 1980s, the local government started a program to teach farmers techniques to carry on the tradition and provide a stimulating hobby for farmers to kill time during slack seasons.
Gu, who had never taken a brush before, joined the program in 1987. She still remembers her first job. “I drew a shrimp, swimming among a school of fish in the water grass,” she recalls. “It was based on my fishing experience with my dad when I was eight years old.” The painting was on display in a local art exhibition.
Over the past three decades, Gu never gave up painting and gradually found his artistic style. His works feature bright colors and large-headed figures. Scenes from rural village life are his lifelong subject. In his spare time, Gu walks around his village taking photos for inspiration. “I paint for fun. I’m a farmer. It’s my way of expressing myself,” she said.
Chedun’s screen printing reached its peak in the early 1990s, but collapsed when the country underwent economic reform, in which a large number of local artists resigned and found jobs in companies.
Around 2009, the city set up a cultural office in the hope of reviving its folk arts. Today, screen printing is not only a hobby for peasants, it is rather a serious art form admired by many artists from all walks of life.
In 2013, this art form was listed as Songjiang Intangible Cultural Heritage, receiving special protection and government promotion.
Last March, the Chedun City Screen Printing Block Printing Gallery was opened to the public free of charge. Covering 600 square meters in a refurbished century-old house, it showcases a wide range of silkscreen artwork from more than 20 local painters, from the oldest to young artists.
Tan Weiyun / SHINE
The rear enclosure of the gallery has a workshop. Visitors are invited to venture into his darkroom to see how the silkscreen blocks are made. “Each painting shows love for the hometown, love for children, love for festivals, love for animals and love for work and chores,” said Zhang Yuliang, director of the institution. . “The art form is traditional Chinese but also a universal celebration of life.”