• Ma Desheng is a co-founder of the Stars Group, self-taught rebels exploring alternatives to Socialist art.
• He gave a performance at his solo exhibition in Hong Kong as a tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers.
At the opening of his new exhibition in Hong Kong last week, artist Ma Desheng gave a special performance in tribute to the Tiananmen Mothers ahead of the 30th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in China.
The wheelchair-bound 67-year-old chanted a prayer for peace in several languages and placed on the gallery floor his drawings of the outlines of women faces. Their hair progressively turns from black to grey, the same colour of his own, long flowing locks, symbolising the long wait for justice endured by the mothers of those killed by the Chinese army in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and in other cities.
In the middle, he had written in red: “I love the Tiananmen Mothers” in Chinese. On the actual anniversary day, he would join an estimated 180,000 who gathered for a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to mourn those who died.
Ma, who has lived in Paris for most of the time since his self-imposed exile from China in 1983, has never shied away from criticising the Chinese government.
In 1979, he co-founded the Stars Group, a collection of self-taught rebels exploring alternatives to the Socialist art permitted by the Communist party during the brief window of liberation that followed Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 open door policy. That year, they exhibited 150 works on the railings outside the China Art Gallery without official permission, including Ma’s powerful woodblock prints reflecting the hardship and heroism in rural China. It was promptly shut down by the authorities.
In a moment captured by photographer Liu Heung-shing, Ma was seen with his arm raised in the air as he spoke passionately to a crowd of protesters demanding that the government respect artistic freedom as promised under the Chinese constitution. The government backed down and the exhibition resumed at a prestigious venue inside the capital’s Beihai Park.
In 1989, he was in Paris when he saw on television the army moving into Tiananmen Square on June 4. “We went on the street to protest against the Chinese government in Paris. Some of us painted a large painting of a student lying down dead in the square and carried it through the streets,” he said.
At one point, he thought that his generation’s struggle in the 1970s had become irrelevant. When Ma last spoke to the Post in 2010, he had felt that the Stars group had faded in people’s minds because the country had flung its doors wide open and young artists were no longer interested a time when things were much harder.
Things have changed since. There has been a revival of interest in these early avant garde artists as more people have become interested in understanding how Chinese contemporary art has developed given the country’s specific historic context. Such interest also coincides with the current government’s intolerance of dissent.
Incidentally, Ma was asked about his views on China by French President Emmanuel Macron, who met him and other French-Chinese artists ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in May.
“I told him that of course China still needs freedom and democracy. But nobody wants a bloody revolution. Revolutions ought to be consigned to history. All we should strive for is transition without violence. I am confident there will not be another Tiananmen Square,” he said.
His trademark woodcuts were also consigned to history shortly after he left for Europe and he became interested in abstracts and female nudes on large canvases. Since 2002, he has largely focused on painting images of stones – a symbol of patience and persistence that represents his political beliefs.
That year, he had only just recovered his ability to paint on large canvases after a horrific car accident in 1992 which killed his wife and left him paralysed from the waist down. (He had polio as a child and walked with a crutch from a young age.) While each of his stone paintings is set against drastically different backgrounds, his daily studio practice has a repetitive, meditative quality reminiscent of the healing power of stone balancing.
“The planet earth was just a big rock so we are all stones. Stones are alive, permanent and shaped constantly by outside forces. When they are thrown about by the waves in the sea, they accept their fate, go with the flow. But they also keep their own characteristics,” he said.
Since his woodblock printing days, black and white have been his colours of choice. “Black imbibes all tones and hues, and white spews emotions and desires,” he once said. They are the colours of the tai chi diagram that had made an indelible impression on him as a child and his rocks are usually painted black and white, or red to give contrast and warmth.
The stones are arranged to resemble human figures. Ocean Cliff At Night (2007) is a female nude lying on the beach. The Path (2006) is a figure pondering which direction to follow. Manifestation of All (2007) are two opposites in dialogue. Stones are usually thought of as stationary and rigid. But these images, backed by wildly different landscapes, are as dynamic as they are profound.
In person, he is as full of strength and life as his stones. He spoke animatedly about plans to move to a larger studio in Paris where he can devote more space to making his bronze sculptures of stones.
“I work in the studio every day when I am home and I am still painting stones after all these years. It’s like when you have found love. You want to grow it, enjoy it and protect it. Others may be getting impatient with me and ask why I don’t move on to something else. Maybe one day I will. But I also hope that people will understand why I carry on with stones for so long. Stones are my personal philosophy,” he said.