Awed by the abstract

When artist Zao Wou-Ki left China to come to Paris in 1948, his whole family gathered on the quay in Shanghai to bid him farewell. They were dressed in western clothes, the men in coats and felt hats, the women with Lauren Bacall hairstyles, flat shoes and leather gloves. His wife Lalan was coming with him, but they left behind their son with his grandparents, because they were only planning to stay for two years. By the time he came back to visit his mother, it was 1972 and his beloved father had died four years earlier.

 

 

Zao Wou-Ki had to wait two years to get his passport and visa, and months to get a passage—boats to Europe were rare. He disembarked in Marseilles after thirty six days of a voyage that filled him with boredom. But he was determined—he felt he had to get away from China or he would die.

 

Hommage à Claude Monet

 

Zao had been obsessed with painting since childhood, a pursuit encouraged by his father, a banker. At fourteen, he left home to study at the school of fine art in Hang-Cheou, 300km from home. But he felt stifled by Chinese art, which he thought mired in convention and rules. He wanted to free himself and his creativity. So he ended up in Montparnasse, where he remained. He did, however, travel extensively to New York and Hong Kong.

 

Le vent pousse la mer

 

In Paris, Zao was influenced by major artists of his time, such as Paul Klee, Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne, and developed close relationships with Jean-Paul Riopelle, Alberto Giacometti, Joan Miró, Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis, among many others. But he was also inspired by poetry and music. Two of his best friends were poet Henri Michaud and composer Edgar Varèse. His work became increasingly freer, and he produced his marvelous glowing large works.

 

In memory of May

 

It is difficult to reproduce the depth, subtlety of color, and brilliance of these paintings in photographs, especially ones taken on a phone. But this is art to soothe and elevate the soul.

 

 

Across his career, Zao sought to create works that captured ‘the presence of nature’. He had rejected the classical conventions of Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting, but, by 1971, he returned to the brush-and-ink technique in which he was trained in China, with work that reflected its sources in Chinese traditions. Zao explained in a 1962 interview with the French magazine Preuves, ‘Although the influence of Paris is undeniable in all my training as an artist, I also wish to say that I have gradually rediscovered China.’ He added, ‘Paradoxically, perhaps, it is to Paris that I owe this return to my deepest origins.’

 

 

Zao was a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and was considered to have been one of the most successful Chinese painters during his lifetime. He died in 2013.

 

The temple of the Han

Exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris.

Urban Riders

There’s a unique exhibition on at the moment at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris: it’s called ‘Urban Riders’, and it’s the work of Franco-Algerian artist Mohamed Bourouissa.

 

 

This is Bourouissa’s first solo exhibition in a French museum, although he has caught the critics’ eye many times before. In fact Bourouissa, who was born in Blida in 1979, is considered by many to be one of the major figures of his generation.

This particular project, which revolves around his film called ‘Horse Day’, was born when he became interested in the Fletcher Street community stables – based in the disadvantaged North Philadelphia neighbourhood of Strawberry Mansion – which he discovered thanks to the images of American photographer Martha Camarillo. Founded by African-American horsemen, the stables are a place of healing and support for local children and young adults and a refuge for abandoned horses (or horses destined for slaughter). Bourouissa addresses daily life at the stables, together with the myth and history of black cowboys and the conquest of wide open spaces, without, however, taking a documentary approach.

 

 

During an eight-month residency, he worked at making contact and sharing with the local community. As a result, the film offers a powerful account of an urban utopia.

 

 

For what Bourouissa called a  ‘horse tuning’, riders teamed up with local artists to ‘customize’ their equine vehicles, lavishly outfitting them for a festive riding competition that serves as the climax to Horse Day.  Below see some excerpts of the film (if the videos appear to be on their sides, just click on them, and for some mysterious reason they will right themselves).

 

 

 

Apart from the film, the exhibition presents many different items: on-the-spot sketches, preliminary drawings, storyboard, collages, ink roughs and watercolours which fill out the project’s origins and development; portraits of riders and of costumed horses and the actual costumes used on the day, as well as sculptural installations where images from the film are printed onto sections of car bodies.

 

 

Along with the seductive combination of horses and art, I do believe in the therapeutic effect of horses on the soul. So, after the exhibition, I was inspired to look up the site of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a place where local children (some from difficult backgrounds) can go to feel safe, empowered and free, even for a short while.

This is part of what’s on their page:

In the heart of downtown Philadelphia, among abandoned buildings and impoverishes neighborhoods where drugs and unemployment pervade, is a place called Fletcher Street. A block that upon first glance looks just like all the others, that is, until you see the horses and hear their hoof beats.

Horses? In the middle of the ghetto? Surprisingly, yes. They have been here for years, when the African American community thrived in Philadelphia, before drugs and unemployment steadily encompassed healthy neighborhoods and they disintegrated into urban war zones.

Despite it all, the horses have stayed, and they have because of the small, passionate, dedicated group of men determined to reclaim their neighborhood and their children. In this fight, they use the one thing that they know, love and trust, the horses.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the non-profit organization. In 2008, clashes with animal-protection agencies led the city government (many say wrongly) to demolish the buildings that served as stables and a clubhouse on a patch of land called Fletcher Field. Despite this, the initiative survived thanks to the dedication of the horse enthusiasts. See it explained in the video below:

 

 

There is a similar setup of urban riding in Dublin, Ireland, I believe. There is fantastic work being done with horses and autistic kids, there is Riding for the Disabled, and there is a program for lifers working with mustangs in a prison in Nevada (and elsewhere, I think). All of this has to do with the restorative powers of nature and animals.

 

 

For any of you near Paris, the exhibition is on until April 22. Information about it here.