A Different China on View for the New Year

One of Mu Yunbai’s sketches shows a man whose upper body disappears behind the exposed beams of a house under construction that he seems to be carrying. Below him is another completed Chinese traditional house.

The artist, who belongs to China’s ethnic minority Naxi, says that he grew up on a farm near Lijiang town in the Naxi auton­omous county of Lijiang in the southern Yunnan province.

This used to be a rural area, but after the 800-year-old “Old Town of Lijiang” was put on the World Heritage List in 1997, the previously quiet countryside filled with tourists and the Naxi were either bought out or simply moved out of town.

Today, Mu Yunbai said, “all Naxi people dream of living in great wooden homes [as found in town]. Most of their lives are spent trying to build big houses for themselves,” he said.

Mu Yunbai’s drawings are part of an exhibition at Meta House in Phnom Penh titled “Another China” organized in part to mark the Chinese New Year on Sunday.

According to Lydia Parusol, art manager for Meta House, one goal of the exhibition is “to show a different China, a China that has more to do with the countryside, not so much Beijing or Hong Kong.”

The exhibition includes pieces about the Naxi area done by Chinese, Cambodian, Asian and Western artists who have worked at Lijiang Studio near Lijiang.

Opened four years ago with private funding from US individuals who support the arts, the Lijiang studio provides Chinese and other artists with space to experiment, director Jay Brown said, and puts artists in touch with the local Naxi community.

Cambodian artist Oeur So­kun­tevy, who just spent a month at Lijiang, drew for the exhibition an elderly Naxi couple holding hands and sitting in front of their traditional-style home. It was a couple she saw every day during her stay in China, she said.

With support from the Goethe Institute Jakarta, Meta House has invited for one month Chinese and Bangladeshi artists—whose works are exhibited—so they could meet Cambodian artists, Parusol said.

“It’s a meeting of people from the same Asian continent sitting to­gether and discussing their ap­proaches,” which might be different from those of Westerners, she said. “Maybe they speak the same ‘language,’” she added.

During their stay, the visiting artists are also doing personal projects, such as Oviek Sarwar, a news photographer from Bangladesh, who is documenting the life of squatter residents at “The Build­ing” in Phnom Penh.

Li Lisha, a Chinese artist who has been working for two years at Lijiang Studio, said she found a common trait among the artists. “They all have a dream….They really focus on what they want to do, and they spend their lives on it,” she said.

For Bangladeshi photographer Joybrata Sarker, this means taking photos of people living at heritage or historical sites whose lifestyles and culture are “endangered” due to development, he said.

He has photographed a Hindu community living in 18th-century homes of Mogul architecture in Bangladesh; the Naxi who now mainly live outside Lijiang; and he now plans to take on a similar project in Cambodia, he said.

“Another China” runs through the end of the month.



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