Nie Zhengjie depicts the life of Chinese migrant workers in his exhibition in Manchester.
The Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester is holding Chinese artist Nie Zhengjie’s first solo exhibition in the UK. The artist portrays the life of migrant workers in the city of Chongqing, presenting one of the most dramatic realities of modern China.
Through his oeuvre, Nie provides a glimpse into the lives of migrant workers. Not fully considered citizens of the cities they inhabit, this section of the Chinese urban population is often ‘undetected’, marginalised or forgotten.
The artist explores the notion of migrant workers as a vital force that helps drive the rapid urbanisation and modernisation process of China’s cities. Nie’s works portray the comings and goings of this portion of the populace in his adopted city of Chongqing, shedding light on the plight of their everyday lives overshadowed by the ever-growing urban society.
The life of a migrant
Urbanisation has, especially during the last decade, been the cause of a mass exodus from the poorest and remotest regions of the country to its large metros. Statistics place numbers at more than 260 million migrants in 2014, not counting those that go undetected due to the household registration system.
Moving from the countryside to cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing, among others, in search of work and a better life, migrants instead encounter a bleak, unstable and harsh reality. More often than not, they have no legal permit to be in cities, and are officially ‘invisible’. At times, they are forced to sleep in construction sites, factories or humble abodes with at least ten others. It is this reality that the artist seeks to portray.
Many migrants are willing to do any type work to get a meagre salary, as depicted in Nie Zhengjie’s Metal Scrap Collector (2014) and eat poorly, as portrayed in Sweet Potato (2014). In some occasions, they may be able to afford a nice meal, as seen in Lunch (2014).
Despite being seen as a nuisance, or at other times, non-existent, China would not be able to progress without these migrant workers. Nie Zhengjie’s paintings are a reminder of this reality that China faces in its race towards modernity. Nie’s oeuvre reveals the artist’s commitment to recognise, and in part celebrate, the importance and existence of this large section of the population and its sacrifices.
Who Controls (2014) symbolically represents the chaotic impact of urbanisation in China today. The title of the painting is inspired by Chairman Mao’s famous poem Changsha (1925), which asks who really decides the rhythm of everyday life, and what is to come.
More about the artist
Nie was born in 1982 in Yunnan province and graduated in 2006 from the Oil Painting Department of the Chongqing University. He currently lives and teaches in Chongqing. This year, Nie was invited to CFCCA as an artist-in-residence from 1 June to 31 July 2014.
Nie was the 2012 winner of the John Moores Painting Prize China, the best-known painting competition in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1957, the prize was launched in China in 2010 as a collaboration between the John Moores Foundation and the Shanghai University of Fine Arts College. Nie won the award for his painting Being, which illustrated the personal narratives of labour migrants in China.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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