Xinjiang artist Aniwar Mamat: Silk Road Traditions As “Canvas” for Geometric Abstraction – interview

Aniwar Mamat speaks about his practice of tapestry painting.

Art Radar sat down with Chinese contemporary artist Aniwar Mamat in his studio on the outskirts of Beijing on the occasion of his first solo show Sunlight Reflects at Pékin Fine Arts’ Hong Kong space from where the artist had recently returned.

Aniwar Mamat, "Sunlight Reflects", 24 September - 12 November 2016, Pékin Fine Arts Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, “Sunlight Reflects”, 24 September – 12 November 2016, Pékin Fine Arts Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

“Sunlight Reflects” shows the artist’s latest foray into “tapestry painting” executed on lamb’s wool felt. Lamb’s wool felt is not woven but made of boiled wool that is compressed. The artist started experimenting with this kind of felt in 2009 in an installation work for the group exhibition “Music to My Eyes” at Today Art Museum. Works in the Hong Kong show combine century old Uyghur felt wool production techniques with the modern language of geometric abstraction for which Aniwar is well known. The works in this show have also been exhibited in several venues in the mainland such as at OCAT Xi’an, as well as at the 56th Venice Biennale and in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

In a conversation with Art Radar in December 2016, Director of Pékin Fine Arts Beijing & Hong Kong Meg Maggio said:

Aniwar is a process artist, […] they are used to working off a pattern or composition and then they render the tapestry in the medium. His is a process, as he is composing the work during the process of conversation and interaction with the craftsmen. For him it is process oriented, it happens at that moment as he sees the work unfold. He is composing the work in that moment. […] It is during his interaction with the materials and the colours at hand that will dictate how the work unfolds. That is a very different way to work from what they are used to.

Aniwar Mamat (b. 1962, Kashgar) is committed to the language of abstract art and has been pursuing it from the beginning of his career and through periods of China’s contemporary art when only figurative art, usually politically motivated, was the norm. Within his chosen artistic language he continues to innovate and explore. From 1988 – 2007 he was a professor at the Central School of Arts and Design in Beijing. The artist believes that

an openness to learning is a very important state to be in as a human being. Learning is not just about acquiring knowledge but about learning together.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Green’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 180 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Green’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 180 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Wool felt is still produced in the artist’s native province of Xinjiang, in the northwestern part of China. Here in remote villages, artisanal craftsmen use a labour-intensive process of rolled felt to which the artist introduces his minimalist, geometric abstractions. The same long rectangular brush marks that are so characteristic of his paintings re-appear here: Aniwar carefully arranges strips of coloured wool felt on top of the felt “canvases” in a process reminiscent of a dance.

Although written in 2011 with regards to Mamat’s paintings, curator, critic and director of OCAT Xi’an Karen Smith’s description still holds true to his work on wool, as

a pictorial alchemy driven by a passion for a pure, essential form of visual expression, and how these elements and interactions communicate an emotional journey. Aniwar’s paintings appeal to the senses, to the poetry in the soul […]

Artist Aniwar Mamat in his Beijing Studio, 6 December 2016. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

Artist Aniwar Mamat in his Beijing Studio, 6 December 2016. Image courtesy Nooshfar Afnan.

You have a multi-faceted artistic output ranging from oil painting and drawing to installation and photography and now “tapestry painting” design on lamb’s wool felt. How and when did your interest to work in this medium begin?

Lambs wool is also a material, a medium. I just look for new materials in order to explore them visually. My interest to work with lamb’s wool started probably in the 1980s because I briefly worked in a carpet workshop.

In the short documentary you made while creating these new artworks, we see you working alongside local Uyghur craftsmen in a village in Xinjiang while they produce the felt. What was that experience like?

From my point of view working in a village in Xinjiang is partly due to my interest in felt rugs and my desire to cooperate with the wool felt craftsmen. It’s not a matter of finding a competent craftsman and just simply telling them what to do. I want to explore my interest in working with wool and at the same time, I want to have a dialogue with those master craftsmen. I hope to communicate my own feelings about wool and combine it with my visual language of painting.

On the one hand, they look at me and at the same time I watch while they make the felt. The skill of working with wool preserves some historical design and art concepts that they cannot describe but which can be understood through their production process.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘White Drift’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 210 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘White Drift’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 210 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

In fact, this represents for me a kind of creative freedom combined with a folk production process that is kept secret. Without letting the craftsmen prepare in the least, I let them understand my feelings. Concurrently, they convey their understanding of the abstract. I do not discuss with them abstraction, but I hope that through their eyes, through their sense of composition they understand what I am making. At the same time, I also reflect upon how they respond to my work.

For us urban dwellers, and now in the academic systems of the universities, abstract art is recognised. All along the concept of abstract art has been taught. But when I go to the country and work with the skilled craftsmen I want to understand how they respond to the language of abstraction without having received any education in this area. How do they instinctively react to abstraction? And when they read my work, can they “enter” it? For example, I am the product of a training system for artists. [In contrast], they freely pass down some of the family’s knowledge from generation to generation. It is in situations where we collide that I want to understand issues with regards to materials, colours and composition. I see their love for this tradition of wool felt tapestry, and I as an outsider try to understand their love and this is a good starting point for our conversation.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Four Dimensional Traces of Breath’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 200 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Four Dimensional Traces of Breath’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 200 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

What were some of the challenges of this cooperative project? What did you learn from them that you particularly value?

The concept of difficulties arises because we have a preconceived idea of how things should be. So when we want to turn that idea into reality we come across difficulties. But because my approach to art-making does not have an expected outcome, I just put myself into that environment. I accept, I learn. I believe that an openness to learning is a very important state to be in as a human being. Learning is not just about acquiring knowledge but about learning together. And then you will experience a great response.

So in general, we have a concept clearly in mind when we communicate it to others. It is easy to reject a lot of things. But if we adopt a very open attitude, with anyone, no matter if you speak the same language or not, or what your cultural background is, you just need to experience it together. You can adjust yourself. You will continuously open up. On the whole, you will not encounter any difficulties because all the difficulties come from yourself.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Abundant Color’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 125 x 206 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Abundant Color’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 125 x 206 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

What did you learn from the local craftspeople that you particularly value?

Their starting point is aesthetics. All their techniques, all their concepts are in order to achieve greater beauty. In the course of the production process in order to achieve what they deem as beautiful, they will experiment with a lot of different technical issues. They will not sacrifice beauty because of technical issues. Their working attitude stems from a search for beauty. They do not worry about how long it takes. They are only concerned with achieving beauty. This is very different from the artists in the city who are always working under time pressure. We have too many ideologies whereas their starting point for understanding a work of art is aesthetic, the materials used, the composition. They have a feeling for creating space in these wall hangings. But this is exactly where I can or what I want to have an exchange about. My understanding of space and their understanding of space, there are no boundaries.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘The Persistence of Blue’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 190 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘The Persistence of Blue’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 190 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Do you think there is a space for such slowly produced, labour intensive crafts today? Do you think that they will survive our current fast paced industrial world, which favours mass production and machine-made goods?

This is indeed a big challenge that they are facing right now and they are aware of. They have almost been eliminated. One problem is the current circumstances in China, the so-called urbanisation. In fact, people’s standards for quality is overall very low. They have started to prefer plastics and synthetic fibres and use a lot of manufactured products. Because they think it is more even or neat. […] This is the trouble with handicrafts, with traditionally produced arts and crafts problems arise. Will handicrafts be totally eliminated? So now, before I went, very few people were engaged in producing [felt wood products]. But after I went, it allowed some of them to go back into their workshops and start producing again.

What is the traditional use of wool felt?

They are placed on the wall for decoration, or laid on the bed and often used as gifts such as for weddings.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘The Breath of Warm Colors’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 210 x 190 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘The Breath of Warm Colors’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 210 x 190 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Tell us about the particular colours that you use. What has influenced the vivid colours and hues in your tapestries?

I choose the colours in my paintings and am in a constant state of adjusting them because when I start off I do not know what colour I want to use. So with the same state of mind, when I embark on making the wool felt tapestries I figured out what kinds of colours the craftsmen traditionally used and so I used those seven traditional colours in my work and adjusted my attitude rather than the colours […]. What I am learning is that I can adjust myself, I do not want to expect that from the craftsmen.

How are these colour strips dyed, with natural or artificial dyes?

I used different master dyers who make colours. Throughout Xinjiang, dyeing colours is considered a very important craft. Each master dyer has their own unique shade. Locals can recognise from the shade of the colours that it was made by such and such a master dyer.

Once I found out how the dye is made, I saw a potentially huge technical problem: a master dyer who would dye the wool felt at night, in the dark, without looking! Later I found out that this is called “blind dyeing”. In Xinjiang, dyeing is kept a secret because they are afraid someone will copy their unique dye recipe. For them, the colour is a very important family tradition [that is passed down]. This time I saw a master dyer who only started to work once it had become dark. I could not believe that he would be able to dye in this way. Because we need to have light in order to colour but they just do dyeing in the dark. They do not need light. And right next to them people are drinking tea and chatting with each other. In a very calm state, the master dyer adds dye to the wool. The next day I went back and it was exactly the colour I wanted, no problem.

I don’t think such a thing as “blind dyeing” exists anywhere else in the world where dyeing takes place at night, in the dark. This blind dyeing still exists but I have a feeling that soon it will disappear. […] Every day the colour comes out exactly the same shade! Because they make carpets or blankets the colour needs to stay consistent.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘The Birth of Light’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 200 x 139 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘The Birth of Light’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 200 x 139 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Some of the colours in your works are very vivid. How do you get this hot pink for example?

They use both mineral and plant-derived dyes. Some flowers, pomegranates and certain kinds of tree bark can create a pink colour. I have seen some mineral colours that don’t look pink but when mixed together they turn out pink.

I am intrigued by the title of your works Traces of Breath From Rome (1) or Color Movement From Rome to Kashgar. Tell us about these pieces.

Generally, I do not give titles to my works, but some works have a relationship to certain of my moods and impressions that I experienced as well as recollections, so I gave it that title. I want to borrow a concept for example from literature, to give it a new space. […] It is because I went to Rome that I experienced a new vision of space and when I am in Xinjiang I have some feelings that are very similar. So I use Rome and Kashgar and sometimes I use Beijing as the concept for a city. […] A variety of knowledge can give the audience more information to understand the mood and the space. I hope that my titles can give them some information beside the visual.

I hope that everyone will independently open their eyes and experience the artwork in its broadest sense, very personal, without any preconceived notions and academic constraints. When you look at a work of art, it should open up a whole new world to you based on your own experiences. There should be no preconceived notions as to how to interact with a work of art. When you are in front of a work of art, you will not just use one kind of knowledge or one kind of simple concept to understand it.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Traces of Breath From Rome (1)’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 205 x 360 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Traces of Breath From Rome (1)’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 205 x 360 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

What would you say are the things that most deeply influenced your art making?

Of course, the first impression comes from your knowledge of painting received through academic education. But as an independent artist, I began to understand my own [visual] language. And then when I face art, I feel that we have to let go of all our previous knowledge and education. When you want to abandon all your previous education, practically speaking you put yourself in a very empty state. This state of emptiness makes a lot of people very nervous but at the same time, it allows you to become very free because in the course of my painting I always want to remove myself, remove my knowledge and transform my skills into a kind of response. And it is not just all completely thought-out things.

Are there any unfinished projects that you hope to realise in the near future?

Of course with regards to my work, I am always on the look out for a material that suits the expression of my visual language and it is not always a so-called art material. I want to find a kind of material that will let me work with the visual space that I understand, which can make it even more natural to express my visual language.

I always want to break boundaries in my work. These boundaries always restrict me. They limit the understanding of each one of us. But perhaps we can transcend our understanding of a certain material. For example, we see ordinary glass as performing a specific function but in fact it can also act as a lens, or a camera lens […]. In this way, the concept of glass can break many boundaries. I think a true creation is to evoke feelings and in turn to be emotionally affected by a creation. If I don’t make an effort to understand emotions and do not express those feelings, then it is impossible for the audience to feel those feelings or experience their own feelings. I want to make my work easier to understand, more direct, […] to feel, rather than use knowledge to understand.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Color Movement From Rome to Kashgar’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 190 x 360 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Aniwar Mamat, ‘Color Movement From Rome to Kashgar’, 2015, lamb’s wool felt, 190 x 360 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Pékin Fine Arts.

Do you have any upcoming shows? What project are you embarking on next?

I do not have any plans at the moment. If there is an opportunity, I will do another exhibition. But these are not things I concern myself with. I do not work in order to have an exhibition. I need peace and quiet while waiting for emotions to arise. Then, I put those emotions into the work and let others feel them too. Therefore all the plans are in the hands of others.

Nooshfar Afnan

1565

Related Topics: Chinese, gallery shows, abstract art, textiles, Hong Kong events

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