She Is A Xu

Xu is pronounced as she. Although my Ma’s anglicised surname is Chee, she’s actually a Xu. Xu means slowly and gently, like the flow of a stream. Last Sunday, my Ma gave me two old paintings she bought in the early 80’s. I love them! They are works that exude a strong sense of distinguished provenance. Unforgivably, I asked myself if they were replicas, so fine these paintings are. Big Sis suggested they may be – after all, aren’t all our parents’ collections replicas? It would not surprise us if they were copied by wannabe artists. That’s not fair – I should not call them wannabes. Many of them are fantastic artists in their own right. They just did not or have not found fame. Being an illiterate in the Chinese language, I asked Big Sis to google the names of the two artists in Chinese characters. She came up with nothing on both of them. Yes, I quickly concluded that if Google cannot find them, then they must be unknown. Days later, I would correct myself to conclude that if Google cannot find them, then they must be unknown to Google. When I got home, I excitedly told The Mrs about the two paintings that have now come into my possession. Strangely, though a lover of art herself, and an aspiring professional artist for her next life, she casually dismissed them as replicas or at best, genuine uninteresting paintings by distant relatives in China. The walls of our house are occupied mostly by my parents’ proud collections of such artefacts – replicas and “good” creations by unknown artists. The Mrs, after decades as a joint custodian of these items, has begun to feel disdain for them. To pacify her, earlier this year I removed three paintings that Ma loves, from their prime location in the family room. That expanse of wall space is entirely for The Mrs to display her own creative works. It is still a bare wall – I guess she cannot decide which paintings of hers to hang up. Being fully aware that as collectors of antiquities and art, we are merely expected to act as temporary keepers of such items and will never really own them; yet there is the side of me that wishes my parents’ collections hopefully will pass down the generations for posterity. It isn’t about how much or how little they are worth, but it’s the evidence of their support for culture despite the lack of opportunities during their childhood. That is the greatness of music and art. They give a sense of history and reveal a journey through time and space. Those really great ones will outlast all of us – we would be mere specks of dust if placed next to them in the next millennium. And how do we treat dust? With scorn! It is my usual weekend task to wipe them off my dust collectors aka collectibles or fake antiques. Whilst in the history of art many paintings have been prized as great works, there will be a great many more that will be consigned to junk status suitable for garage sales or curious items in flea markets. There will be no story like that of a Fabergé egg in my garage sale. In my lifetime, I have a personal collection of eight artworks – the most recent one is by the renowned South Australian painter, John McCartin, whose depiction of gum trees and the Aussie outback is a fine example of what realism or naturalism is in the art world. Prior to that, I acquired one piece by an unknown Chinese painter whose work I simply voted with my wallet and brought it home from a Ningbo gallery. It is mostly dabs of black paint depicting humble cottages with some tiny splashes of colour. It is the two distant small fishing boats that tell me their story. Prior to that, during my first visit to China in 2007 to find my roots after Pa passed away, I collected a four-piece work depicting the four seasons in Pa’s hometown, Shaoxing. Aside from their emotional value to me, they would be worthwhile items of curiosity in any garage sale but with little intrinsic value. My first two acquisitions are items of controversy. I channeled some money from my self-managed superannuation fund to invest in Aboriginal paintings. My tax accountant advised me to reverse the transactions citing Tax Office rulings about the fiscal irresponsibility of investments in the controversy-riddled Aboriginal art world. In other words, the Tax Office would frown on a novice’s foolishness to invest in the serious business of art. The other more pressing controversy at the time was the doubt about their authenticity. I filed the certificates of authenticity so carefully that I can no longer find them today. The painting of a Barramundi bone still attracts me – a fine work by Margaret Chatfield Henry. I hope she is a real Aboriginal artist and not a made up name given by the gallery in Cairns. The most prized piece I acquired is the one attributed to Michael Nelson Jagamara. It is now in No. 2 Son’s home in London. I hope it was not mistakenly or negligently attributed to the late Mr MN Jagamara. His famous mosaic of an ancient Western Desert Dreaming is the first artwork you will encounter on your visit to Australia’s Parliament.

Supposedly by Michael Nelson Jagamara
John McCartin’s Gumtree

Once upon a time, I collected three pieces of paintings by a Malaysian artist. She’s a sister of The Mrs, and so I wrongly assumed I could purchase them on a trial basis for a period of maybe a few months without actually parting with my money. The few months became a few years, that is so typical of how events happen in our busy lives! One day I returned home to a bare wall. She had retrieved her paintings without my permission. Those paintings had names given by me. I wonder if they have assumed different names today. I can understand why she “confiscated” them. The artist would also “feel” the painting is forever hers. Her creations, after all. When a painting is sold, undoubtedly the artist will feel a strong sense of satisfaction. When one’s work is endorsed by a substantial payment, especially. But, it is equally true that the artist need not have another person’s nod to feel a sense of accomplishment. I wonder if an artist feels any trepidation that their crowning achievement will not pass the test of time. Will the painting, although sold to one collector, be resold or gifted to the next collector? Will the chain of collectors be broken, and if so, how soon? Would they wonder about the ultimate fate of their work? The Mrs also paints, albeit without the harsh discipline of daily toil. The Mrs likes to paint every single detail of the subject matter whereas her sister’s style dwells in Impressionism.

Madam Xu with a painting of her and her husband by The Mrs. Michael Perry Reserve In Autumn

My parents amaze me. They had very limited school education due to abject childhood poverty yet from those humble and deprived beginnings, they developed into two people with an appreciation for the arts. It is one thing to appreciate art but to take the next step and part with one’s hard earned money to collect them? Why? How did they embark on such a wonderful journey? Very very few of their peers collected art, especially in Malaysia. They had a big collection, mostly stored in a big luggage bag. I grew up admiring one particular painting of a group of children pushing a monk in a cloth bag that looked like a cloud. In my mind, it depicted a laughing buddha with whom the children had a close affinity. The monk sits on a cloth bag, happy and contented. He’s able to deflect criticism and doesn’t need to even forgive since he is not injured in the first place. It taught me about contentment and peace as the way to happiness. Pa received the “Budai Monk” (budai or cloth bag) painting as a gift following a donation to the school building fund after my brother graduated from Phor Tay Primary School as one of the top students. I suppose that is what art does. It communicates with us. It tells us a story and it does not matter if the story is totally off tangent from the artist’s intentions. I think good art reaches our soul. The act of buying a piece of art perhaps is the act of supporting and encouraging the artist to continue his journey of story-telling. For sure, the idea that it may be a worthwhile investment may have also featured in my parents’ minds. Who would not scream if they had collected Edvard Munch’s The Scream? It must be valued at over $120 million today? Feel like owning da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi? You’d need a spare $500 million. And then there are those that are priceless, such as Mona Lisa by the same artist. I was surprised to see how small the painting was, hanging in the Louvre. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, luxuriating in her smile. Imagine that, Mona Lisa smiling at me. The usual throng of people was not there that morning – they allowed me the privilege of admiring the lady at close proximity for a good ten minutes. I was sure I left the building with that same smile of hers. I remember leaving the Metropolitan Art Museum on my second visit there wondering when Chinese paintings will reach such dizzying heights in auction prices. Even now the most expensive Chinese painting is a fraction of the value of Western art. Perhaps it will take the next wave of Chinese billionaires to restore Chinese art to its zenith. But I digress. Art should be appreciated more for the story telling than for the story about art being a store of value. My walls are covered with paintings and why not? Although it is not wise to expose them to UV light, that is the price we pay to enjoy them in full view. The two paintings my Ma gave me last Sunday never saw the light of day, secretly locked away in a luggage bag, never appreciated by any of us until now. Undoubtedly they were appreciated by her in her heart. Fair enough. A personal collection means precisely that, I suppose.

Xu Beihong 徐悲鴻, a revered artist of the early 20th century whose Chinese ink paintings or shui mu hua of horses made him famous. Bei means sad, and Hong is a species of wild swan. A sad wild swan, an unusual name but a remarkable talent. When I was a child, I followed Pa to his twice weekly mahjong sessions with his mates in San Kiang Association on McAlister Lane in Penang. So, I grew up with Xu Beihong’s horse paintings. There were at least two. One was a massive painting of a most majestic horse and the other was an even bigger painting of a group of four or five horses. I did not exaggerate if I told anyone I could hear those horses galloping and snorting. They were proud and strong horses. “He created his horses mainly during the War of Resistance against Japan and put all of his emotions into his paintings,” his son Xu Qingping said. Xu Beihong held solo exhibitions in Singapore and Penang to raise funds for the war effort. He stayed in one of the rooms in the San Kiang building during his time in Penang. San Kiang is a club formed in 1897 for the expatriates from the three provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi. Pa was their secretary for a number of years in the 60’s and 70’s. Decades later, I was traumatised to learn that the paintings of the horses were water damaged and destroyed, sold for a pittance to one very astute buyer.

Xu Feng 徐风 (1900-1988) was a favourite student of Xu Beihong. The Wuxi Museum is currently celebrating the 120th anniversary of their hometown celebrity. 徐风 means a gentle breeze. One of the two paintings gifted from my Ma is by Xu Feng. It is an incredibly fine piece of artwork about the story Hongloumeng or Dream of the Red Chamber. The novel has long been considered one of China’s four great literary works – it is no wonder my Ma has a strong affinity to this painting. “This painting is about Hongloumeng!” was how she introduced me to her collection.

Xu Feng’s Hongluomeng, a gift from Ma.
A 1985 Thankyou letter to Pa from Ren YuNong, a recognised calligrapher

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