From Mao to Moses
A teenager at the launch of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese artist He Qi (pronounced huh chee) is fast gaining world recognition for his paintings, which are almost exclusively depictions of biblical events.
The witty, reverent paintings are full of the symbolism of Beijing Opera, medieval-style hidden messages, and modernist plays on perspective and time. And He is introducing a new idiom for biblical art, one influenced by, but not part of, the European traditions. His website says, "He hopes to help change the 'foreign image' of Christianity in China by using artistic language, and at the same time, to supplement Chinese art the way Buddhist art did in ancient times."
He's work is gaining more and more attention in the West. He has exhibited in the U.S., the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong, as well as in mainland China. In 2006, Overseas Ministry Study Center collected his work in Look Toward the Heavens, and he is now working on an ambitious project: an illustrated Bible. It's an unlikely project for the son of a non-Christian mathematics professor.
"It's a long story," He begins. His father's university in Nanjing was shut down during the Cultural Revolution of 1966. As a teenager, He was sent by the Communist Party to a communal farm to undo the un-Communist effects of city life and his parents' intellectualism.
"The physical labor was very hard, very, very hard." He Qi said. "But I was a clever boy. I was looking for something to let me avoid such very hard farm work."
He saw an opportunity in the party's desire to make Mao Zedong's image ubiquitous. "In the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, people worshiped Chairman Mao. Even in the countryside, in the fields, they asked artists to paint portraits [of Mao]. Then there was a competition in the place where I was working there in the people's commune in a province in very poor countryside," He said. The winner would paint an official Mao portrait.
He needed help, so he turned to his neighbor, the dean of fine art at Nanjing Normal University. The man taught him the basics of sketching and oil painting, and sent him off to the farm with some old art magazines.
Raphael's Madonna and Child was the cover of one of the magazines. "She was holding baby Jesus in a chair. It really touched my heart," said He Qi. It was the first Christian image He remembers seeing, and it conveyed a peace he still considers the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity.
"During the Cultural Revolution in every corner in China, every minute people were fighting. Everything was revolutionary. Horrible. It was very difficult to find a peaceful message. So, in the daytime I painted Chairman Mao; in the evening I painted Madonna," he said.
He won the Mao portrait contest a ticket from fieldwork to a career in art.
The Cultural Revolution effectively forced churches to go underground. "If you came from a Christian family, your parents could be linked with Western missionaries, linked with imperialism," He said.
But for someone without family connections to a church, the risks and secrecy made it difficult to get connected to a Christian community. He remembers going to St. Paul's, a large Catholic church in Nanjing. "I was standing outside and looking through the windows. It looked like a factory," he said. The church had been filled with machines.
Since then, He Qi's art and faith have taken him in widening circles from Nanjing, and his portraits of Mao are long gone, destroyed amid China's rapid development.