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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Not Just for Art's Sake: Race, Culture, and Production in 20th Century Sino-Afro Exchanges
4: “We Are the World”: The Politics of Skin Colors Around Contemporary Chinese Painting
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Yale University, United States
Possibly due to its roots in tradition and overt craftsmanship, “figure painting in meticulous style” (gongbi renwu hua) is one of the least studied topics in contemporary Chinese art. Scholars have yet to recognize how it bespeaks China’s interests on the global stage, a pressing subject given the increasingly tense state of US-China relations since 2016. Addressing this gap in the field, this paper focuses on Hello, Beijing! (2009), a painting in the abovementioned genre by the celebrated painter Wang Guanjun (b. 1976). Inspired by the open-hearted spirit of the legendary song “We Are the World,” the painting features young Chinese men accompanying brown and white foreigners as they explore Chinese culture in an alleyway typical of old Beijing. This paper first analyzes how the painting embodies the spirit of the song by connecting it to the craze around Michael Jackson (1958-2009) in China. Using the song as a central thread, this paper then explores Wang’s oeuvre, revealing his focuses on nationality, Taiwanese and American songs as sources of inspiration, and the acculturation of China and Euro-America. Finally, this paper examines the meaning of Hello, Beijing!, together with other paintings that represent foreigners, in the blockbuster 2019 exhibition celebrating the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s founding. From the oil paintings showcased in this exhibition, which represents China’s investments in Africa, to Wang’s meticulous paintings of foreigners mingling with Chinese men, the spirit of “We Are the World” reflects both a distinct aspect of contemporary Chinese art and China’s twenty-first-century ambitions.