As China has globalised, it’s artists and their works have also found new markets. International buyers account for about 90 per cent of the current interest in mainland-Chinese art which, according to the Cultural Ministry, is worth about $US36 billion a year. In the past an artist may have sold their art for a few thousand dollars, now their art can fetch millions. Figurative painter, Liu Xiaodong, as just one example, recently sold one of his paintings for $US2.75 million.
Maleonn Ma is a Shanghai based, visual arts photographer, whose work has been published in books, shown in exhibitions and been nominated for prizes all around the world. The birth name given to him by his parents was taken from a famous household Chinese fable, about a boy with a paintbrush named “Maleonn”. He shoots strange, surreal moments best described as a recreation of the wonderland that is China’s history.
According to Maleonn, “Shanghai and Beijing are the two big markets for art in China. Sales are good in all of the galleries here and in the galleries overseas. Now Chinese artists have more chances to go to other countries than before. This year, I have already had six exhibitions in six different countries.
“I am now a professional artist. I used to do commercial artwork but now we can survive from our sales. Mostly foreigners are buying and collecting our work. But in the past two or three years, Chinese collectors have begun to buy as well.”
The government is also giving a hand up to these emerging artists. According to Maleonn’s manager, Florence, the artists’ warehouse where Maleonn works “was an opium house before it was liberated. Now it’s owned by the government and rented out as a non-profit space and as private studios for the artists to work from.”
“There are 42 artists living inside this building,” Maleonn says modestly. Liu Jian, Zhang Ping, Tan Genxiong, Guo Yashan are just some of the established artists that work here. Maleonn shows me around the warehouse, but says, “Most of the artists sleep during the day and come out at night to work.
“The Shanghai art scene is very different to Beijing. While a lot of the great artists live in Beijing, Shanghai is more fashionable and more modern. Nobody used to think about the Shanghai art scene. But it’s changing.”
Maleonn believes that China’s artists will flourish as they become more liberated and successful. “I think Chinese art is going to get better and become even more popular. Before our country was very poor, we couldn’t do art just for art’s sake. Now we can.
“China lost a lot of its art during the Cultural Revolution. I want to find that spirit and bring it back.”
Looking at Maleonn’s work, and that of the other artists, the recurring theme is one of the Cultural Revolution’s past, mixed in with today’s New China: 1940s costumes and props from this period, for example, feature heavily in much of Maleonn’s oeuvre.
As business opportunites flooded in after Deng’s reforms, the opportunites for Chinese artists, such as Maleonn, to study foreign works reshaped the art scene.
“I loved people like Andy Warhol; he made a revolution in the art world. The Internet is very important for us. We can see international artists there.
“A lot of young Chinese are studying Art now and there are a lot of new schools opening up, students also want to learn design. Now with a digital camera it makes things easier.”
Maleonn also explains that the burgeoning number of artists are inspiring increasing numbers of young Chinese artists and teachers. “There are very important art-circles developing. Chongqing has a very good art-school, as does the rest of Sichuan.
“Now we have a lot of chances,” Maleonn says with a grin.
Hugh Bohane is a freelance photojournalist living in Shanghai.