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Creative freedom

December 7, 2010

Berlin has long been a magnet for international artists but in recent years a growing number of artists from China are making it their new home, combining Western European influences with traditional Chinese imagery.

Artwork by Berlin-based Chinese artist Duan Yafeng
Artist Duan Yafeng specialises in brightly-colored collagesImage: T. Wood

The 2006 sale of Xu Beihong's work "Slave and Lion" set a new world record; sold for $6.9 million (5 million euros), it was the most expensive piece of Chinese art and started a wave of popularity surrounding art of Chinese origin.

As Xu died in 1953, he is not profiting from his fame. The next generation of Chinese artists is, however, and many of them have discovered Berlin as an increasingly attractive hot spot for art students.

One of those is Duan Yafeng, who has lived in Germany's capital for a year. After studying Chinese art in Beijing, she relocated to Germany where she enrolled in the liberal arts program at legendary design school Bauhaus.

"I think every artist has to come here at some time or another," she said, "We have so many more opportunities here than anywhere else, so many galleries and so many people who are making some really fantastic works."

Xu Beihong's work "Slave and Lion"
Xu Beihong's "Slave and Lion" sold for a record-setting $6.9 million in a 2006 auctionImage: AP

Duan is extremely animated when talking about the creative possibilities afforded her from Bauhaus; an all-encompassing alternative arts course, it's a world away from the education she received in Beijing.

"I studied Chinese art, but something was missing," she said, "At Bauhaus we learn about how museums work, what kind of exhibitions you can present, how you can use performance in your work - so many different aspects of art."

New look at traditions

While Duan is just one of many young artists currently studying in Berlin, she's by no means the first.

During the 1920s and 30s, Berlin boasted a vibrant Chinese art scene populated by figures who had re-located Paris, which had become increasingly expensive. Even Xu Beihong spent time in Berlin in the 20s.

The rise of the Nazi regime in the early 30s put and end to this lively Chinese art scene - the largest outside of China at that time - as many fled Germany.

"Western art plays an important role in China and I think that's the attraction of these works," said Berlin gallery owner Zhu Ling, "All of my artists studied traditional Chinese painting before they came to Germany and here they studied Western oil painting and in their works I see an effort to combine these two traditions. It's an interesting phenomenon that Chinese people, only after they have left China, begin to reflect on their own traditions."

Duan Yafeng
Duan says she's found her direction in BerlinImage: T. Wood

More than 70 years after Berlin's first wave of Chinese artists left the city, Zhu is one of the next generation of artists to take up residence. Her gallery on Motz Strasse is dedicated to the promotion of Chinese art.

"It's only in the last 10 or 20 years that Chinese people have been allowed to go abroad," she explained, "So these artists are generally very young and they are at the start of their careers. I think these people need a platform to present their works."

Accidental freedom

Current census records show that there are around 6,000 Chinese people living in Berlin and, while not all of them are artists, the figures make for a vibrant Chinese community. While recent media reports suggest that Berlin's cheap rents are the main reason for this influx of Chinese artists, Zhu thinks this is a trivial excuse and that the real reason is a sense of freedom not available to them under the Communist rule in the People's Republic of China.

Communist control runs deep in China's educational system, adding that independent thinking was never promoted in schools and universities.

Gallery owner Zhu Ling
Gallery owner Zhu Ling says Chinese artists enjoy the freedom they discover in BerlinImage: T. Wood

"From my experience, I think [Berlin's Chinese artists] did not consciously reflect on the political restrictions in China before they came to Germany, but once they arrive here they can feel the difference," commented Zhu. "They have more freedom to develop their own individuality than in China but before they came here they didn't even know what it was like, so you can't say they made the conscious decision to seek more freedom."

Duan Yafeng mentions neither politics nor cheap rent when asked why she decided to make Berlin her new artistic residence. Her answer is simple: "Here I have the right people to work with and the right audience who understands my work. Now I know who I am and what I am doing. I know which direction I am going in."

Author: Gavin Blackburn

Editor: Kate Bowen