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How artists from Mexico influenced a closed-off China




A visitor examines work by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, part of the
A visitor examines work by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, part of the "Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century" exhibition.
Gus Ruelas

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A new exhibit that marks the reopening of the USC Pacific Asia Museum offers a rare glimpse into how contemporary art in Mexico crossed the Pacific to influence artists in China.

Co-curated by museum director Christina Yu Yu and Shengtian Zheng, a leading scholar and independent curator, "Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century" includes art and artifacts from this largely unexamined cultural exchange from the 1930s to present day.

The museum, which formed a partnership with USC in 2013, was recently renovated. “Winds from Fusang” is the first exhibit since it reopened to the public last month.

The museum’s ornate building was commissioned by a private entrepreneur in the 1920s and was modeled in the style of Chinese palaces — with a sloping, imperial roof, crouching beast statues and a winding garden courtyard.

Christina Yu Yu recently took The Frame's John Horn on a tour. 

The courtyard of the newly renovated USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.
The courtyard of the newly renovated USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.
Gus Ruelas

Interview Highlights:

On the history of the USC Pacific Asia Museum:

Grace Nicholson commissioned the building back in 1921 and the building was finished in 1924. She was an incredible entrepreneur. Back in the early 20th Century, she became one of the most important art dealers ... [of] American art but also Asian art. Because of her love for Asia and Asian art she actually commissioned this beautiful building after the Chinese palace style. Even the roof tiles. A lot of the details were actually imported from China and incorporated into this building. 

On the obscurity of contemporary art in China:

It's really a very unknown topic. And I would say, like many great stories in history, a lot of things happened just by accident. Nobody planned it. This exhibition is really looking at three important time periods in the 20th Century. First we're looking at the 1930s with Miguel Covarrubias from Mexico, who went to China — again, by accident, because his real destination was Bali, Indonesia. At the time, you couldn't go there directly — you needed to stop by Shanghai first and then take a boat. 

Miguel Covarrubias, Chinese Opera Singer, 1931. Drawing on paper.
Miguel Covarrubias, Chinese Opera Singer, 1931. Drawing on paper.
Zhang Guangyu Art Foundation, Beijing

On Covarrubias as an example of cultural exchange between Mexico and China:

He stopped by Shanghai very briefly for several months ... and he did some very quick sketches there. Very typical of the [drawings] he made for magazines at the time. One is a portrait of a Peking opera singer. The style is very Covarrubias, but the subject matter is very Chinese. And very interestingly, we did not know of the existence of this drawing until we went to China and we found this in the family of a Chinese painter who met Covarrubias in Shanghai. Covarrubias gave this drawing to the artist and the family has kept it since then.

On the isolated nature of China after the Communist Revolution:

The People's Republic of China was established in 1949 by the Communist Party. And since then the country — especially in the '50s, '60s and '70s — was shut down from the outside world. There was very limited contact with America or Europe. Whereas the allies were countries from Latin America, Africa and also, of course, the Soviet Union. So in the 1950s, the art style that was taught in school, and the practice by all the Chinese artists, was the so-called Soviet Socialist Realism. But in 1956 there was a very important exhibition organized by Mexican artists. It was really a [landmark] exhibition for artists. That was the only exhibition they had seen from outside China or the Soviet Union. The exhibition included about 400 pieces — mostly painting and prints. And they are all from the so-called Mexican muralist artists. 

Shengtian Zheng, artist and co-curator of
Shengtian Zheng, artist and co-curator of "Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century," with a Diego Rivera-inspired mural that he helped paint.
Gus Ruelas

On how the exhibit demonstrates China's Cultural Revolution:

The purpose of art was very much in line with ideology that is promoted by the Communist Party. It was art for the people, art for the revolution. We actually made some documentary videos for this exhibition. These artists are in their 70s and 80s now, but back in the '50s they were young artists. They went to go see the exhibition. They said they felt this sincere attitude and emotion from Mexican artists. They were really painting for the revolution. They were painting because the government told them to paint. 

Christina Yu Yu (left), director of the USC Pacific Asia Museum, points out a cobalt-oxide porcelain charger and vase from the early Ming dynasty.
Christina Yu Yu (left), director of the USC Pacific Asia Museum, points out a cobalt-oxide porcelain charger and vase from the early Ming dynasty.
Gus Ruelas

On how this exhibit fits in with the museum's overarching mission: 

Southern California, as we all know, is really a center for Asian-Americans. Recently we've seen a lot of immigrants from that region. So we are really very happy that we have this place for them, for that community, to showcase what they are proud of. But I think it's also important since our city and community is a place where we have so many people from different cultures and different parts of the world that we can play a role in introducing Asia to people from other parts of the globe.

"Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century" is on view through June 10.



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