Made in Prison: Interview with Kang Wanhua

by Liang Shuhan 梁舒涵
translated by Fei Wu

Liang Shuhan interview with Kang Wanhua

“Made in Prison: drawings from 1976 – 1978,” Solo Exhibition by Kang Wanhua

Boers-Li Gallery (1-706 Hou Jie, 798 Art District No.2 Yuan, Jiuxianqiao Lu, Beijing) Nov 30, 2012 – Feb 3, 2013

Boers-Li Gallery is currently holding a unique exhibition entitled “Made in Prison” which features the extraordinary artist Kang Wanhua. The show exhibits over sixty drawings he made while in prison during the latter part of the 1970s. Normally, Kang Wanhua’s works would not obtain the attention of the so-called “art scene” as they differ greatly from the commonly held conceptions of contemporary Chinese art. Even the artist himself isn’t entirely clear on how his drawings are related to contemporary art. In fact, this exhibition is part of Boers-Li Gallery’s ongoing research project into the roots of contemporary art in China. Through this project, we are granted a peek into a long-buried fragment of personal history, and a possible hint about the origins of contemporary art in China. Randian editor Liang Shuhan interviews Kang Wanhua at Boers-Li Gallery about his personal experiences and creative process.

Liang Shuhan (LSH): You completed these works while you were in prison. How were you able to continue drawing under such exceptionally harsh circumstances?

Kang Wanhua (KWH): You can’t stay idle. I worked in art, so I liked to draw. While I was locked up I kept a hand in. So I devoted myself to painting, to reduce the pain a bit.

LSH: Did you have a lot of time to draw?

KWH: In two years I did over 400 pictures. I guess that’s a lot, and that’s not counting the ones I had to throw away. I drew in the restroom too, and when the guards came, I tossed the pictures in the toilet.

LSH: How long did it take you to finish one picture?

KWH: Hard to say. One hour to half a day. This one’s “Dante” (he points to a piece); I read The Divine Comedy. I also drew my prison-mates, and some were just people I imagined. All the landscapes were imagined too. None of them are serious works, just some silly sketches. I didn’t draw these to be made public, or even imagine they’d be exhibited. Everything we drew was “evil”; they were all deviant.

LSH: Most of these works were done with oil pastels and watercolor. How did you get these supplies then?

KWH: My family brought all my materials; the prison wasn’t too strict about it. I went in in 1975, and when the Gang of Four was toppled in ’76 they weren’t so strict with the political criminals any more — they knew sooner or later we’d be rehabilitated.

LSH: Were you imprisoned for political reasons?

KWH: I was disrespectful towards Chairman Mao. I lived by myself in a detached house and liked to play guitar. The neighbors didn’t like either fact at all. Plus my paintings were unorthodox; they didn’t meet official requirements.

LSH: Were these drawings based on your imagination? Their dimensions are so small.

KWH: I did some of them on the backs of playing cards. I used everything I had, scraps of paper, cardboard….When I got out, I stuck these drawings – there were over 400 of them – into the pages of hardcover copies of A World History. In the end I filled three volumes of A World History and brought them out with me. I put all my energies into art; it made life easier.

Around 1979 my friend did an exhibition for me called Bodies of Color and Light. He never returned a bunch of my works, though. They say he sold them. In the end I was only able to get about a hundred pictures back.

LSH: Did you draw after you were released?

KWH: Yeah, big ones, but I’ve given them all away. The later drawings are more deformed, surreal; there are some sketches, even. The colors are stronger. I made the ones in prison under specific circumstances, so they had to be small. I did them on the sly, keeping an eye out for guards, because they didn’t allow it.

LSH: What work did you do after you left prison?

KWH: Manual labor. I was a mover at the Shuguang Motor Factory, producing airplanes and miniature motors — it was quite respectable back then. I had to retire in ’85, in my 40s. State-owned factories weren’t doing so well at one point. My family had a storefront, so we did a bit of business out of it. My health’s not so good — high blood pressure.

LSH: How did the gallery find you?

KWH: Through a friend called Zhang Wei, who was part of the “No Name Group” of artists. I was close with the No Name Group, and Zhang Wei was signed on with Boers-Li. Waling was looking for works done prior to the 80s, and Zhang Wei floundered around quite a bit before finding me.

LSH: The goal of this project is to trace the origins of contemporary art in China. How do you feel your drawings are related to contemporary art?

KWH: I don’t know. I’m an outsider; I don’t understand how my works are related. He came to me wanting to do an exhibit of my drawings. I didn’t know why. Most people think contemporary art started with the ’85 New Wave, but Zhang Wei and Waling, those guys think it started even before then, so they started digging. They thought the No Name Group was the true beginning. From the 50s to the early 70s, all Chinese art looked like it was drawn by the same hand. But there were a few of us rebelling a bit, creating stuff underground. Copying the Impressionists, Fauvists, and Expressionists. The No Name Group didn’t follow the creative mainstream of the Cultural Revolution; they worked in secret. Everything we got at school was full of the same old Soviet shtick, but once in a while, one of us would find a way to get a modern art publication — about Impressionism, Fauvism, and Expressionism.

I graduated from Beijing Number Five Middle School in ’63; it was a pretty good school at the time. I didn’t go to high school or university. I went to a sort of cobbled-together art cadre school to learn how to draw. But this school broke up after a year, because the nation wasn’t doing so well. They enacted a policy of “adjustment, enrichment, consolidation, and improvement.” During the Cultural Revolution, I was then allocated to Beijing Number 179 Middle School to teach art because they thought I showed some talent. I took part in a small exhibition at Zhang Wei’s during the Spring Festival and showed one of my drawings.

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