Chance Encounters: When a Chinese Artist Met Australian Aboriginals

Xiaoping has been working with Australian Aborigines for more than 30 years. (Image:  Kevin Walsh via  flickr  CC BY 2.0 )
Xiaoping has been working with Australian Aborigines for more than 30 years. (Image: Kevin Walsh via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Zhou Xiaoping is a renowned Chinese-Australian artist. For the past 30 years, he has been working closely with the Aboriginal communities in Australia and developing new styles of art while showcasing to the world the rich cultural heritage of its oldest native population.

Valuing Aboriginal art

Xiaoping was a traditional Chinese painter for much of his early life. In 1988, he moved to Australia. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, Xiaoping decided to stay back in the country. However, unlike other Chinese painters in Australia, Zhou never restricted himself to urban areas. He started exploring an art form very few Chinese have ever researched — Australian Aboriginal paintings.  

A visit to a local land council in Alice Springs brought Xiaoping in touch with the native Aboriginal community. To his surprise, Xiaoping found them to be very interested in him, partly because Asian tourists were rare. From there, he came into contact with other aboriginal communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, learning their art styles for the next three decades.  

During this time, Xiaoping developed a close relationship with the renowned aboriginal artist Johnny Bulunbulun. “He wanted to know what I’m thinking when I’m painting, how do I think … I know he tried to figure out how I relate to his country, the landscape, the connection,” Xiaoping said to ABC News.  

Xiaoping was a close friend of Aboriginal artist Johnny Bulunbulun. (Image: YouTube / Screenshot)

Xiaoping has felt a distinct change in the way he paints since he set foot in Australia. Earlier, he used to draw whatever came into his vision. But the close relationship with aboriginal communities made Xiaoping move away from an art style purely inspired by sight. Nowadays, he draws what he feels, giving more emphasis to the emotions surrounding a subject rather than its form alone.

However, he is unhappy that some side-effects have taken root as a result of protections awarded to the aboriginal communities. “We know that according to their tradition, everything related to the deceased, such as their art, writing, names or portraits, should be removed after they passed away. Things like the exhibition are not allowed… This is the overprotection because the Aboriginal people themselves are not sticking to the tradition anymore,” Xiaoping said to SBS.

Xiaoping and his multi-year collaboration with the aboriginal artists is the subject of a popular documentary. Called, Ochre and Ink, you can watch the trailer on YouTube.

Aboriginal art facts

Australian aboriginal art is one of the oldest forms of artistic expression anywhere in the world. In the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land, you can find art dated back almost 60,000 years. By definition, only artwork produced by a person belonging to an Aboriginal tribe is considered as Aboriginal art.

A popular art style of the Aboriginals is the “dot painting.” The style developed with the arrival of European settlers. The tribes were apparently worried that the newcomers might understand their sacred knowledge, so they started creating paintings with dots.

Dot paintings became popular after the arrival of European settlers. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

By tradition, Aboriginal artists are banned from painting stories that do not come from their lineage. When looking to paint a particular story from their tribe’s history, an Aboriginal artist must obtain permission from the clan members. Plus, it is also critical that the artist sticks with the techniques native to that tribe.

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