|Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 9, May 21 - 27
by Christopher Barden
On my map of China, Xinjiang is a huge orange piece of Central Asia. Along its southern half sags the immense Taklimakan Desert, like an overweight belly kept from spilling into Tibet only by the straining girdle of the Kunlun Mountains. Tattooed across the mighty sand-filled paunch are the pinyin and Chinese characters for 'Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region." West of that big self-controlled no-man's land, on the fringe of the province and the tail of the Chinese rooster, nestled among a handful of countries whose names all end with "stan," is the fabled Kashgar, the birthplace of 36 year-old Uighur artist Aniwar.
Aniwar grew up under the big blue skies of China's Far West, and those open spaces are reflected in his round, thoughtful eyes and broad smile.
After graduating from the Xinjiang Carpet Design Center in 1984, Aniwar came to Beijing to study in the Oil Painting Department of the Central Institute of National Minorities. In 1985, still in school, he mounted what some have called China's first "installation art" exhibit - a "total experience" that included visual, sound, and music design. Long before graduating in 1988, Aniwar's painting, design and other artwork drew much attention from China's growing contemporary art scene.
But getting attention has never been high on Aniwar's agenda.
A UIGHUR ARTIST IN BEIJING
In Beijing, Aniwar experienced a strong sense of cultural estrangement. "And freshness," he says. "Xinjiang is so different from here. Other minorities - such as Manchu or Koreans - have a lot in common with Han Chinese. But Uighur culture is entirely different. And people in Beijing gave me the signal: "You're a Xinjiang person. You're different." So I felt a need to establish communication, to exchange ideas, to reach a kind of mutual understanding."
Yet the late 1980s, Aniwar says, "Was a great time for art. It was on the verge of totally opening up. Those were good times in China. Art hadn't yet been overly commercialized. And I felt really happy. But after 1989, there was a big change." The assault of economics on art become more severe, and "A lot of artists with a little bit of success started leaving the country."
"China is still at an immature stage of economic opening-up," he says. "Commercial concerns have occupied such a central place in people's minds and hearts. I think they're a bit dizzy from it all."
THE LANGUAGE OF PAINTINGS
"The language I chose - abstract expressionism - is very hard to understand. Especially in China where it is considered to be very fringe. But it's the best medium for communicating my feelings."
Indeed, Aniwar's oil paintings could be described as a place where a Western-influenced abstract style gets into an exciting barfight with the icons and patterns of Xinjiang's Central Asian dreamscape.
As a teacher at the Beijing School of Art and Design, Aniwar often reminds his students that "Technical skill is a very simple thing. Acquiring technical skill is like learning new vocabulary words. You need a lot of vocabulary so that you can speak to other people. Without any vocabulary you'd have to use sign-language to communicate."
"But a mature artist," says Aniwar, "communicates emotion through his art and technique. It is his mouth, the thing he uses to speak. Many artists have a vocabulary, but they don't have their own language. I think this is a difficult problem for contemporary Chinese artists. They're more concerned with how nice the painting looks as opposed to what it says, or how passionately it says it. Expressing something with true passion often means throwing the right word or proper grammar out the window. Too many artists today have a large vocabulary, but can't express themselves. They're like machines."
In 1987, Aniwar and his classmates began to prepare their graduate projects. "At that time," he recalls, "everyone wanted to go to Hainan Island. It was a "special economic zone," so most students thought of it as a 'free world,' a new territory where they could realize their dreams, just like the American West."
"But I didn't understand that kind of thinking. My ideals since
childhood were never about doing business or seeking economic opportunity."
ONE HUNDRED DAYS IN THE DESERT
At first, friends advised him against the solo journey. But Aniwar stuck to his plans and was supported with money, gifts and moral support from friends and family. "One friend gave me ¥100. I was really moved; in those days, that was a lot of money, and I didn't have any money. It was a big encouragement." That summer, after doing some preliminary research, Aniwar - with only a backpack, a compass, two canteens of water and a walkman - went walking in the desert. From the edges of the Taklimakan, he made two- and three-day sorties into the desert. "In and out, in and out," he recalls. "I couldn't carry that much water. With two canteens and dried food, I could last for three days at the most." For the next hundred days, Aniwar wandered around the Taklimakan Desert, having, as he describes it, a truly 'individual experience.' "Then, once" he says with a modest laugh, "after about three days in the desert, I got lost."
"I wanted to visit a place called Black Sand Mountain. Before I went in, I asked locals if three days was sufficient to go in and come out. The locals said, 'no problem,' and that it should only take a day and half to reach it. They told me once I got there, I'd be able to see across to the other side of the desert. But when I got there, I couldn't see anything. It was all dunes. I started to mistrust my compass. It couldn't be right, I thought. And when you start doubting your compass, you're finished.
"After walking for two days," says Aniwar, "it was just more dunes." But he kept on walking. "It was scorching hot during the day, and freezing at night. I didn't dare sleep at night, for fear of getting buried by shifting sands, so I walked a lot at night. During the day, I couldn't even find the sun. I just felt it above. No sense of direction. Just sand. Not a single piece of architecture in sight. No idea where people might be. Not even a tree." "I thought it was all over." Aniwar smiles. Late afternoon sunlight floods his office at the Beijing School of Art and Design. But Aniwar talks as if he were still out there: "I went into the desert for art, I thought to myself. Art! Suddenly everything seemed much less meaningful. All I could think about were my parents and the friends I would never be able to see again.
"Man is so small in the face of nature. I saw so many grains of sand. And they were just like me. So many grains of sand and none of them are any use. What can one person possibly do? I was no more important than a single one of them. Soon I began not to care about anything. Nothing seemed that important anymore. Even life itself: it's just like that." And from that point on, Aniwar says, "I no longer feared death. I felt I could happily face death. If it's time, it's time. That was the first time I really became conscious of the relationship between man and nature, between man and the world. It's not a big deal. Man is just a simple animal in a desert." As he walked along, still without any sense of direction, flies trailed behind him. "I thought it was strange. Walking in the desert, I had nothing to accompany me except the buzz of flies. And they were the same color as the desert - white. Right behind me the whole time. I don't know why they followed me. I think they were lonely." Finally, Aniwar randomly chose a direction and just kept going straight.
"It was five or six days of struggle - struggle against myself. I felt as if my life was a film, and that I could sense the presence of a camera following me," he says of the thoughts he had while lost in the desert. "We are always doing things we don't want to be doing, being directed by someone else. The director may be your teachers, it may be your parents. You're born into the world, then others begin directing you, teaching you: This is English. This is Chinese. You are taught to speak. When you get older you are told: You must study this. This is knowledge. This is this, this is that. You are educated and soon, after you get older, the original person you were isn't even there anymore."
Continuing along into an uncertain future in the desert, Aniwar recounts how he dared not drink any of his water. "Given my thirst," he says, "I could have finished it all off in half a day. But people have strong self-control when necessary. So I lasted almost six days on one canteen. By the time I made it out, I still had another canteen full of water. A person's life-force can be very strong," he says with quiet intensity.
I ask Aniwar why, in retrospect, he took this solo journey into the
IN XINJIANG, "WHERE THERE ARE TREES, THERE ARE PEOPLE." Finally, Aniwar saw what appeared to be a small group of sasa trees far off on the horizon. "In Xinjiang," he explains, " wherever there are trees, there are people." But Aniwar still didn't completely trust his instincts. "I knew that mirages are common in deserts, especially after so many days. I was sure there was something wrong with me. When I got close to the trees, I could smell their aroma. But only when I went up and grabbed the tree did I finally believe it was real. Right then I fell down. Next to the tree, I took off my shirt and rubbed my chest against the moist sand. And passed out."
When Aniwar awoke the next day, he was in the house of an old Uighur
man, who cried out, "He moved!"
Unable to move due to exhaustion, Aniwar stayed at the house for the next three or four days. "Very good-hearted people. They'd probably never been outside their small village before." One night, Aniwar's kind old Uighur host slaughtered a chicken especially for him. "But I couldn't eat meat, so I gave it to his children and had soup instead." Later the old man scolded him, "The kids don't need meat, they're fine without it. But you don't even know what's good for you!" Aniwar says, with gravity in his voice, "After I returned from the Taklimakan, everything seemed very clear. I felt very healthy. I felt I had solved my basic problem."
LEAVING SOMETHING BEHIND IN THE DESERT
On the question of why he became an artist, his answer echoes both the artists of the ages and the voice of a man lost in a big desert with a compass he no longer trusts: "If this world doesn't have me in it anymore, it still goes on. So I want to leave something behind. Perhaps, because I was here someone else might feel a sense that culture exists."