Visiting IFChina in Ji’an

My workshop for the theater group at Jingangshan University

Master Li sits at a camphor wood desk under the rear stairwell of a crumbling apartment building.  On his desk is an inkwell, a cup full of calligraphy brushes, and a small portable radio.  The man nudges his large glasses farther up his nose as he paints – tiny, nearly imperceptible black brush strokes on a white 8 ½ by 12 inch tile.  Collectively the tiny strokes constitute the portrait of a middle-aged Chinese woman — a woman pictured in a pink sweater in a photograph lying at the corner of his desk.  Master Li has practiced this art of 瓷板像 or “porcelain board portraiture” for nearly forty years.  Locals commission the portraits to give to their parents, and the paintings are often accompanied by a short dedication (“to a beloved mother” etc).  The portraits serve as a token of love and a vow of memory, ensuring that a child will be able to remember his parent’s likeness even after he or she has passed away.  The technique has become a signature of Jiangxi province, but Li is one of the last to practice the art form by hand.  Since computers have become the norm, most artists (or businessmen?) produce the portraits digitally.  Master Li plans to retire next year and he has no apprentices to follow in his path.

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I met Master Li and watched him at work during a recent visit to the small city of Ji’an in Jiangxi province.  Li is an acquaintance of Jian Yi, a friend of mine who is the director and founder of the IFChina Participatory Documentary Center at Jinguangshan University in Ji’an.  I spent four days in Ji’an at Jian Yi’s invitation, learning about the organization’s projects and about many aspects of local life and culture.  As soon as I saw Master Li’s work, I understood why Jian Yi had sent me to meet him.  The porcelain portraiture technique is a beautiful encapsulation of Jian Yi’s mission — one could even call it his obsession.  The desire to preserve and remember is at the heart of the work of the two men, yet both artists face tremendous challenges.  Master Li’s craft is dying out, and the tile paintings he produce fade and break over time.  Jian Yi, working on a larger, broader, systemic level, is fighting against a society that is changing so rapidly that it is in danger of forsaking its past and culture.

The son of an elementary school teacher, Jian Yi grew up in Ji’an before heading to the United States to attend college at Notre Dame University.  After graduating, he pursued a career as a documentary filmmaker.  Jian Yi lived and taught in Beijing for twelve years, but he felt that the big city was too isolated from the rest of the country.  As he explained to me, “Beijing is like living at the top of a nice apartment building: you have a great bird’s eye view of what’s around you, but eventually you have to go downstairs and take a look for yourself.”

Jian Yi’s IFChina Center has developed according to this philosophy of grassroots activity, and the organization’s cultural and artistic programs are intrinsically linked with the local university and both urban and suburban communities of Ji’an. Without a doubt, Jian Yi’s IFChina organization is one of the most inspiring and innovative cultural institutions I have seen in China.

IFChina’s programming has two major components, the “memory” projects and the “cultural” projects (see their website http://artisimple.wordpress.com.cn/ for more info).  The memory projects include recording oral histories and organizing participatory film and photography projects in which local residents, both young and old, are armed with cameras and told to “document their own lives.”  The “cultural” projects include such projects as a rural architecture design contest.

I met Jian Yi in 2009 while he was in residence at Yale as a World Fellow (http://www.yale.edu/worldfellows/).  Ever since then, I have planned to visit IFChina and help the organization further develop their documentary theater program.  My weekend consisted of exchanges and activities related to the drama-oriented components of IFChina’s projects.  I watched a video of the Center’s recent production of “This Is How We Begin”《我们这样开始》, a wonderful documentary theater piece performed by an ensemble of Jinguangshan University students about their educational experiences growing up (see the IFChina blog for photos and more info: http://artisimple.wordpress.com.cn/).  I visited a variety of potential locations for workshops (including a lower school, a 800-year old high school on an island, and a special needs school), met with members of a local folk theater troupe, and had a discussion with the cast of “This Is How We Begin.”  To top it all off, I gave a lecture about my own work and the basic processes and principles behind participatory and documentary theater, and led a three-hour drama workshop on the theme of “family and memory.”

One of IFChina’s most powerful initiatives is the Rice Connection Project.  The project was born out of a small art protest Jian Yi and his wife Eva staged last Christmas.  The couple was frustrated with how much money locals spent on shopping to celebrate a holiday for which few felt any cultural or spiritual significance.  As a social statement, the two dressed up as Santa Claus and stood outside the local supermarket.  They convinced exiting shoppers to donate a small portion of their goods to those in need in the Ji’an community.  Jian Yi and Eva received an unexpected amount of donations, and when students in Jian Yi’s oral history class voiced a desire to initiate a project to help local disadvantaged communities, the Rice Connection Project was born.  The project is very simple: local Ji’an resident donate rice (and sometimes other cooking ingredients) to the IFChina Center.  Then, every few weeks, volunteers from the center deliver the rice to families in need and check on their progress dealing with various life obstacles.

This past Sunday, I joined Jian Yi and Eva on their rice delivery.  We drove to the end of a newly paved road along the river at the center of town and parked in front of a large billboard advertising a new apartment complex coming to the area.  These “luxury” complexes are sprouting up all over Ji’an and the rest of China, and their construction has gradually replaced the old style “hutong” urban communities.  Although they offer a higher standard of living, their construction often results in the forced removal of impoverished residents.  As we walked behind the billboard and under an overpass at the bank of a river, one of the last old alleyway communities came into sight.  The houses were mostly made of wood and brick, and the narrow passageways between the houses were filled with dogs, small children, and piles of litter.

We visited several households.  One rice recipient was a born-again Christian woman in her mid-seventies (she observed that her church was particularly crowded towards the end of December but she wasn’t clear why…).  She was abandoned by her children when she married her second husband, and she went blind in one eye after a fishing accident.  Nearby was a family with a one-year old baby whose eyelids were swollen and in need of surgery.  At another house we met a man suffering from alcoholism who is taking care of his aging mother.  As we visited each household, Jian Yi, his wife Eva, and a student volunteer took time to catch up with residents, inquire about their health, and sometimes offer polite suggestions on how to address the challenges facing them.  It was incredibly moving to see this type of genuine care and compassion, a brand of face-to-face modest charity that is hard to come by.  And for IFChina, art and service go hand and hand.  As we gave rice to one of the project recipients and chatted about her conversion to Christianity, the student volunteer took out his cell phone and started recording.  He was collecting material for the oral history project.

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