What comes to mind when I say Songzhuang? And if I say Greenwich Village, Soho, Montmartre, Via Margutta? In the latter cases the mind is filled with pictures of artists, colour palettes, images, sounds and poetry.
Now try to imagine multipying by 10 all that you have seen in New York, London, Paris or Rome. 10 times more colour, artists, galleries, sculptures … The result is a lively and creative environment where the atmosphere is unusually cheeky woven with a respect for classicism.
This is Songzhuang Art District in Beijing, 20 kilometers from the city center and beyond the sixth ring (which means the sixth ring road for those of Rome). A center where some 6,000 artists live and work, and I think it is the largest community of artists in the world.
The peculiarity of Songzhuang is that it is still ‘pure’ in the sense that it is not yet well-known to the public, tourists and the curious, it retains its authenticity and the artists we met are much more focused on creating than to sell their works .
This Beijing art quarter was born in 1994 when a group of Chinese avant-garde artists felt the need to come together to share inspiration and a common way of life. An initiative, a little personal and a little inspired by politics, began when Li Xianting, initiator of the movement “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism”, chose this area for his group.
The years passed and, after a period of distrust, today the Songzhuang Art Festival is famous and the government has decided to promote this area by building a new road and infrastructure, and soon part of the administrative offices of the Chinese government will be moved here. The idea is, of course, to create a great tourist attraction.
With a group of friends we found Songzhuang on a Friday afternoon when, after work discussing the role of museums in the development of an area, during which I chose some pictures of the group of artists from ‘798’, the former factory transformed into a set of art galleries and workshops. Our Chinese host looked at us and told us that:
“At 798 artists have become too commercial. If you want to breathe the spirit of our times you must go to Songzhuang. I will organize a trip this afternoon and a visit to a couple of artists”.
Let me tell you the story of two of these artists.
We entered into the study of Jin Mei, a delicate Chinese artist, petite and refined, who had studied and worked extensively in Russia, Tajikistan. Her home studio is located in a building of modern design maybe built too quickly and with little maintenance.
The main room is filled with paintings that depict people. It exudes a grace and a particular elegance. Tradition, classicism and modernity come together in serene colours and faces that convey peace. The poses of the people are unusual, clothes evoke indefinable styles but all of harmony and it gives you the urge to take away one of her portraits to be able to enjoy forever.
Mei Jin does not speak English and it helps us that her pupil, Monik, is very positive and welcoming. Together they prepare a tea and offer it to us with a ceremony not ‘ceremonious’ that becomes cheerful when, one of us, Bruno Grassetti, wears his medal of ‘Friend of China’, a recognition of the Chinese government for his long association with the country.
Mei Jin is an artist who embodies the Chinese spirit and gives to each of us a work of calligraphy from the Master Qingfang Mu. Written poems and sentences that elicit reflections and bring back the spirit of man to the true value of life: a direct relationship with the land and with the universe.
Mei Jin and Monik then took us to meet another artist, Gulistan, who lives in ten minute drive away. The area is very well maintained and alongside traditional buildings are architecturally interesting structures. The interior of the home/studio of Gulistan has a very different style and looks like a clean and tidy loft.
Gulistan speaks good English and has had many contacts with the West in London and this influence can be found not only in the arrangement of the house but also in the pictorial style. Many of her paintings were at an exhibition and she was able to show us only a few works from which we have drawn particular interest. Wherever we looked we found a bit of Western history mixed with a bit of eastern culture. Some of the features are familiar but they intersect with oriental exotic traits.
Her welcome was warm and we had an emotional moment when we saw a foreword from her catalog of an exhibition in Italy. A poem had been dedicated in Italian and when Bruno recited it aloud it caused shivers of emotion for the depth of the text.
After the visit, Mei Jin and Qingfang Mu, the master calligrapher have driven us back to the hotel through Tiananmen Square in full swing for the preparations of the Republic Day celebration on the following day.
In Beijing there is a different special place, with special people and special emotions: Songzhuang definitely deserves to be known and visited.