Shi Guoliang: 30 years on the road recording China's ethnic culture
Updated 13:39, 06-Sep-2022

To showcase the alluring charm, mystery, and culture of China's ethnic minorities, contemporary painter Shi Guoliang has devoted himself to exploring the distinctive lifestyles of these various groups that are scattered across China, and rendering them vividly on canvas.

Capturing scenes from their daily life with a photorealistic painting technique, the 66-year-old has created many well-known figure paintings highlighting their rich culture, such as "Golden Autumn," "Dance of the Tianshan," and "Picking Potatoes." 

In the 1980s, Shi set out to create a series of paintings focusing on China's borderlands, where these minority groups served as an endless flow of inspiration. He then followed through on this for over 30 years, imprinting his "creative footsteps" along much of the nation's border regions as he obsessed with his work. Meanwhile, his special fondness for the local people and their unique culture and customs has allowed him to harvest numerous masterpieces steeped in the ethnic flavor of the time.

A screenshot of Shi Guoliang's sketchbook. /CMG

A screenshot of Shi Guoliang's sketchbook. /CMG

His work "Engraved Classics" won the "UNESCO Grand Prix" award at the 23rd International Contemporary Art Competition in Monte Carlo, which netted Shi even more accolades from China's Ministry of Culture.

In 2021, his representative work, "The Hometown of Princess Wencheng", was added to the permanent collection of the Beijing-based National Academy of Painting. The painting took five years, and countless trips to Tibet, to produce. 

It depicts a group of Tibetan people gathering together to commemorate Princess Wencheng, one of the most famous and beloved queens in their history. She traveled all the way from Chang'an (today's Xi'an in Shaanxi) to marry the legendary King Songtsen Gampo over 1,300 years ago, thus bringing the culture of the Han people to this southwestern Chinese region.

"The Hometown of Princess Wencheng." /CMG

"The Hometown of Princess Wencheng." /CMG

In the painting, Shi Guoliang incorporates an image of himself holding some soil from the princess's hometown and relies on delicate brushstrokes to portray the scene of Tibetan people commemorating the royal figure with a masterful sense of emotion.

Shi believes his paintings should be based on humanism. “Humanism is the main melody and the paintings are all about the relationships between people and nature, people and life, and people and people," he said. "I think in a few hundred years, people will still feel the same way when they look at this painting about the story of Princess Wencheng.”

Establishing an emotional connection with his subjects, opening his heart to them and forging close friendships have become an essential part of Shi Guoliang's creative process. 

This autumn, he embarked on a trip to Xinjiang, where the customs, culture and heroic traditions of the Tajik ethnic group have been elegantly captured in his works. Shi said he has visited this northwest region in China countless times to get a true feel for its people and their way of life.

However, this time he made a special trip to visit some old friends, a couple living in the Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County. Back in 2019, Shi was fortunate enough to witness the wedding ceremony of a Tajik couple, which he duly painted. While recording on canvas one of the happiest moments of their life, he struck up a firm friendship with the bride and groom, despite the big age gap between the artist and his subjects. Over the past three years, the family has added a new member, a baby daughter, and Shi has watched them grow and their living conditions improve.

Shi said revisiting them feels akin to going home to meet his own relatives. "Every time I go to a new place, I make a lot of friends, many of whom are still in contact with me to this day. I think the kind of emotional connections are very natural and sincere,” he said.

A screenshot of Shi Guoliang's work. /CMG

A screenshot of Shi Guoliang's work. /CMG

At the end of his 15-day journey in Xinjiang, Shi Guoliang's sketch book was filled with vivid faces that made him forget his tiredness. He rushed into his studio the day he returned to Beijing. 

Shi said, "I hope that when people see my works, they can also see that our different ethnic groups are like a big family, holding each other tightly like pomegranate seeds. I hope you can share the happiness within when you see my paintings."

Shi Guoliang's works record the times and express his praise of life. He believes only by continuing to create can he live up to the golden times and wonderful people.

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