Elderly newcomers to art express their life stories on canvas
Updated 21:26, 25-Nov-2018
By Li Jingjing
Five years ago, when Chen Fenghua suddenly heard the elderly lady he lived next door to in his hometown had died, he was shocked and sad. But what left him more distressed was the fact that the woman departed this world, barely leaving a trace behind.
Thinking about his own grandparents and other elderly people like them living in rural areas, Chen felt most of them probably faced the same sad fate. 
Those seniors lived through tragic times in China's history when war, poverty and starvation were the norm. 
“They were never educated, unlike us, we have many ways to express ourselves,” Chen told CGTN. 
Artist Chen Fenghua./CGTN Photo

Artist Chen Fenghua./CGTN Photo

“I’m wondering what they would like to express if given a paintbrush, and that painting probably could be left as proof that they once existed,” Chen added.
To search for the answer, Chen and his cameraman Xie Wubin travelled to remote villages in seven provinces and autonomous regions in southern and southwestern China, including Hunan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Tibet. In half a year, they visited over 40 people between the ages of 40 and 103.
But what he gained was much more than a collection of paintings.

Paintings with stories

Those seniors had never received any artistic training. Chen wanted them to draw whatever they wanted, in whichever form they desired. Besides inviting them to draw, he also spent time with them and listened to their life stories.
A farmer painting for the first time in his life./Photo courtesy of Chen Fenghua

A farmer painting for the first time in his life./Photo courtesy of Chen Fenghua

An 80-year-old woman named Wana of the Nu ethnic minority raised all her kids and grandchildren by herself, because all the men in the family died in a boating accident.
A 91-year-old woman met Chen with tattoos all over her face, following the traditions of her ethnic group, the Dulong people. They were still leading a tribal lifestyle until the 1950s.
Chen met elderly men who built stone houses for their families with their bare hands, and women who joined the Communist Party during war, leading a female group that fought for gender equality. 
“Everyone has their own stories, and the background of those stories are the history that we learned from books,” Chen said. “But each individual shows different sides of that history.”
Those stories brought Chen into a rough period of history that he couldn't even begin to imagine, conjuring up images of a lifestyle that he had never known before.
Among them, the story of an elderly lady of the Wa ethnic group left a tremendous impression on him.
When a little girl, she witnessed her neighbors' house being broken into while its occupants were beheaded. At that time, using heads for rituals was a tradition among ethnic groups in the region. 
Living along the China-Myanmar border, the woman led the life of a refugee. When war broke out in one country, she fled to another, and spent a long time hiding in caves and jungle terrain with barely any food.
“I can't believe those are true stories that happened just decades ago,” Chen said. 
This elderly woman drew a very abstract painting with brushes spread to every corner of the canvas. 
“But you can feel in the painting, there's a power of being untamed, big-heartedness and freedom,” Chen explained.

Art for everyone

Chen Fenghua explaining the elderly woman's artworks to CGTN reporter Li Jingjing./ CGTN Photo

Chen Fenghua explaining the elderly woman's artworks to CGTN reporter Li Jingjing./ CGTN Photo

Chen curated all of the elderly artists' paintings and related footage into an exhibition named “Debut” during the 20th China Shanghai International Arts Festival. 
Every visitor to the exhibition could appreciate the paintings while listening to the stories of the artists, and even paint something of their own during the exhibition.
“Art should be something that everyone can have a chance to appreciate. Art shouldn't be limited to a certain group of people. Only when the whole of society is involved, art can exist meaningfully,” Chen said.

Director: Li Jingjing
Editor: Liang Si, Xu Haoming, Li Jingjing
Filmed by: Chen Fenghua, Xie Wubin,
                  Liang Si, Xu Haoming,
Top Image Designer: Du Chenxin
Writer: Li Jingjing
Copy Editor: Nick Moore
Producer: Wen Yaru
Chief Editor: Lin Dongwei
Supervisor: Pang Xinhua