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At first glance one would not consider the figures in the print to be Chinese. The people of Lagu or Lahu, however, are one of 55 officially recognized minorities in China and one of many who call the Yunnan province their home. It is therefore no accident that an independent and influential art school from Yunnan has emerged and distinguished itself in China's varied cultural and geographical landscape. Printmaker and painter Zhang Yonghan is one of the most famous artists of the younger generation, who have tried to follow the traditions before Mao's Cultural Revolution, while simultaneously finding their own way to contemporary art. With the reduction woodblock print, "Mountain Village of Lagu," he has without a doubt achieved a masterpiece of the highest quality.
The province of Yunnan lies in southwestern China in a landscape rich region filled with river valleys, jagged mountains and forests, bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) and the autonomous region of Tibet. More than twenty ethnic groups live in this region and influence the cultural diversity of the region and in terms of traditional arts and crafts, it is one of the richest in the country. It is then no wonder that many leading Chinese artists, studios and workshops have emerged from the Yunnan province.
Zhang Yonghan was born in 1940 in Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, which has over 5 million in habitants but also a 1,200 year long history. Printmakers from this region dedicated themselves to the traditional art of color woodblock printmaking and in the last decades they found their own uniform style. They favor the reduction woodblock print technique and present their works in powerful, pasty printed oil based colors. Thematically, the Yunnan-Works concentrate on their own landscapes or culture. More about the Lagu people can be found at the end of this article.
The color woodblock print, the "Mountain Village of Lagu" (2007) by Zhang Yonghan belongs to the tradition of the Yunnan schools of art. This print is a rarity, on account of its extraordinary quality and the fact that there are only 7 editions of this print. The reduction woodblock print technique doesn't allow further prints - since the printing block is destroyed at the end of the printing process. The print is also unusually large at 75x103 cm and the extremely expressive illustration lends the work a powerful appearance that captivates with its lush harmoniously balanced colors.
Zhang Yonghan presents the group of Lagu women in a special scene, as can be seen the festively colored clothing of the women and the laughing or singing impressions on their faces. The leaves in the foreground probably belong to tobacco plants and it's possible that the women are celebrating the harvest or fruition of tobacco. The scene appears to take place in a field, with views of the open landscape in this high mountainous region in the background.
The "Mountain Village of Lagu" is particularly impressive in terms of its compositional arrangement. The uniform green tones in the background are schematically far away and the project the women, who are depicted in lively colors, onto the foreground in front of the viewer. Spacial relationships also play an important role in this print. The foremost figure stands slightly to the side and is perspectively placed into the scene. The arm, which rests on her shoulder, aids in giving a sense of depth to the print, which also transcends to the other overlapping figures. The colors are also an important atmospheric element in the print since the clearer and purer colors are reserved for the background.
Stylistically this woodblock print by Zhang Yonghan belongs without a doubt to the Yunnan tradition. Elements of folk art can be seen, specifically in the stylized and distinctive faces of the women. The faces are earthy and the colors and contours of the skin mirror that of the land. In a picture of this size - almost life size - this is an enormously expressive feat. The details in color and contour are vivid. The detailed hands are also a testament to the artists extraordinary illustration skills and together with the earth faces, they give the picture an expressively earthy and natural tone.
The people of Lagu, who number over 450,000 today, cultivate an independent, almost seemingly magical cultural tradition. The Lagu minority can be traced back to the third century. The Lagu first wandered in the 10th century into the south, where they were first called the "Luohei." The tribe named themselves Lagu (or Lahu), which means "tiger hunter" because they were famous for their tiger hunting skills. The language of the Lagu belongs to the Tibetan-Burmese family. The scattered tribe dwells in mountainous regions. They live by growing rice, corn and buckwheat, as well as tee, tobacco or they raise pines, firs and camphor trees. There are also many animals in this region, including red deer, muntjacs, wild cattle, bears, peacocks or parrots.
The cultural tradition is today based on three religions: on the original polytheist pagan religion that centered around nature, on the Mahayana Buddhism as well as on Christianity in the early times. These religions appear in different constellations and adapt to tradition that above all is carried out in rites and rich festivals. The original traditions are still cultivated in everyday life, as well. For example, before a new household can be established, newlyweds must live the early years of their marriage in the home of the wife's family. Likewise clothing and make up remain true to tradition to date. But they can also clearly be categorized as Himalayan.
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Works by emerging Chinese artists in BUYDIRECT.