INTERVIEW WITH SHAFEI XIA
Elisa Muscatelli – How would you describe your art practice to a first-time audience? What ideogram would you use to represent it?
Shafei Xia – The impressions of life, that’s what I go to draw. Three years ago I was a bit down, I wanted to paint, and I saw a paper that I had brought from China on the table. At the Academy with professor Caccioni we had a lesson about the body, and I drew food, the body, and sex all together in a pleasant environment. My professor liked it a lot and suggested me to continue on this path, this would have been the theme I would have had to investigate for two years, but I left it and started painting oil on canvas, inserting some funny elements. Then I met a boy, fell in love and all the emotions started coming out of my heart. Enjoying life, joy, I don’t have defined research that I have to follow, it’s all life’s thoughts and experiences, there is nothing to research.
The first work I did three and a half years ago, there is the written idiom 滿漢全席 (Manchu-Han imperial feast), it is a kind of view, I have to continue research of this nature, in this artwork you see the body inside plates, excrement and a bird, the bird comes sometimes back in my works, it means freedom. This artwork is about a celebration in an old Chinese palace, about a hundred dishes all together and all of them different, that had to be cooked.
In the first work I did on sandalwood paper there is a woman suffering, without a body, with only a bone. Then I added some Chinese symbols, mountains, in ancient Chinese paintings you always see a small mountain in the background in the distance, then I put the red element that is the is fire, and finally the clouds.
EM – Tigers, fish, sex acts, the composition of your artworks is fascinating thanks to the balance between erotism, humor, and reverence. How does the impulsive force of eros play into this?
SX – The tiger is a symbol of violence in love. The fish is freedom, in China, there is an ancient philosophy book about the symbolism of fish and birds written by Zhuāngzǐ, and the tiger is the symbol for violence. I have also always painted the fruit of the peach, which is a symbol of sex, it has a red color and I like it very much to eat. The ship is another symbol to represent freedom. The fish, the ship, the sea, they all mean freedom. In one work I paint this woman with a fish head who is sick with a mountain tiger, in another, there is no tiger, but there is still the presence of an animal taking a bone, it represents violence.
Make warm I did it quickly in one night, I was cold. It represents a quieter moment of my life, it is not like the initial passionate and violent love, after time there is calmer. First I painted the woman, then the tiger, then slowly the fire, the clouds, and the candles. It’s like taking a path through the heart. Sometimes there are no other meanings, some elements are just for beauty.
The symbol of sex, the tiger, and eating together always represents enjoyment, the act of taking pleasure.
I also like music very much, singing, the piano, but I have no knowledge about it and I sing badly. In Welcome to my show the tiger represents me, I am always a bit funny, everyone is serious about the concert and I represent myself in this way, I am like that in life too.
EM – Your Pinterest account looks like a little digital Wunderkammer: dollhouses, photographs of butterflies, and circus performers. What do these elements have in common in your collection?
SX – It’s all material that I deal with and that has had an impact on me. The dollhouse seems to me something joyful but also sad, it’s a closed environment that you can’t enjoy. The circus is also present in the collection and is a theme in my work.
EM – Shaoxing, Shanghai, Bologna: how are these cities reflected in your work?
SX – I don’t do anything in my native country, in Bologna, in Italy I learned to enjoy life, in China I have never done so, it’s all too fast, everyone thinks about earning money, not everyone but most. In Shanghai there is memory, I feel well, I met important people in my life: a German lady with whom I worked for two years and then an American lady who helped me a lot. A city is a place where I met these people, it’s the people I met in Shanghai that are the most important thing.
EM – Except for Fellini’s aesthetic, which has been for you a historical, literary, or cinematographic reference of great impact in your artistic and personal career?
SX – Fellini doesn’t influence me that so much, I like his personality, his films. In my opinion, the first influence is Henri Matisse, then Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. I don’t know the perspective, when I started studying art I met Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh and some women artists, then Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and then a great artist, Sanyu. Their life was honest and that is important for your life. For example, Sanyu never liked to have collaborations with the gallery, unlike other artists who wanted to, he always maintained his position, had many relationships, enjoyed, traveled, left everybody. He was not a person who was at home always painting or looked at art as something serious, he lived more seriously than art.
Another reference is William Somerset Maugham, who wrote The Moon and the Sixpence. When I finished my three-year course I went to work and read his books. The book is about a boy who doesn’t want to become a normal person but wants to find his own freeway.