Cindy Huang, a first year Art History student hailing from Chengdu, China, places two neatly organised brown hardbacks on the table between us with an open smile. Flicking through, the recurring figure of a girl with bright red hair seems to leap out from the pages with unbridled force. It’s a pervasive, brazen image, her trusty tobacco pipe contrasting with more occasional props such as a no-smoking sign, or a sailor’s uniform, a sports car or a flurry of birds.
When I ask her if she has any friends who are redheads, she shakes her head. “I kept dreaming about her,” she says, “just red hair, so I went through a phase where I drew a lot of redheads, I’m not sure why. Why red?” I suggest that it could be something to do with the national flag, and she laughs. “Yeah, maybe. It’s not always a specific character, either. At school I used to draw portraits of my friends, but with that same red hair.”
Despite being around fifteen hours from home by plane, a fact she notes with a slight wince, traditional Chinese artistry and concepts feel tied to Huang’s art with an invisible thread. Picking up the basics of painting and calligraphy from her father, her pieces are a medley of lines with different forms and shapes. “My Dad tried to teach me calligraphy, yeah,” Huang says, “tried, anyway. Lines are very important in Chinese calligraphy.” The weight of that influence is evident, her ‘inktober’ pieces conveying a simple elegance with their delicate strokes and varied textures.
Growing up as an only child in the Sichuan province, Huang has been studying art since the age of 4 or 5, although she only picked up an appreciation of Art History after a trip to Paris in middle school. A greater influence was her grandfather, a History professor she visited most summers. He features in one of her sketches, the brief summary “Grandpa standing in Grandma’s garden” lining one side in careful strokes. “He had a lot of old, thick books that I didn’t really understand. Old books are comforting; the shelves make you feel safe.” Aesthetics, Huang explains, play a greater role in Chinese traditional art and culture than one might expect. To a young girl sitting on the floor of her Grandpa’s study, it didn’t matter that she couldn’t read the books. Their spines were tidily stacked, their antique pages beautiful to look at, and it was the start of a personal relationship between Huang and the visual culture of the past that underpins most of her work. She smiles, gesturing towards her Sony mobile. “I still put aesthetics over anything else. I can’t even make calls on this most of the time, it’s terrible. It looks nice, though.”
The University of St Andrews, with its heavy emphasis on over 600 years of Scottish tradition, appears to be the perfect choice to foster Huang’s artistic interests. I asked her how she found the art scene here as a fresher, and whether she had any advice for fellow artists. “Definitely join the Art Society! I love life drawing. You don’t have to talk to anyone during the poses, I like that it’s a private space between subject and artist.”
Following her high school Visual Arts course, taken as part of the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) at Higher Level, Huang fell into a creative slump. Recouping from the heavy workload of the IB, there was a time when she felt “done” with art completely. “I wanted to draw but I wasn’t able to, it took a while to get back to it.” The disruption of this private relationship between Huang and her craft is personified in another red-head, distinguishable for the tears streaming down her cheeks and the blue face dominating her outstretched neck. “The face in her neck is a common Chinese symbol for anger. The red flames around it are also important.” The most poignant reference to Huang’s personal struggle with artists’ block is a harsh red line, one that separates the figure’s arm with its hand holding a pen.
A piece of sculpture created for Huang’s IB course, an angry plethora of tangled charger cables, carries a similarly murky tone. Purportedly a reflection of compounding technology problems, it offers a glimpse of her frustration when hunting for a lost charger. It is with a note of scepticism that Huang tells me this, since she believes that a viewer takes what they want from a piece regardless of an artist’s intentions. “Most of the time, what you’re trying to express can’t be perceived. If you’re expecting people to understand, then they probably won’t. So my friend got really into collaging with fashion periodicals, and I wanted to try it, but that was only because I wanted to do it, it wasn’t to express myself. I often choose paint and ink because it lets me express ideas as clearly as possible.” Referring to another IB installation, several rocks wrapped in hand-crocheted green sleeves, she asks if I recognise the black curved lines beneath them. “See here, if you didn’t know about Japanese garden designs you might not recognise it. The green is moss, sort of growing into the ground.”
Several visits to Japan have encouraged Huang’s general attitude towards national heritage – She believes that we should immerse ourselves in historic culture as another aspect of daily life, rather than confining it to tourist sites. Looking to the future, she supposes that combining tradition and modernity will forge a new path for an increasingly commercialised Chinese fashion industry. “I’m influenced by fashion, rather than interested in it. They’re trying to give traditional clothes a renaissance, but they’re doing it in the wrong ways, copying old patterns and adding a modern thing to sell them. You need to start from scratch. I saw a project providing Chinese designers who had been educated in the West with the opportunity to visit ethnic groups, working with people there and crafting skills to create something totally new. I think that’s really great, suitable for modern society.”
Rather than something to be avoided, Huang sees the influence of the West as irreversible in the digital age. “You can’t un-influence yourself, but I do still feel a gap between myself and the Renaissance history I’m studying in St Andrews. I like the deeper context, you can reconstruct society through the artwork, but I don’t consciously adopt any of it myself. Explaining other artists’ work is different to how I understand myself as an artist.”
Given Huang’s affinity for international artistic collaboration, I was left curious about her plans for the future. Could those two sides of herself truly be fundamentally incompatible, given the skill with which she draws together multicultural concepts and histories within her art? “I’m interested in exhibition curation actually, since it involves those two sides. We studied the social functions of museums in my Social Anthropology course and that was amazing. Curators express their interpretations of others artists’ ideas, to create something new – It combines my interests.”
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