After spending half a lifetime with Australia's indigenous people, a former art teacher from Anhui is eager to share his journey with society
It's nothing new that an artist might be inspired by indigenous art from other lands - considering Pablo Picasso's masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), reputedly influenced by African sculptures. However, it is rare for an artist to spend half a lifetime living with aborigines in the wilds of a foreign land just to learn the essence of their traditional art and use it as the seedbed for his own work.
But former art teacher Zhou Xiaoping, 60, from Hefei, Anhui province, did just that.
Artist Zhou Xiaoping has observed and experienced life with an aboriginal community in Australia for nearly 30 years. Photos Provided to China Daily
He went on to observe and experience aboriginal life for nearly 30 years after becoming captivated by aboriginal rock paintings during one of his first trips to Australia in 1988.
"I came across some aboriginals and their artworks in Alice Springs, a town in central Australia," recalls Zhou.
"I was extremely curious about these people, who looked so different from my stereotypical image of Australians and seemed to be out of place in the midst of so-called mainstream Australian society."
After that, his curiosity led him to explore the outback in Arnhem Land, a remote region some 500 kilometers from Darwin, the capital of Australia's Northern Territory, where he tried to integrate into the aboriginal community there.
He had to change his daily routines and lifestyle from being an urban dweller, adapting to hunt and fish for food during the daytime and bedding down for the night in the open.
"When we caught our prey, we threw the animal into the fire, and ate its meat without any flavoring. It was always mixed with sand," says the Chinese-Australian painter, adding that the eating habits of his aboriginal friends didn't bother him, despite being so unfamiliar initially.
He tried to put behind him the rules and social trifles of urban living and wholeheartedly embrace the daily life of a bushman, which later transformed his understanding of the essence of aboriginal culture and increasingly influenced, both implicitly or explicitly, his art.
Zhou has traveled extensively throughout Australia and been to almost every main aboriginal community in the country.
In the early 1990s, he met an indigenous Australian artist named Jimmy Pike in an aboriginal stronghold in Western Australia.
"We lived under a tree for three weeks, during which he told me the folklores of the region and taught me how to survive in the wild," says Zhou. "And we painted together as a pastime."
Their friendship grew through their shared interest in art and mutual respect for each other. In 1996, Zhou returned to his hometown in China with Pike, and held a joint exhibition at the Hefei-Kurume Friendship Art Gallery, which is believed to have been the first exhibition of Australian aboriginal art in China.
In 2009, Zhou and another aboriginal artist, Johnny Bulunbulun from Arnhem Land, painted a work called From Art to Life, which he brought to an exhibition at the Capital Museum in Beijing two years later.
Ocher and ink were used in the collaborative painting by the two artists of different races, with traditional Chinese painting occupying the left side of the canvas and a design typical of indigenous Australian art taking up the right. In the artwork, images of fish swimming from right to left symbolize the communication between the artists' two cultures.
Most of Zhou's earlier paintings focused on directly portraying aboriginals.
As he gained a deeper insight into their spirituality over the years, Zhou began to express his feelings through his own abstract works, which usually include aboriginal symbols.
The artist says he has developed his own style of art in recent years.
While he initially took aboriginal culture as his muse, he later began to meld cultural elements from aboriginal life into his works and discover his own sense of individualism.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull praised Zhou's work for its integration of elements from Chinese, Western and indigenous creative traditions.
According to Turnbull, Zhou's comprehensive body of work explores an array of important themes such as identity and belonging, connections between people and the land, and the continuing renewal of ancient cultures in today's world.
Zhou says, "I grew up in China, spent years with the aboriginal Australians, and was once educated in Australia for a postgraduate program.
"Something cross-cultural has been internalized and should be embodied in my paintings."
His journals and photo albums are piled high in his studio in Melbourne, which help him recall his countless experiences with aboriginals.
Eager to show Australian mainstream society what he has witnessed over the past three decades, Zhou is writing a book that records his firsthand experience of aboriginal communities and is planning to film a documentary based on the book.
"Anyway, I am a painter, not a scholar or a storyteller - but I suppose I do have lots of stories to tell," says Zhou.
"What I really wanted to pursue was the ability to express myself in my paintings in an original way that derives exclusively from my own experiences."