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Exhibition Promotes Folk Art and Artists

The First Shanghai Folk Art Exhibition opens today at the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

Continuing through the weekend, the exhibition is one of the latest moves by both experts and officials to save a variety of folk arts that stand on the verge of extinction as a result of challenges posed by globalization.

The exhibition will bring together top craftspeople and artists from all over the country and will feature 28 folk art forms.

These include paper-cutting, folk painting, carving, dough figurine-making, miniature carving, pottery, batik and finger-painting, among others.

The organizers have set aside a special area to showcase folk artworks by local Shanghai artists. This will be the first-ever large-scale exhibition of the work of local artists in this metropolis, arguably the most modern city in the country.

These art forms may seem strange and out of place to young viewers under 30 years of age, who grow up watching television and playing computer games. Only middle-aged citizens may recall, from deep in their memory, scenes from their childhood in open markets or temple fairs where crafts people showed off their excellent skills with scissors, paints, dough or needles, while others performed on temporary stages.

A highlight of the exhibition will be shadow puppet shows staged by elderly farmers from Shanghai's Xinjing area.

The now priceless shadow puppets, some dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, are made from calf skin, instead of donkey skin, which was used by the farmers in North China for their shadow puppets.

After a long and concerted search, people from the Shanghai Artists' Association and the Shanghai Puppet Play Troupe located Ju Moxu, a sixth-generation descendant of Mao Genyu, the founder of shadow puppet plays in Shanghai.

Ju, in his 90s, has a whole box full of shadow puppets in his home in the town of Qibao. Subsequently two of Ju's students, both in their 70s, were also found. The three old men will stage "Legends of the Sui and Tang Heroes" (Sui Tang Yingxiong Zhuan) during the exhibition.

Jinshan farmers' paintings, also an important part of the show, represent a unique genre of painting. In a unique and innovative way, the local residents in Jinshan area record the amusing details of their rustic lives in bold colours and exaggerated, even abstract, images.

Feng Jicai, a well-known writer and folklore scholar in China and also chairman of the China Folk Arts Association, once said that folk arts are an important vehicle for the expression of the national spirit and emotions of the Chinese people.

But he also said that "minute by minute our folk heritage is fading away from our fields, mountains and even the most remote corners of our country."

Wu Zude, secretary-general of the exhibition's organizing committee, said that these crafts- people and artists, whose average age is over 60, are in great need of support if they are to pass on their skills to younger generations.

"The fact that folk arts are now an out-of-the-mainstream oddity is one of the reasons that they are not getting the attention they deserve," Wu said.

Wu, like many folk arts experts and noted writers, believes folk arts, from the very day of their birth, are very different from the art of imperial courts and aristocrats and from mainstream art forms in any culture.

Folk arts always represent real aspects of the lives of ordinary people, especially of the middle and lower classes. They never received the benefit of extensive financial support from the imperial court, nor did they get much attention from the general public.

"In this sense, various forms of folk arts such as folk literature, folk songs and dances, and crafts, always struggle for existence on the fringes of mainstream society," Wu said.

But be that as it may, folk arts provide the most vivid and truthful vehicle for artistic creation, and they should be called "the mother of all other refined art forms."

"So the disappearance of folk arts would be a great and irrevocable loss to the Chinese nation," Wu said.

Some unique forms of folk art have already disappeared such as Gu-style embroidery, and the pavilion lantern art created by Wang Jianying and Wang Kunrong.

Gu-style embroidery features great dexterity to split thin threads into 16 strands. Masterpieces of Gu-style embroidery have won numerous grand awards, including the gold medal in the 1901 Panama International Exposition. But the magnificent embroidery died out in the 20th century.

People in the field point out that a major reason for the fading out of folk art is that it cannot compete in the globalized, modern market- place. Mechanical production and mass consumption have pushed family workshops and handicrafts out of the market.

Another important reason is that fewer and fewer young people recognize the real value of folk arts and show little interest in pursuing them, since they have been marginalized.

The major organizers of the exhibition are trying to attract more young people to the exhibition and help them become aware of these precious folk artworks. They hope they will be able to stimulate their enthusiasm to learn these arts and pass them on.

In the exhibition, the organizers are not only showing the cream of Chinese folk art to foreign visitors, but are showing folk art works from the United States, France, South Korea and Japan.

A series of panel discussions involving Chinese scholars, artists, craftspeople and their foreign counterparts are scheduled during the exhibition to help spread the word about the preservation of these precious forms that express the inner spirit of a people.

(China Daily March 18, 2004)

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