As a lecturer in art and design, Jiqun Zhang had always been interested in western art forms. But from his base at Shandong University in China, he had previously found his opportunities to engage with it somewhat limited.
Over the past 12 months, however, that has all changed thanks to a year-long residency in the School of Art, Design and Architecture at the University of Plymouth. It has provided Jiqun with an insight into different styles and techniques that he will shortly be taking back to his students at one of China’s foremost arts universities.
The opportunity to spend time in England came about when Jiqun contacted Chris Cook, Associate Professor (Reader) in Painting in Plymouth, who had recently been among the contributors to an exhibition in the Far East. Several emails later, and having secured funding from the Chinese government, Jiqun arrived in the city with his family and began a year-long stint working alongside Mr Cook, students and other academics in studios at Royal William Yard.
He said: “In China, we always draw and paint realistically and teach our students the same. It means their skill levels are extremely high but perhaps their imagination and creativity is not at the same level. Spending time in the UK, and working with lecturers at the University, has opened my eyes to new techniques and concepts. And I hope I can use them to inspire the teaching of my own students when I return home.”
Since arriving in Plymouth in January 2016, Jiqun has completed several books full of sketches, life drawings, and around 50 oil paintings, 20 of which recently featured in a showcase of his work at Royal William Yard. He visited galleries and museums across the UK, and the subjects he painted changed significantly over the course of his 12-month stay.
“Before I came to Plymouth, my plan was to paint something about people’s inner worlds, using the face as a canvas of the heart,”
said Jiqun, whose major works involve portraits of subjects sourced from the internet, and subsequently modified in a contemplation of the inner world of the victim.
“I spent time contemplating the weakness of the human being and realised that often in relationships, we end up neglecting the weaker partners and focussing on the strong. My most recent pieces seek to alter that balance, but also show that you do not necessarily need to see the detail of someone’s face to understand them.”
Jiqun is the second Chinese scholar to be accepted for a residency of this nature, with another having secured funding and started work in Plymouth this month. And Mr Cook said while the exchanges had beneficial effects for the individuals, it was also having a positive impact for other Fine Art students. He added:
"I have always had an interest in Chinese and Japanese art as part of my own practice, but what is now emerging is a group of international postgraduate artists who can bounce ideas off one other. Many artists trained in the Far East have identifiable styles based around precise drawing, landscape and calligraphy, and have much to share in those genres, but as contemporary artists, they are interested in breaking down cultural boundaries, and are using western art concepts to assist them in this.
“Since Jiqun came to us, he has developed personally and in his practice. When he arrived his knowledge of British art and his English language skills were both quite limited, but at the end of his residency he delivered a research seminar on British art, in English. Meanwhile his own work has absorbed considerable visual research and expanded its emotional range. I feel this international residency programme can continue to blossom, to the benefit of all involved.”