Aniwar Mamat spent only the first three years of his life near the Uyghur cultural capital of Kashgar, but he is convinced this period played a vital role in shaping his identity and perception of the world.
The slight, long-haired artist from Xinjiang makes abstract pieces with tapestries woven from wool. He says those early childhood years can be the most formative. He believes the “ancient aura” of Kashgar, an ancient oasis city that was China’s westernmost outpost on the Silk Road, has travelled with him through his life and continues to informs his work.
Steeped in history and situated close to the border with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Kashgar served as a trading post for centuries and has been under the rule of Chinese, Turkic, Mongol and Tibetan empires. While it continues to be home to the Turkic Uyghur people, it is now part of the politically-fraught province of Xinjiang – a place of colliding worlds.
With mosques, livestock markets, and boisterous open-air bazaars intersecting with the emblems of a rapidly developing China, the city is a unique window into Uyghur life. It is home to artisans and craftsmen who continue to use traditional and labour-intensive production methods that are becoming increasingly rare in the age of mass production.
Mamat was born in 1962, and he moved with his parents — who both worked in administrative jobs — to the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi when he was three years old. He later relocated to Tianjin to study at the Institute of Art and Design. Afterwards, he worked at a carpet factory, which helped inform his understanding of textile manufacturing and design. In the late eighties, he moved to Beijing, drawn by the promise that it was a petri dish for new forms of creative expression.
“A lot the artistic people moved to Beijing in the 80s,” says Mamat. “It was a special age in China and other places felt too conservative and closed.”
He has been based in Beijing ever since. This week, Mamat is visiting Hong Kong for his exhibition Sunlight Reflects at Pékin Fine Arts. He sits among vast, vivid tapestries made from felt in a remote Uyghur village. His works use geometric shapes, grids and rich colors to offset the backdrop of lambswool grey. I ask him which one is his favourite, but he says he cannot decide. He likes them all very much.
In the art world, Mamat is seen as a cool-headed maverick who defies trends and shifting tastes at a time when novelty reigns. Most recently showcased at the OCAT Xi’an museum, the Pékin Fine Arts Beijing gallery and the 56th Venice art biennale, Mamat is lauded as a unique force on the contemporary Chinese art scene. He is enjoying his first solo exhibit in the fragrant harbour.
A soft-spoken, somewhat fastidious though not unfriendly man, he explains how he has woven flowers into his wooly works, which makes for an earthy, sensual experience. The bold felt tapestries are to be experienced on a visceral and personal level. Mining them for meaning is discouraged.
“Art is not about storytelling, or intellect or symbolism, it’s open to interpretation,” he says, adding that each viewer can be expected to have own response to the works. “I’m not really interest in how people interpret them, but if several have the same interpretation, I would consider that a failure on my part,” he says.
Critics commend his distinctive artistic language, which employs a minimalistic aesthetic and use of space that feels three-dimensional owing the use of thick, artisanal fabrics. That he is a Beijing-based artist who does not use Chinese motifs and the prevailing socialist realist narratives sets him apart.
Along with oil painting, he has worked with a variety of mediums, including installations, photography and film. The natural world is often cited as featuring heavily in his work, while he describes his process as organic and unplanned. “A piece of art grows from inside me, gradually brought forth by itself,” he says, describing his method as “aimless, “useless” and without concept or goals.
Since 2010, Mamat has swapped out his paint brushes for thread in a bid to pay homage to Xinjiang’s endangered craft traditions. Implicit in Sunlight Reflects is the widening divide between Xinjiang urban and rural life.
That is especially true in an eleven-minute documentary, the centrepiece of the exhibition, that depicts a barefoot Mamat creating artworks alongside local craftsmen at an almost medieval-looking workshop. Some of examples of Uyghur felts, called kigiz, date to around 500 BC; they are the oldest man-made fabric discovered intact. The way in which they are made is long and arduous, a fact that is not apparent in the nostalgia-tinged short film.
Bands of color are soaked in tubs of natural dye, with lively color schemes redolent of the tapestries of the steppes, where shades of pink, burgundy, green and blue prevail. Music by composer Erik Satie plays in the background of the film, alongside industrial sounds that give off a sense that the demonstration touches on the unreal. The convergence of modern technology to portray an ancient and painstakingly arduous craft could express the contradictions that come with making art that combines old and new worlds.
Mamat says working alongside craftsmen served as a reminder of the natural joys and talents that come from a creative legacy far removed from the intellectual and technological world of market driven modern art. What he witnessed working alongside the craftsmen of his native Xinjiang was a genuine love of their craft. Without institutional training, the craftsmen exude a skill and passion that feels genuine and innate.
“Working with tapestries feels alive, there’s a unique and intimate connection they have with human beings that other mediums don’t have – tapestries have been close to humans for thousands of years,” he says. “They pierce through the eyes and into the heart.”
Mamat’s ongoing and idiosyncratic experiment with preserving Xinjiang heritage through his vision of spatial, colour-band and colour-grid abstraction involves opting for brighter hues imported by Uyghur carpet makers more than a thousand years ago. They differ radically from the preferred Han Chinese palette of imperial reds and yellows. It is a gesture aimed at preserving a cultural heritage under threat from modern production methods and increasing urban development.
That said, Mamat defies the idea that geography defines him as an artist. “I have many influences, including American artists like Warhol and Pollock, alongside artists from Japan,” he says. Kandinsky’s raucous abstract works also feature heavily in his artistic lexicon, explaining that the Russian canon, being geographically closer to Xinjiang, served as a vibrant source of inspiration for himself and his peers. French abstract artist Matisse’s bold and expressive use of colors and fluid shape have also informed his work.
Running until November 12, 2016 Mamat’s exhibition offers Hongkongers a rare glimpse at an ancient Xinjiang art form with modern twist. “Hong Kong constantly receives culture, and seldom refuses it,” he says.
Meet Aniwar Mamat till Nov 06 at Pekin Fine Arts, 16/F, Union Industrial Building, 48 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Aberdeen.
Part of Hong Kong Art Week from Oct 27 to Nov 9, 2016