Dramatic and free-spirited are the two adjectives commonly used to describe Ma Desheng – but Hong Kong gallerist Katie de Tilly would like to add “precise” to the list. “He thinks very deeply about how he wants to create his art,” she says. “The amount of imagination that goes into those woodblock prints. They have so much soul.”
The Beijing-born, Paris-based artist grins in response. The two are sitting together at de Tilly’s 10 Chancery Lane gallery, where the artist is showing the stone paintings for which he is best known, as well as a few of his early woodblock prints. Ma Desheng—he asks to be referred to only by his full name—is zipping around the gallery in his paint-splattered wheelchair. He appears to be in a light-hearted mood, chatting cheerily with early visitors to his show, and later striking a series of dramatic poses for our photographer.
Judging from the easy banter between de Tilly and Ma Desheng, it’s clear that the two have known each other for a long time. It has been a little more than a decade, in fact, although this is Ma Desheng’s first solo exhibition with the gallery. The two met through Chinese artist Wang Keping, who de Tilly also represents. “It was love at first sight,” she says.
Ma Desheng again nods in agreement.
What was his first impression of Katie? He describes her as “very strong, very happy,” with a “very unique eye.”
“Let me tell you a funny story,” de Tilly jumps in. “One time, we were having dinner with Wang Keping, and Ma Desheng wanted to treat me. When the waiter said his credit card wasn’t working, Ma Desheng kept saying, ‘It’s working! It’s working! It’s working!’ Until suddenly, he swipes everything off the table with his hand.”
“Aiya!” Ma Desheng exclaims, covering his mouth with his hands in childish delight.
De Tilly continues. “All the plates and glasses went flying! Complete drama! The waiters tried the card again, and it worked! Ma Desheng is a man of drama and passion. He grasps life totally and completely.”
That life was nearly extinguished before it could really begin. Ma Desheng was diagnosed with polio before the age of one, and as he grow older, he began drawing out of loneliness. “I couldn’t play with the other kids, so I found my own thing to do,” he says.
Later rejected by a university admissions office for not being “physically strong”—one of Mao Zedong’s key qualities for the ideal youth during the Cultural Revolution—he was employed by the government as a draughtsman during the late 1960s. As was customary at the time, he worked six days a week, and on his day off, would travel around the city, or go off to fields and mountains.
These travels allowed Ma Desheng to witness first-hand the inequality in Chinese society at the time. A decade earlier, in 1958, Mao had launched the Great Leap Forward, which aimed to turn China from an agrarian to industrial economy by forcibly grouping farmers into communes. It had disastrous consequences. It depleted grain reserves across the country, leading to widespread famine. And anyone who refused to abide by the rules was either harshly punished or executed.
“I saw people living in abject poverty 20 kilometres from the Beijing city centre,” says Ma Desheng. “I saw one family sharing one single bed. They ate very poorly. I was not living a life of luxury, but compared to them, my life was pretty good.”
He distilled all that he saw in a vast collection of woodblock prints. Between 1978 and 1982, he made 60 such prints, usually revolving around themes of repression, freedom and hardship in Chinese society. While one features a lone key—“for opening the door, and the head,” he says—another depicts a massive hand appearing to put an end to a horde of chattering mouths. “That’s what the Chinese government did to the people.”
To the artist, freedom and equality are two sides of the same coin. It is only when one is free from the tyranny of another that equality among all can be achieved. This is perhaps best reflected in Untitled 18 (1979), in which Ma Desheng depicts a man and his son. Even though the former is dying, the latter is still toiling away on the field.
“Those on the lower echelons of society are always working for the benefit of others,” he says of the piece. “It’s the same, whether it is the Nationalist Party, or Communist Party [in power]. These people always suffer the most.”
The artist’s experimentation with abstracted forms were also typical of the avant-garde Xing Xing Art Group, also known as the Stars Art Group, of which Ma Desheng was a key member.
After Mao’s death in 1976, the new Chinese premier Deng Xiaopeng wanted to position himself as a liberal ruler. He allowed—even encouraged—criticism of Mao’s policies, leading to the birth of the Xidan Democracy Wall, a 200-metre space in Beijing where the public posted their demands for more freedoms and a better quality of life. Taking advantage of this brief window of political liberalisation, Huang Rui, Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping, Ma Desheng and others founded the Xing Xing Art Group in 1979 to advocate for greater freedom of expression in the arts.
Unlike existing Chinese artists, who were mostly doing propaganda art for the Chinese government, the Xing Xing artists championed individualism. Artists in the group posted on Xidan Democracy Wall, were active in Jintian, or Today, China’s first independent literary magazine. They also studied Western art magazines, which were smuggled into the country by the foreign correspondents that poured in after Deng’s Open Door policy of 1978.
These art magazines featured famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, whose cubist aesthetics had a huge impact on Ma Desheng. The Xing Xing Art Group held three exhibitions from 1979 until 1983. His woodblock paintings were shown at all three.
“I had a day job so I had to work at night,” he recalls. “Once, I didn’t sleep for three days, three nights. Since I didn’t have the opportunity to receive higher education, I had to make up for it with hard work [as that’s all the artist felt he had to show for].” He pauses before concluding with a hint of pride. “Now, my art is being collected by the British Museum and Centre Pompidou.”
In 1985, Ma Desheng left China for Europe. While Deng’s early years provided relative freedom, many artists felt caught up in the political turmoils of the time. Even though Deng provided relative freedom to artists, his brand of liberalism had limitations. While he allowed criticisms of Mao Zedong and his cronies, he snuffed out any criticism directed towards himself. Deng was also trying to fight off his enemies within the government, many of whom were fervent Mao supporters. The government’s messaging to the outside world was inconsistent at best.
“The ‘door’ was opening, then closing, then opening again,” says de Tilly. The Xing Xing artists were caught up in the confusion. Out of frustration, they left the country one by one. When it was Ma Desheng’s turn to leave, in 1985, his first stop was Switzerland. The Swiss ambassador to China at the time was an avid art collector. “He said, ‘I’ll issue you a visa once you have your passport,’” says Ma Desheng with a grin. From Switzerland, he moved to southern France before eventually settling in Paris.
By then, the artist was becoming known for his acrylic stone paintings. If his woodblock prints reflected his thoughts about societal ills, then the stone paintings is his way of finding a way out of man’s cruelty. Ma Desheng had started painting with acrylic in 1981, after a bone spur in his hand rendered even the simplest act of writing a letter excruciatingly painful. “I couldn’t move my fingers so it was very difficult for me to draw, for example, on Chinese xuan [rice] paper. I could however, use my arms, and acrylic paintings allowed me to paint one layer over the other, so it didn’t matter if I made mistakes.”
He continued to channel his frustrations with—and hope for—mankind into his work. “I spent 30 years in China, 30 years in the West. I think there is something very wrong with humanity,” he says. “We have all these great libraries, François-Mitterrand, the British Library and others, and within these walls are books by the greatest philosophers and statesmen. How we are always at war with each other? From the first century until now? We aren’t just killing each other, we are also turning it into war films, and getting awards for it!” He clutches his head. “If God is looking from above, he would no doubt be very angry.”
In contrast to the tempestuous nature of humanity, Ma Desheng finds stones appealingly neutral. “For me, a stone is the natural state,” he says. “Stones have existed since the beginning of time. Human civilisation only came much later. Who knows? Perhaps, the world would all turn into one big stone again.”
Stacked atop one another, his stones look like a human that is trying to rearrange their body parts at a certain angle. Ma Desheng says the stacked structure symbolises the interdependence of man. “Take one out and the whole structure collapses.”
The stones also contain personal anguish. While they are all clearly outlined by thick brushstrokes, within them are mini tornadoes of turmoil that seems to crash against the edges. They take on added meaning if you consider that a car accident in 1992 robbed Ma Desheng of his wife and child, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.
Years later, Ma Desheng is still close to some of the Xing Xing artists. Huang Rui visits him, and he talks to the Paris-based Wang Keping often. What do they talk about?
“Oh a lot of things,” he says. “Life, society, there is still a lot to think about. A lot.”
And if context is everything, then this month—with the ongoing controversy around a proposed law that would facilitate extraditions between Hong Kong and China, and the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre—is also shaping up to be a fitting time to show art by someone who values freedom above all else.