Chinese culture can be traced back for thousands of years, as a people and place, China has remained fairly stable for millennia. When a peoples' history can be accurately traced back so far, naturally aspects of their culture can be found to have extremely deep roots indeed. The foundations of Chinese Theatre are laid in the Shang Dynasty, which took place around 1500BC. While Western Europe were experimenting with bronze and boats, in the East a rich culture was putting emphasis on the art of performance.
Perhaps where as many paganic tribes would use ritual and ceremony in spiritual practice and perhaps on the battlefield, putting it into use for a general spectacle was definitely a huge step. Only the Greeks can match this amount of time when it comes to advanced intellectual culture. So many other people groups have been and gone, but for those who stood their ground, the present day has allowed a true flourishing of their ancient ideas.
The span of work that encompasses Chinese theatre is huge. Everything from circus type performance like acrobatics and feats of human ability to the more delicate world of shadow puppets and graceful dance. Music has always been a key ingredient to Chinese theatre, a soundtrack put into action creates a wholesome experience. Where-as we in Britain have musicals and operas, in Chinese culture it's less of a separate form.
During the early Shang Dynasty, it was acrobatics set to music that first became a national form of entertainment. Later, during the following Yuan Dynasty, other forms also began to emerge. Even today, Yuan Style Theatre is known for its opera and grandiose costumes. Of the four doctrines of Chinese theatre, Song, Dance, Acrobatics, and Voice, even in these early times, they were each becoming apparent.
Dance in Chinese Theatre is defined not only by moving in patterns to music, but by timed acrobatics and combat skills. The martial arts of the theatre were used as a form of dance however could easily translate into fighting if in different circumstances. Within the theatre, it is beauty and grace which are required to create a good performance. Combining physical and vocal skills with an elegant delivery is the goal of any Chinese performance artist.
The dance moves often had meanings, and their language was understood by those trained in it. A way of communicating ideas among the elite without closing the doors to the public was able to allow everyone to feel connected but also to keep wisdom out of the hands of those who would misuse it. During the Tang Dynasty, this art form became translated into puppetry. Instead of using one's own body to perform, the skill moved into creating the illusion of theatre from tiny gestures of sticks and strings. Separating the artist from the performer and exchanging vivid and expressive movements for much lighter and subtle routines gave another new dimension to the wisdom of the form.
The puppets used in Chinese Theatre are defined by their appearance. Cantonese puppets are large and show various colours to depict their role in the play. Peking puppets are smaller and their actionable rods are placed at ninety degrees rather than running upwards. The stories and general method of telling them were the same for both types, however to become experienced with one form of puppet was considered a specialism. Chinese puppeteers have a superstition that if the head is left on the puppet over-night then it will come alive. For this reason, the body and the head of Chinese puppets are usually kept in separate containers.
With the modern age, technology has given us cinema and music production. The same themes and elements of the old theatrical forms can still be found in even the most modern of Chinese performance, whether its on stage, DVD, or CD.
Esoteric and mysticism inspired creations have always been a little strange, drawing on all kinds of imagery and symbolism to represent the unrepresentable. Just take a look at the work of Bosch, Blake, and Böcklin to see how the imaginary world of the spirit realm is given precedence by visionary artists.
“The artist must be blind to distinction between 'recognised' or 'unrecognised' conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age.”
― Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
To take something to new levels of perception, we have to see things in new ways. Art is all about representation. The way we perceive art depends on what it represents to us. To see familiar themes and forms running through works, we associate one with the other and make personal judgements on taste. So to break from form,to talk about something in a way that no-one else is doing, it's not surprising when nobody listens. To make a mark, to notch that tree of creativity with our idea, it must become bigger than we are.
The art of the nineteenth and twentieth century painter František Kupka has been pivotal in the way we look at colour, form, and representation. Perhaps the Godfather of the Abstract Art scene, the works peel totally away from the realism and iconic portrayals so many had strived to produce. Kupka forgot about making things look real, he forgot about natural, he forgot about material. The works show us life and sensations with what was then a brand new language.
As a huge influence on Marcel Duchamp, Kupka is perhaps more recognised through the latter's more famous offerings. The Grand Palais in France has made a huge effort to re-shift the power-balance in the equation. Showing over 300 pieces including manuscripts, paintings, photography, and papers, the Czech artist is being shown for the true inspiration that he was.
Described often as the “Artist's artist”, the personality of Kupka made its way into that of several other big names at the time. In this depository of creative ideas that was the larger community and social life of the artist, naturally many more slightly adjusted templates emerged. Well travelled, being born in what was then Austria-Hungary in the 1870s, Kupka moved to Prague to study fine arts. He then established himself in Montmatre, Paris, in 1896 and began his career.
For the first time in the general field of view, colour and shape were used to symbolise sensations and relationships between ourselves and the hidden world. In occult fashion, hidden meanings were knitted through the various shapes and patterns depicted. By showing colour as vibrant and full of light, people become almost dream like beings experiencing material situations. This is the doorway many other artists needed to walk through to find their niche in the painting and descriptive arts world.
British practising Muslim and artist, Nasima Ahmed, has become quite a phenomenon on Instagram. Operating under the name of Moosleemargh, her works depict an interpretation of Muslim life from her own eyes. The work of the Islamic world has always been vibrant and colourful, and has often incorporated geometry and number.
Nasima has said that she'd like her work to communicate universal human experience and situations from a Muslim perspective for those who are non-Muslim. By doing this, she hopes to improve cultural understanding and appreciation for differing cultures. While living in Britain, which is multi-cultural in nature, being a part of a minority will naturally carry its own burdens. The art work addresses this head on in colourful and easy going images.
Because in the modern day artists utilise the power of social media to communicate their work, the way artists operate has changed. We now rely on shares, likes, interactions, and sales. Before, we just had to put up a shop somewhere and sell what we make. The modern art customer expects a lot more now, and if we don't give it to them, they will find an artist who will. It doesn't take a moment to upload a shareable version of some of our work for potential fans and customers to enjoy.
Why not check her out on Instagram
You can read an interview with Nasima on Muslim Vibe. (Where I sourced the images)