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Art Discussion Group - Malta




To commemorate Woman’s Day, China Cultural Centre is presenting ‘Innocence, Tranquillity & Beauty: Dialogue – Feng Xiwen (1979-) and Debbie Bonello (1980-)’. The inauguration on Thursday 7th March 2019 is being held in the art gallery at the China Cultural Centre at 173, Melita Street, Valletta. The exhibition opens to the public from the 8th to 22nd March 2019.

Simplicity is the hallmark of Feng Xiwen’s artistic expression in a child-like and naïve strip-cartoon technique. A sense of joyful bliss perhaps sublimated with a certain prudence or reserve does not mitigate the tranquillity, serenity, peace, silence and rest that her frames intimate. She lives in perfect harmony with nature, a kind of empathy or symbiosis, in unison or syntonic with the elements, tuned to the cosmos. The source of this vision lies in the art of Zen she studied under Zhang Dahua, pioneer of Chinese contemporary Zen painting.

Her cultural concept: ‘Live a pure and simple life; see the world with a calm heart and mind’ has much in common with Thomas Merton’s mystic view: – ‘Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony’. Quite true of her work as it rather suggests a pleasant smile instead of a loud uncontrolled laugh. Implicitly she is alluding to the Greek notion of the ‘music of the spheres’, a belief in the perfect harmony of the different musical notes each planet made while revolving around our earth.

The character of her little monk: ‘Carefree Sisi’ is eternally happy showered by petals, under falling snow flakes, flying dream-like under fleecy clouds, under hanging Buddhist ‘sutras’ or streamers flapping in the wind or holding a blue lotus flower. He is pleasantly relaxed and happy in the company of dogs, cats, lambs, birds, a leafy branch, a tree full of blossoms, walking over rounded hillocks and a rolling countryside, in the shadow of a mountain and thrilled by its spirit. The little monk waits with patience, listens to the falling snow, finds solace in meditation, is wrapt up in prayer, walks in silence and listens to the breeze rustling through the trees but almost always in the company of his brothers. The scenes are in a way reminiscent of the mystic St. Francis of Assisi.

Her mentor Xu Songbo of Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts wrote: ‘Charmingly naïve ‘Carefree Sisi’ has always been the subject of Xiwen’s paintings. When I first saw her work, I felt a pure and happy atmosphere. This was the natural expression of her nature, and it was very valuable’, a comment or reflection of one who knew her intimately. Her little monk yearns for nirvana.

The character of ‘Carefree Sisi’, this little monk reminds me vividly of ‘The Bacchae’ by the Greek tragedian Euripides. In reality the monk’s character is the positive nature of the Bacchae, the rational and civilized side when in peaceful moments they suckled young animals, innocent and quiet like lambs. Here the simile stops as the Bacchae when uncontrolled, in their ferocity they hunt goats and cattle and tear them to pieces. The little monk lacks this polarity: the opposing facets of good and evil. He has a simple, happy, innocent, soft heart that conveys the purest love. Good is truth and beautiful. This philosophy nurtured by the little monk could be a therapeutic cure for the modern Chinese individual. Exhausted and out of breath by running forth into the void after the opening up of China’s isolationist policy he needs to pause and reflect in the peace and solace that this little monk offers.

Debbie Bonello’s expression is a journey in time and space. Landscape is only an excuse to revel in atmosphere, mood, feeling, emotion, sentiment and textures. Her enthusiasm for life overflows with emotion and I best describe her by the iconic ‘Women Running on the Beach’ of 1922 by Pablo Picasso. She flings herself into space running wild into the wind to feel the breeze against her cheek with abandon, with a joie de vivre and an élan vital. 

Debbie Bonello’s work is characterized by ‘loose brushstrokes’ which in reality are forceful, energetic, vigorous and dynamic strokes that convey dynamic movement. The source of her expressionistic tendencies is probably Impressionism. Her landscapes convey a place with spirit or the spirit of a place, a sense of space, of location, mood and atmosphere and demonstrate her love for en plein-air painting: studies of sky, clouds, vast stretches of water and open spaces. She has transformed her travels or journey to Toronto, Canada; to Trapani, Cefalù, Castelbuono, Pozallo in Sicily, to towns in Italy, her native Malta and her travels in China from intense experience into actual and tangible expression.

In landscape, in nature around her she feels the metaphor for man’s moods and character. She focuses on weather and mood; on nature and atmosphere on the spirit of existence. Nature imitates man’s character, his changing moods. When a scudding cloud hides a brilliant sun it is like a noxious thought that clouds man’s brain. When droplets of rain flow down a window pane it’s like a rivulet of tears flooding the cheeks of a beautiful girl. Dawn and dusk are always a revelation. At sunset the purple and violet hues make us so sad, so nostalgic but when the sun disappears noiselessly, regally into a liquid element we feel released. The peaceful resolution is hypnotic and therapeutic. 

The liquidity and fluidity of her brushstrokes give her work dynamic motion; the overwhelming energy of water flooding the land; an intense spontaneous emotional feeling; a sense of immediate actuality. Probably her mentors are Turner and Monet. She is a vigorous expressionist. She exploits a dark sea or a leaden sky to suggest a sad, atrocious mood. A sky veiled in mist or light cloud is shyness or expectation. Luscious vegetation is rich in hope.

The flower series also becomes symbolic and deals with aspects of life such as the ‘cycle of life, female sexuality and the challenges and opportunities faced by women in contemporary society’. A wild flower, a symbol for woman is forced to live in a vase, to live only on water, in isolation. Flowers are delicate and elegant and often enough they are used symbolically such as a rose for marital love, and stock for the intimacy of an engaged couple. Their beauty seduces but wilts in time, they dry and die. So human, like the seasons: spring stands for youth, winter for old age: the cycle of life. Life is a journey.

The dialogue is about life’s journey. Feng Xiwen has learnt to sing and swing in the cage while Debbie Bonello has flown out of the gilded cage in search of adventure and fulfilment. Feng Xiwen is content in her simple world. Debbie Bonello exults in its beauty. Xiwen finds peace and contentment in sublimated feeling while Debbie overflows with emotion and sentiment. Xiwen is spiritual while Debbie is sensually emotional. Both expressions are romantic, therapeutic, symbolic and yearn for tranquillity, serenity and peace. Both are lyrical and poetic. Both are a palliative; a harmless palliative in Xiwen’s language, a vigorous therapy for Debbie’s admirers. The empathy with nature is explicit in both. Both expressions convey or intimate a joie de vivre and an élan vital in different doses.

Man is fond of coining words such as: liberty, democracy, justice, reality, truth and originality but when he tries to invent a definition of such relative and abstract ideas he either does not succeed or finds it rather difficult if not impossible. Really such words refer to ideals that he yearns to attain but though he might obtain a relative level of such ideals he never obtains an absolute measure. This demonstrates the complex problem that life poses: the difficulty of obtaining the ideal.

Art is an ideal too and man might succeed to express himself artistically and perhaps there are different levels of artistic excellence but I wonder if he can obtain a measure of absolute excellence. In fact we often admit that the evaluation of art is subjective. But if man can’t be absolutely objective in assessing art do we mean that anything can be art.

I hope that this collection deserves the appellate artistic, unique, individual and possibly universal.


Art curator & critic