At first glance, the sleepy fishing village of Aotou – located in Xiamen’s Xiang’an District – does not seem like a hotbed of creativity. But scratch the surface and you’ll find a burgeoning art scene. Since 2016, the local government has been collaborating with home-grown and international artists, architects and designers to redevelop the village as a destination for art lovers.
While it might seem like an odd location to create a creative hub, it’s part of a deliberate move by the authorities to make art more accessible by introducing more museums and galleries to smaller towns and communities. Though art is huge business in places like Beijing and Shanghai, in smaller cities like Xiamen, it is no longer viewed as an ostentatious pursuit reserved for the rich or well-educated. Due to its status as one of the five Special Economic Zones in China, Xiamen’s economy has boomed since the 1980s, creating a new middle class with a freshly awakened social consciousness that places value on art and culture.
The latest addition to the scene in Aotou is Chaokuang Art Museum, which opened in October 2018. Sleek and sophisticated, this steel-and-glass venue features the distinctive Neorealist sculptures of Chen Wenling, one of Xiamen’s most prodigious and best-known artists, whose iconic, oversized works of art have appeared in galleries and public spaces all over the world.
The launch of Chaokuang is just part of a bigger plan to rejuvenate the surrounding area. From 2019 to 2021, the local government aims to pour a cool 800 million yuan into developing Aotou, with a yachting marina, restaurants, boutique hotels and more art spaces. One of these is the Nordic Contemporary Art Centre (NAC), which had its opening exhibition in April 2018.
Su Pengcheng, the 27-year-old artist-in-residence at NAC, says he moved to Xiamen after university as it’s a developing city that attracts many young people. “The vibrancy of youth as well as the many migrant workers who bring their experiences with them is what makes it such a hive of activity,” the Inner Mongolia native says.
However, according to some residents, the city wasn’t always this vibrant. In fact, a group of college students were so disgruntled by Xiamen’s state of artistic affairs that they created the Axis Art Project, their own avant-garde collective. Set up in 2015 by a group of six friends, the group held its first exhibition in the trendy downtown neighbourhood of Shapowei, a 40-minute drive east of Aotou.
“It all started because we found Xiamen so boring,” recalls 26-year-old Yu Yuping, one of the founding members, at a hole-in-a-wall café at Shapowei. “There were no live music performances or contemporary art shows. We wanted to shake up Xiamen.”
Her co-founder, Huang Xiaowei, nods his head in agreement. “We want to explore how far we can go in terms of artistic expression.” Also in his mid-20s, the cheerful Huang adds, “We may not have a lot [in terms of money and experience], but what we have is courage, passion and determination.”
Clearly, their ingenuity and hard work have started to bear fruit. In 2016, Axis Art Project clinched the top prize at the prestigious Emerging Curators Awards in Shanghai, winning a cash prize as well as the chance to exhibit in the city for over three months.
“There are plenty of opportunities in Xiamen to grow the arts scene,” Yu says. “It may not be as mature as other cities, but that may not be a weakness. We may be young and naïve but we are brave enough to push boundaries.”
This abundance of passion and candour is also present in Huang Li, co-founder of newly opened exhibition space and curatorial practice More Art. Standing in the gallery, located in the city’s Siming district, amid a photography exhibition of yesteryear Xiamen, the 35-year-old Huang muses, “When you’re hungry, discussing art is meaningless. However, because our economy has reached a certain level, more people are interested in engaging with the arts.”
With a bright-eyed earnestness, the former TV journalist adds, “Now that our stomachs are full, we want to nourish our souls.”
But that doesn’t mean the scene is insular. In fact, thanks to the creative energy coalescing around Xiamen in the past decade, international collaborations are becoming increasingly common. For example, the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival – a partnership between Chinese photographer Rong Rong and director of the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles photo festival Sam Stourdzé – just held its fourth edition last month.
Rong Rong is also the founder of Beijing’s pioneering Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, which opened a Xiamen offshoot in 2015. The space houses contemporary Chinese and international fine-art photography, by artists like 35-year-old Lu Yanpeng, known for combining photography with traditional Chinese paintings. The affable Lu, whose work has also been exhibited in Europe, says, “It is my hope that Xiamen will one day be like Lyon in France. Lyon is a small city but is packed with galleries, museums and various art festivals.”
Of course, one of the biggest international partnership has been Red Dot Xiamen, which opened in November 2018, joining existing Red Dot design museums in Essen and Singapore. The Xiamen incarnation sits on the site of the former Terminal 2 of Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport. Like its predecessors, it showcases global award-winning product designs, but Red Dot Xiamen looks to push things further by offering an on-site design school and a co-working space with a convivial and conducive environment for creatives.
It’s a mission that underscores Xiamen’s wider creative potential, beyond fine arts. Sean Shih, the 42-year-old museum director, explains, “Xiamen is not very big compared to other cities; opportunities for large-scale industry is limited. Our strength lies in being a city of creative thinkers.”
To further encourage this identity, communal spaces at Red Dot Xiamen are all outfitted with award-winning product designs from around the world – a reminder of the functionality of beautiful design. Functionality is also a key focus for the young co-founders of Seeeklab, a company that specialises in interactive installations. Believing that art can and should go beyond personal expression, Seeeklab uses creative technology to tap into human emotions and improve connections between people.
Candy Huang, the soft-spoken 28-year-old co-founder, says, “We want to harness technology to create something useful.” Some of Seeeklab’s projects include a multimedia see-saw, enabling parents working far away from home to connect and “play” with their children; as well as a light-and-sound installation designed to help children with autism become less afraid of touch and sounds.
This interpersonal connection is perhaps what gives Xiamen’s art scene its competitive edge. In a city of just 3.5 million inhabitants, the art community is a tight-knit one, big on support and collaboration. Even as other Chinese metropolises continue their ascent to become huge arts powerhouses, Xiamen’s down-to-earth approach to arts and culture stands out as rare and truly unique.
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This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine.