Faced with seemingly unending plowing, tilling and forced manual farm labor, art could offer an escape.
He Qi and his family had been forced out of their homes in the Chinese city of Nanjing and made to live on a communal farm. China was embroiled in the Cultural Revolution, a movement in the late 1960s to eliminate intellectuals, capitalist ideas and traditional and cultural elements of society.
As a teenager, He faced the prospect of brutal work on the farm. But in his ability to draw and paint, he discovered an alternative.
“In the Cultural Revolution, there was no peace. In my paintings, I just wanted to try to hear a peaceful message,” he said.
Since his teenage years, He has developed into an accomplished painter of Christian imagery. His work has been displayed in museums and galleries around the world, from New York to San Francisco to Tokyo to London. He was awarded the 20th Century Award for Achievement for his religious art theory and Christian art creation by the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge, England.
He is bringing his artwork and his story to the southside for a special event at Resurrection Lutheran Church on Saturday. By displaying his paintings and giving a lecture about the themes behind the work, he hopes to spread a peacefulness among the audience.
“Hearing a peaceful message is the most important thing,” He said. “I share my artwork for a peaceful message. There is too much suffering in the real world. I want to share peace through my art.”
In He’s artwork, familiar biblical scenes come alive in wild new ways. The motifs He creates have their roots in Chinese folk art. While the scenes are biblical, the forms and imagery speak to more traditional Eastern ideals.
Color is a big part of his aesthetic.
“In the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ God created a very colorful world,” He said. “Jesus told his disciples to be the light of the world.”
Richard Melheim, a Lutheran pastor, author and founder of Christian education systems designer Faith Inkubators, described his work as, “Chagall meets Matisse meets Picasso meets the East.”
“Once you’ve seen his artwork, you’ll instantly recognize it. It’s incredibly colorful, and is always a little striking to see classic Christian scenes done in such a different cultural context,” said Dave Schreiber, pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
He’s introduction to the world of art came at a young age. His father was a mathematician at the university in Nanjing, a massive city and center of culture, education, politics and economic activity. As the third of five children and a clever boy, He was groomed to possibly one day become a professor himself.
The Cultural Revolution interrupted the family’s urban lifestyle, though.
Mao Zedong, the leader of China, led an uprising to reassert his authority over the government and return the country to a pure Communist ideology. Schools and universities were closed, arts and culture were attacked and people were killed, imprisoned and tortured.
He was sent to the countryside to do hard labor growing food.
“It’s very hard for me to do the labor work as a teenage boy, as you can imagine,” he said. “I was looking for something to happen for me to avoid such hard work.”
He found that in painting. While living in Nanjing, He had known a neighbor who was a fine arts professor. As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, he worked more closely with this neighbor to perfect his technique, while also learning art of a different time. A magazine that his neighbor had given him had Raphael’s “Madonna and Child” on the cover.
“At the time I saw this image, it took my heart. Mary holding baby Jesus was so peaceful,” He said. “The Cultural Revolution was very tragic. People were fighting everywhere, every minute. We could not find a peaceful message. The only peaceful message I could find was through Raphael’s Madonna.”
Artists were sought to paint Chairman Mao’s portrait, and a competition was held at He’s commune. He won.
During the day, he painted Mao’s portrait in a regal, official manner. But at night, he would recreate the Madonna.
He’s family was not Christian. The Cultural Revolution had forced many churches to go underground. A friend helped stoke his interest in Christianity, particularly its music and artwork.
He studied religious art at the Nanjing Normal University and the Nanjing Art Institute before being accepted to the Hamburg Art Institute in Germany. His time in Germany helped develop his appreciation of European artwork, styles and images that he implemented into his own paintings.
“Medieval art and Impressionist art are very, very colorful. So I got very influenced by Chinese folk art as well as with this art,” He said.
Currently, He is an artist-in-residence at Claremont School of Theology in California. He has returned to China regularly, showing his work, studying, lecturing and doing paintings.
His appearance at Resurrection Lutheran Church is part of a multi-church event between Resurrection Lutheran, the Episcopal Church of All Saints and the Community of the Living Spirit, all located in Indianapolis.
He’s work had been on display at Episcopal Church of All Saints since the start of the month. This past week, it was installed at Resurrection Lutheran.
Schreiber first encountered He’s art during a music and worship convention. When the artist came to Indianapolis for a speaking event, Schreiber was able to meet him. He’s paintings are also featured prominently in the workbooks and presentations the church uses in its youth group curriculum.
“There’s almost a subconscious message that it’s not just about Western religion or American Christianity, it’s a global thing,” Schreiber said.
At the event at Resurrection Lutheran, He will be discussing his life and artwork. Earlier in the day, he will also have a special service with the Chin community on the southside.
The Chin State is located in the northwest portion of Myanmar, bordering India and Bangladesh. Thousands of people have fled persecution in the country, with many making central Indiana their home. Officials estimate more than 12,000 ethnic Chin have come to the area, with many living in Greenwood and the southside.
The themes that He has dedicated his art to match up with the struggle the Chin have gone through, as well offering an opportunity for inspiration.
“We are living in a world that is not so peaceful. In order to have justice triumph over evil, we need a good peaceful message,” he said.
The Art of He Qi
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday; doors open at 6
Where: Resurrection Lutheran Church, 445 E. Stop 11 Road, Indianapolis
What: A lecture and art exhibition by He Qi, a Chinese artist whose colorful paintings take classic biblical scenes and filter them through folk art and medieval imagery. Books, prints and posters will be available.
Who: Organized by Resurrection Lutheran Church, the Community of the Living Spirit and the Episcopal Church of All Saints
Cost: Free and open to the public
Information: rlcindy.org or facebook.com/RLCIndy