Chinese artist Cong Yunfeng believes deeply in the transformative and influential power of art, a conviction clearly illuminated in his mural works, particularly “Conversion of the Five Hundred Bandits.” His creations have recently drawn attention in the context of a heated and widely debated exhibition, “China’s Hidden Century,” showcased at the British Museum until October 8. The event was embroiled in controversy, predominantly due to its display of cultural relics from China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), items that were acquired under contentious circumstances involving lootings by hostile foreign armies.
The exhibition was designed to shed light on an assortment of beautiful and rare objects, uniting them for the first time in a public showing. Ranging from cloisonné vases gifted by the court of Puyi, the Qing Dynasty’s final emperor, to a silk robe specifically commissioned by the Empress Dowager Cixi, these pieces elucidate the lives of varied individuals from the historical period, including an empress, a dancer, and a soldier. Additionally, the exhibition features the original “Treaty of Nanjing.”
The tensions surrounding the exhibition were palpable on social media. On Sina Weibo and Xiaohongshu, hashtags related to the event garnered views in the millions. Online discussions flourished, with netizens expressing a combination of admiration for the artifacts and anguish over their displacement: “What a shame!” and “When can they be returned to China?” exemplified the general sentiment.
Cong Yunfeng’s works emerged amidst this socio-cultural maelstrom. His emotions, roiled by the controversy and his own experiences with displaced Chinese artifacts in foreign museums, found expression through a reinterpretation of historical imagery from the original Dunhuang mural “Conversion of the Five Hundred Bandits,” which dates back to the Western Wei Dynasty (535-556). Through meticulous modification and transformative creativity, Cong reshaped elements of the original imagery to introduce metaphorical elements, replacing the facial features of the depicted bandits with those from Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” from the Italian Renaissance period.
His mural, divided into six sections, also wove together elements from Buddhist scriptures and Western classical works, such as an impactful headline taken from “Das Kapital”: “Violence is the midwife of everyone old society pregnant with a new one.” Cong viewed the exhibition as a representation of a historically colonialist period, prompting him to respond to this era with his innovative “Wall-facing Project,” a reflection on the present state of multiculturalism in a global context, advocating for a cultural decentralization experiment.
Cong’s artworks, manifested in murals and graffiti within public spaces, utilize the framework of the Western contemporary visual system. Through this, he orchestrates a confluence, clash, and confrontation among various cultures, stimulating reflection on the impact of Western-centric globalization on multiculturalism. His later creations continue to communicate dialogues on cultural interaction, heritage, and respect for the deep-rooted significance of artistic expressions through various epochs.
Cong’s journey into painting began when he was a mere 2-year-old and has culminated into a life-long passion and commitment to the art form. His educational journey, which saw him immerse himself in mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and further his studies at the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts in the UK, enriched his artistic endeavors. His murals, he believes, transcend visual aesthetics and delve into a realm where the wall, as a medium, interacts dynamically with the people, lending life and vibrancy to inanimate spaces.
In parallel, as the “Wall-facing Project” unfolds, Cong also preps for the “Wall-breaking Project,” which aims to shift frescoes across spatial and temporal dimensions, redefining and reconstructing their meanings and implications.
The artist harbors a hope: that through his works, more individuals will cast their gaze upon, appreciate, and value China’s unique and deeply embedded culture, generating a platform of mutual respect and understanding in the realm of global art and cultural heritage.