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A World of Art

Biographical Sketch: Hung Liu

Hung Liu
Hung Liu was born in Changchun, Manchuria, in northeastern China, in 1948, the year Mao Tse-tung drove the Nationalist forces of Chiang K'ai-shek out of China to exile on the island of Taiwan in a Civil War that we think of today as the Chinese Communist Revolution. Soon after her birth, her father, an officer in Chiang Kai Shiek's Nationalist army, was arrested, and her mother was forced to divorce him in order to protect herself and her newborn child.

As a young girl, Hung excelled as a student, and her high grades earned her a place in a prestigious Beijing middle and high school. But with the coming of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960's, Liu was sent to the countryside to work in the fields for four years--to be "re-educated" as a working member of the proletariat. "We were city girls in the country, treated as aliens. We worked in the fields very, very hard, and went home when the sun went down. There were no holidays and we didn't have any family there." She earned the respect of the villagers by carrying heavy sacks of grain and swimming long distances. She also photographed many of the villagers.

Part of Liu's fascination with photography can be traced to the fact that during the Cultural Revolution many people destroyed their family photo albums in order to hide their non-proletariat origins. Liu herself burned all of her diaries and journals. But in the village, she says, "I was like a journalist who went to their door, took their pictures and gave the photos to them free."

After the Cultural Revolution, she was admitted to Beijing Teachers College, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1975. Then subsequently she received a graduate degree in Mural Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1981. Her training was strictly in the Russian Social Realist tradition. A highly developed form of propaganda, Social Realism advocates art as a vehicle for the education of the proletariat. Liu rebelled against the strict rules her training formulated for her. She constructed a secret painting pad, with tiny brushes and paints, and daily went off by herself to paint landscapes in a fluid, Western style.

Her desire for artistic freedom led her to seek permission to study in the United States, and in 1984 she was allowed to leave China to study at the University of California at San Diego. She arrived with little English and only twenty dollars. A recipient of numerous grants and fellowships at UCSD, she received her MFA in painting in 1986. She has since been awarded two fellowships in painting from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as other grants and awards. Today she is married to art critic Jeff Kelly, whom she met at UCSD, and the two live in Oakland, California, where she teaches at Mills College.

Hung Liu has returned to China on several occasions, the first time in 1991. On that trip, she discovered that although many private archives of photographs were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, public collections still existed. She became fascinated with images of prostitutes. The photos mixed documentary truth with the artificiality of the pose, and Liu was fascinated by the questions of freedom and constraint that the images provoked.

A later trip home was prompted when she asked some friends to see if they could locate the grave of her father so that she could sweep it, a custom in China. To everyone's amazement, her father was found still living in the prison (though he was technically free, he knew no other place to go) where he had been incarcerated in the early years of the Revolution. She was able to see him again--although at first he pretended not to know that he had ever had a daughter, fearing that his guard would punish her--and her mother, who still lives in China and never remarried, was able to meet again him as well. Today she hopes to bring her father to the United States for medical care, although his health may be too fragile to allow it. Her mother remains in China.


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