With new eyes
Chinese-born S.F. artist has unique vision of Eastern and Western cultures
“What I’m doing right now has nothing to do with what I spent time and money doing before I became an artist,” said San Francisco-based artist Niana Liu.
Liu was born and raised in the Chinese province of Hunan. Before relocating to the United States, she lived in Switzerland for three years, where she attended business school, according to the path laid out for her as a student growing up in mainland China.
Armed with a business degree, she came to the Bay Area to look for a corporate job just as the dotcom bubble was bursting.
“When I came to San Francisco, everything changed,” the 34-year-old Liu said in a recent phone call from the city she’s now lived in for 10 years. She worked as a hotel manager for a while before she decided to become an artist—with no prior experience.
Tonight, Sept. 1, at 5 p.m., at Chico State’s Humanities Center Gallery, Liu will give a talk on It’s All Your Fault, her current exhibition showing at the University Art Gallery. Liu’s show runs through Sept. 25 and features her imaginative pieces that often poke lighthearted fun at the political tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.
“I realized that the States gives a lot of opportunities to people to learn art—community colleges, city college—unlike China, where it’s difficult to go to college,” Liu said. “I allowed myself to consider doing something that I liked to do. I started as a hobby.”
At first, said Liu, “the style of my painting and my artwork was very rigid. I was mimicking photographs. My flowers had no depth to them.”
Liu said she practiced her art in coffee shops, where she got encouragement from passersby. After a while, “people started wanting to buy my art. Wow—I was astonished! I held onto that first check for a while!
“Sometimes people are envious of me,” said Liu. “They say, ‘Niana, you can do art, you can travel!’ It looks glamorous, but it’s actually a difficult path. I can’t afford to eat out all the time, and I don’t have a car. I have to be frugal, resourceful—I am Chinese, and culturally I have been trained that way.”
Liu draws on her long experience living in both China and the United States in her current show. Her red-and-white mixed-media piece “Hello Beijing?” was inspired by the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, starring the late comedic actor Peter Sellers. Unlike the film, which focused on tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Liu’s piece looks at the relationship between China and the U.S.
“Instead of Russia, on the other end of the phone is now China,” said Liu, of the piece that features a likeness of Sellers-as-Strangelove and includes the Chinese character for “hello” (wei), the right side of which Liu said means “fear.”
“I really like to use the form of humor to poke a little fun at both sides,” she said. “I don’t want to be critical—it’s sensitive. Using humor makes it less hostile.”
Having lived in both the East and the West, Liu understands why people in both places have misconceptions about one another: “You really have to go there to understand why China is like this, why the U.S. is like that—instead of listening to the media.”
Liu’s 15-minute-long Superduck in China video—which is showing at the UAG exhibit—illustrates perfectly the effectiveness and humor of Liu’s vision of Sino-American biculturalism. In it, a papier-mâché duck that bears a striking resemblance to the cooked ducks that hang in Chinatown restaurant windows (albeit in a Superman costume), visits Tiananmen Square, rides in a Beijing subway train and watches a group of elderly people do their morning tai-chi exercise—all things Liu took for granted when she lived in China.
“At first, it looks like a video made by an American tourist,” said Liu. “But no, it is a video made by a Chinese person who has moved away and come back, and is seeing China with new eyes.”