Mona Wu: Apolitical Politics

nicholas p. fernacz

1658448_10203185350505352_842159496_oMona Wu at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art
image courtesy | Mona Wu

Chinese art and politics are often inseparable. While propaganda immediately comes to mind, so too do ink landscapes which covertly address political animosity. However, some artists intend to employ technical skill and aesthetics in order to express a complex emotional interiority. Mona Wu, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based artist, does exactly this by drawing upon her extensive background in both art history and practice in order to explore surface design and aesthetic beauty. Her work, although declaratively apolitical, proclaims rather politically that contemporary Chinese artists are not required to rely on State critique––criticism of one’s government––to create meaningful works of art. All of this considered, Wu’s refusal to follow trends within contemporary Chinese art, in addition to her identity, index their own political statements to her work. Through this, Wu further highlights the inherent politicization of Chinese art and art history, and pushes for more within her cultural heritage. In doing so, the viewer is pleasantly treated to beautiful prints that reference Chinese culture, art history, and poetry.

yellow-mountains-remembered-2(fig. 1) Mona Wu, Yellow Mountains Remembered, 2002, reduction woodcut
image courtesy | Mona Wu

Wu is a beloved member of her local arts community. In 2003, she received the Artist of the Year Award from the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, a community arts school where she teaches Chinese painting, calligraphy, and printmaking techniques. This is an unlikely story for the Macau-born artist who, after moving to Hong Kong to study nursing, could only practice art-making in her free time. In Hong Kong, Wu enrolled in Chinese painting and calligraphy courses, copying and learning the styles of the dynastic master ink painters. She immigrated to the United States in 1970, ultimately settling in Winston-Salem. In 1996, after a career in healthcare, Wu earned a Bachelor’s degree in art history at Salem College with professor Penny Griffin, a specialist in East Asian art. During her undergraduate career, she followed her passion for printmaking and took several courses in the medium. Upon finishing her degree at Salem College, she continued to audit with professor and master printmaker David Faber at Wake Forest University for the next eighteen years.

In order to gain a critical understanding of Wu and her work, I arranged a studio visit and interview at her home in Winston-Salem. Upon entering her house, a two-story colonial at the end of a cul de sac, it becomes apparent that art permeates every aspect of her life. To the left of the foyer, a large 16th-century dynastic ink painting depicting a drunken yet contemplative scholar hangs as the centerpiece ensconced among white furniture, crisp white curtains, and glass décor. Wu mentioned her intentionality in designing this room in order to complement the painting. In the living room, flanked by two panels of her own prints, even her fireplace becomes a triptych. After a tour of her home, Wu led me to her basement gallery and studio space. She showed me various artifacts including ink paintings, prints, and books. In her studio myriad scraps of prints, blocks, and acrylic cut-out shapes littered the room, all employed by her to achieve variations on similar themes within her oeuvre.

wang-ximeng_rivers-and-mountains_1(fig. 2) Wang Ximeng, One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, 1113, ink and colors on silk, detail
image courtesy | National Palace Museum, Beijing

Wu’s work emits a strong sense of antiquarianism––a fascination with history and artifact. She thoughtfully references blue-green landscape painting (青绿山水) and 11th-century Chinese bird-and-flower painting. In Yellow Mountains Remembered (figure 1), she employs a visual language established in the blue-green landscape painting genre popularized in the Tang dynasty and subsequently practiced until the end of the Qing dynasty. In this print, she incites the past through memory. Wu reinvents the bygone painting traditions of blue-green landscape paintings and bird-and-flower paintings through a minimalist design aesthetic that avoids political issues. While Chinese landscapes are generally allegories for political strife, using landscape elements as metaphors for emotion, she says that her art allows her to “escape from politics as a safe space.” This sets her work apart from the common trend of State and political critique within contemporary Chinese art.

While some Chinese landscape painting historically addressed inner political struggle, often represented by the distorted trees and bleak wintery mountains of rural China, Wu focuses her attention on aesthetics in order to pay homage to her visit to the Yellow Mountains in the Anhui Province. Yellow Mountains Remembered, through its design and aesthetics, employs the same strategies as paintings such as Wang Ximeng’s One Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, painted in the Northern Song period (figure 2). Sinuous clouds evoke Gu Kaizhi’s iconic feminine adornments, and mountainous peaks and valleys invoke the emotional excitement of a rollercoaster (figure 3). However, the solitary red temple Wu places amid the Yellow Mountains instills a calm amongst the thrill. She manages to achieve an emotional upswelling within the viewer, despite refusing to invoke political drama for the sake of creating meaning. Despite this rejection of political discourse within the work itself, Wu succeeds in expressing an enriched emotional interiority turned outwards.

1200px-Ku_K'ai-chih_001(fig. 3) Gu Kaizhi, Admonitions of the Court Instructress, c. 5th-8th-century, ink on silk
image courtesy | British Museum

Another work, Farewell Moon , draws upon 11th-century bird-and-flower painting (figure 4). The artists working within the bird-and-flower genre typically created displays of anatomically correct flora and fauna, with myriad-sized life in order to compare the size and scale of a cricket in relation to a turtle or lotus flower. Works like Huang Quan’s Birds by Sketching Life , painted in the Song dynasty, exemplify the scientific accuracy inherent to these paintings (figure 5). Farewell Moon features two minimally depicted clownfish and a turtle within a body of water. On a separate perspectival plane appear a maple tree and a bar of coral disjointed from the surface of the water, thus retaining atmospheric perspective––the fogginess elicited through receding ink wash largely associated with Chinese ink painting.[1] However, through this minimal depiction, Wu reinvents the bird-and-flower genre by rejecting its scientific nature. The poem, composed by famed Southern Song poet, Xin Qiji and overlaid through a ghost print, poses questions to the moon such as “Is there another world, where you will rise in the west?” and “Is there another planet, to where long wind will take you?” Although not a particularly political genre, Wu’s reimagined bird-and-flower prints further prove her ability to employ genres of dynastic Chinese art, while refreshing their associated meaning in order to serve her own purposes––the joy of art making and display of technical mastery.

_ABC4964(fig. 4) Mona Wu, Farewell Moon, 2015, Chinese ink on woodcut
image courtesy | Mona Wu

While Wu’s work is arguably apolitical, there is often an inseparable intersection between politics and Chinese art. The 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art represents the seminal conceptualization of the relationship between art and politics in twentieth-century China. There, Mao Zedong famously said “there is, in fact, no such thing as art for art’s sake… art that is detached from or independent of politics.”[2] Mao suggests two ideas through this quote: 1) that Chinese artists employed their art for one of two purposes, to help or hurt the Chinese communist party, and 2) that art is a political commodity. The underlying implications illuminate a sentiment of artists possessing ulterior motives, thus proposing that Wu in fact does harbor political ideologies within her work. While she did grow up during the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s politics did not affect her as much in the colony of Macau. Since moving to the United States, she has enjoyed the freedom of expression, a right still unavailable to many Chinese artists living and working within the region. Therefore, the function of covert political messaging is not pertinent to her work. In fact, if she insisted on criticizing Chinese politics, it would perhaps serve her better to do so overtly.

HuangQuan-xiesheng-l(fig. 5) Huang Quan, Birds by Sketching Life, c. 907-960, ink and colors on silk
image courtesy | China Online Museum

While not overt, Wu’s works do indeed take on their own covert political messaging through their apolitical nature. Because she focuses on formal innovation and technical experimentation, as they service the aesthetic likeness of her works, she offers a counterpoint to the highly politicized nature of contemporary Chinese art. While other contemporary Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun have permeated the art market with their State critique, Wu offers her own political statements on the condition of the Chinese political landscape by avoiding just that––obvious political criticism. Must Chinese artists exercise their freedom of expression by criticizing the communist leaders of China? Wu references a history of politicized art in dynastic China, offering her audience a link between the past and present. She reveals Chinese art to be an inherently politicized genre and asks more of her history. Wu’s work feels refreshing and light-hearted, allowing for the appreciation of technique and design rather than contemplating and romanticizing either a communist or anti-communist sentiment.

In addition to political statements regarding the state of Chinese art, Wu’s identity is another politicized facet of her work. The United States Census Bureau reports that two percent of the population of Winston-Salem self-identifies as Asian and roughly ten percent are foreign-born.[3] Her work diversifies the arts community and enriches the culture of the greater Piedmont Triad region––an area in north-central North Carolina marked by three major cities: Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. However, by boldly asserting her Chinese identity within a majority white space, Wu’s art inevitably becomes politically charged. Despite her having lived in the United States for nearly fifty years, her work is still heavily influenced by her cultural heritage and the education she received in both China and at Salem College. In the catalogue produced for her 2003 Artist of the Year Award, Billy McClain writes “[Wu’s] work continues to exhibit her interest in combining Oriental techniques and imagery in western printmaking processes.”[4] This quote highlights Wu’s cultural hybridity as an immigrant, which truly sets her apart not only as a general Winston-Salem resident, but as a Winston-Salem artist.

While many Chinese artists produce very powerful works of art that critique the government of China, Mona Wu sets a very different tone. Her work offers a delightful distraction from the atrocities of the world and allows the viewer to turn inward, a skill forgotten in many of our world leaders.

Collage-Ode-to-Chrysanthemum-II(fig. 6) Mona Wu, Ode to Chrysanthemum II, 2009, collage
image courtesy | Mona Wu

If Mona Wu’s work interests you, you can see more here, or in person at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on view from October 18 to November 18, 2018.


[1] R. M. Barnhart, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

[2] T. Cheek, “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art.” In Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions, 112-17. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[3] “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Winston-Salem City, North Carolina.” United States Census Bureau. Accessed August 4, 2018.

[4] P. Griffin, D. Faber, and B. McClain, Mona Wu: 2003 Winston-Salem Artist of the Year. Winston-Salem, NC: Sawtooth School for Visual Art, 2003.

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