Sometimes art exists to communicate things you don’t know how to say, at other times it’s to remember things, like meaningful emotions, or where you’ve come from. Artwork can represent the unutterable voices of women, or can even tell us what happened to your family without you having to say it out loud. We might not otherwise know how to say these things if not for the ability to show others where we’ve learned what we know.
Incredible art can come from anywhere, and from any person with any background. At its most potent, art crosses boundaries and changes minds, and sometimes, all of these things converge in a way that makes the work an artist is doing difficult to talk about without stammering on about how great it is. I’m going to do my best.
When you look at any painting, you’re looking at the finished accumulation of many hours, sometimes hundreds of hours, of a person’s life. But some art allows us to see beyond that artist and that painting, and see an immeasurable confluence of time, provided by numberless generations that came before, and that’s the kind of art that takes the breath out of you.
I am breathless; confronted with Cecilia’s paintings, if only because it feels like trying to look at a thousand years all at the same time, and you can’t breathe when the wind is rushing by you that fast.
I opened up her portfolio today to learn and write about her, but it feels unfair to try because it’s hard to speak about her work without also explaining the history of a nation. Her name is Cecilia Aisin-Gioro, of the Aisin-Gioro family line; and she is the grand-niece of the last Emperor of China.
I won’t speak about the history of China for fear of trivializing it, but I will say that there are some stories about history that we can only tell by painting them. Her work, if I had to provide a very quick summary, would be to described it as an expression of her lineage, her culture, and the privilege of having royal access to traditional meticulous and watercolor painting; art forms that are maintained to this day by members of her extended family. In fact, there are more than a hundred artists in the Aisin-Gioro family tree, but even so, she is rare among rarities and remains the only one who paints with oils. She hopes she will not be the last.
There is a great joy and history and elegance in her work, but there’s also an astonishing need to be heard, evoked by ancient imagery. Drawing on ancient styles inevitably brings with it a touch of the fear of disappearing that lives in the heart of cultural identity. But what I think takes her work from being the hereditary and cultural brilliance that it is, and makes it into something more; is that she also tells a powerful, personal story.
My job, in real life, is stories, but this one isn’t mine to tell because I can’t bear to generalize it. I can only be vague; her paintings are a story about holding hands across generations, across cultures, and through cultural revolutions. She strikes an intimate chord by painting backward through time, connecting with the myriad artists who’ve come before, bringing her skills to bear on a cultural identity that goes back five thousand years, and a Manchurian royal family name that she had to live in fear of as a child.
I see in her the tenacity of creativity; how it can sit and wait within you and come out later – as if to justify the things that we go through and the ripples in time we witness. I can only imagine what it is to paint how Cecilia paints, that it must be like trying to hold all of the past in your hands while leaping forward, hoping nothing is forgotten. I do hope that her steps echo.
Cecilia Aisin-Gioro’s paintings are the kind you need to see in person. This is her website: www.aisingiorogallery.com, where you can peek into the gallery she has right here in Vancouver. She’ll also be displaying at the Art! Vancouver show at the end of May.