It’s no secret that China’s cultural history is closely bound to the art of ink and brush. In bygone years, mastering calligraphy formed an essential part of a scholar’s curriculum, and as such, the world of language and artistry are historically intertwined in China in a way that simply isn’t the case in the west.

The rich and academic tradition of “literati” ink art came to be vilified during the Cultural Revolution and was driven underground. Artists, like the now renowned Qiu Deshu, were forced to switch mediums and genres, churning out Mao-approved “socialist realist” art. Or they fled, to Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Both places served as havens that enabled artists to explore new terrains inspired in equal parts by the ink art’s legacy as well as exciting developments in the world of modern art. Guangzhou-born Lui Shou-kwan is one example.

As a Hong Kong ink artist, he pushed the medium forward by looking to the abstract art movement, fusing together a visual language that encompassed both the expressive elegance of China’s ink tradition with western aesthetics that paved the way for ink art’s contemporary chapter. This was despite the role Colonial Britain played at the time as a cultural behemoth.

Almost half a century on since Lui first started experimenting with the millennia-old medium, and ink faces new challenges. While it’s no longer a condemned medium on the mainland, various factors are driving a wedge between the Chinese and their ink legacy. A big one being technology and humanity's increasingly digitalized lives.

This said, a resurgence of artists, driven by a nostalgia for materiality and works produced by hand, are returning to their ink brushes. They experiment with mixed media and themes of cultural identity and belonging that are garnering attention worldwide and speak to contemporary art’s increasingly “transnational” visual language.

With Hong Kong playing an integral role in ink art’s development it will come as no surprise that the SAR is home to many artists breaking new ground. The News Lens speaks to acclaimed ink artist Wilson Shieh on what the medium means to him.

The News Lens (TNL): When did you first become interested in ink art and why do you work in this medium?

Wilson Shieh (WS): I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. We had art class in school during primary and secondary education. But we almost only learned and used Western medium to draw and paint. I only practiced a bit of Chinese Calligraphy in primary school.

I had a chance to study Chinese painting and history during my undergraduate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1990-94). And since then I started to think about why we don't have Chinese art study in our elementary education.

Some of my Chinese painting teachers were born in the 1920's - 30's. I treasured this linkage of tradition. And hoped that the Chinese art culture would not end with my teacher’s generation.

By the end of my undergraduate study, I started to focus on Chinese ink painting especially Gongbi style (which means fine-line technique, an ancient and classical drawing/painting style).

Title: Four Seasons (Women Version) 2014 Chinese ink and gouache on silk 30 x 80 cm [Wilson Shieh]

TNL: Contemporary ink art can be very innovative and expressive. Your work has been described as subversive. How do you feel about the above statements in relation to your ink art work?

WS: Since the early 20-century, Chinese painters started to find different means to modernize the Chinese painting. Most of them learned and combined ideas and techniques from Western modern art.

By 1970s, there was a modern ink movement in Hong Kong. Obviously, those painters used Chinese ink medium but brought abstraction from their Western contemporaries.

I followed their footpath but went in different direction

I use ink medium, classical Gongbi technique but depicting contemporary figures and sceneries. I mixed together tradition Chinese formal elements, themes that derived from Japanese Ukiyo-e print and also narration from surrealism for presenting my vision of Hong Kong.

Title: Four Seasons (Men Version) 2014 Chinese ink and gouache on silk 30 x 80 cm [Wilson Shieh]

TNL: Chinese ink art is getting more attention globally. Why do you think this is and how do you feel about it?

WS: Europeans were interested mostly in Chinese porcelain during the maritime trade era of 18/19th century. The ink painting is a kind of literati and thus elite class of art. They are not as colorful and decorative and attractive compared to other Chinese crafts.

The ink painting was appreciated by a small group of scholars and collectors in the Western world. During the first half of 20th century, China was in turmoil and chaos with revolution, Japanese occupation and civil war.

From 1949, for almost three decades the traditional Chinese ink painting was condemned by the Communist government. Though there was modern ink movement in Hong Kong and Taiwan during the 1960s-70s, these two places were not considered as a representation of Chinese culture.

It was until the last two decades with the rapid economic growth in China, Chinese contemporary art became 'visible' and important to the global art professionals. Ink art, of course, a unique genre of Chinese culture took the chance to get to an international platform.

Five Tallest Buildings in Hong Kong 2011 Chinese ink and gouache on silk 90 x 115 cm [Wilson Shieh]

TNL: Do you think Hongkongers, in general, know enough about the art form and its heritage, and what do you think about the future of ink artists in HK?

WS: We don't have a long history of art museum culture here in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Museum of Art at Tsim Sha Tsui opened in 1991 (The museum was established in 1962 but occupied only a small place on the 10th and 11th floor of the City Hall in Central for 3 decades). Like my parents, they lived in Hong Kong for over 60 years but grew up with no experience of looking at fine art in museums.

As I mentioned earlier, we have also almost no education of Chinese ink art for our elementary school. Only some art teachers teach Chinese painting on a voluntary basis.

But as an artist practicing and showing ink painting for 20 years, I witness more and more young art lovers find interest in ink painting.

Wilson Shieh

Editor: Edward White