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Painter Hung Liu Summons Ghosts From China's Past

Paul Andrews

Back-breaking labor makes people colorless.

That's how artist Hung Liu remembers it, anyway. At the age of 16, she was sent to the Chinese countryside to live and work without a wage as part of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. High school had filled her head with too much non-proletarian knowledge; she would have to unlearn it all through hard labor. 

"Working in the cornfield, you sweat. In the morning, you pull the wheat with mud all over your hands. We were colorless," Liu says.

Hung Liu and her artwork have what the artist calls "a second home" in Kansas City; her art is prominently displayed in the collections of the Kemper Museum and the Sherry Leedy Gallery, and the late Byron Cohen sold her work to numerous Kansas City collectors. As a result, she has a significant local following. 

When Liu paints colorful canvases using black-and-white photographs as source material, she isn't just updating technology. She's transforming memory, or Summoning Ghosts — that's the title of her retrospective at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

"What is a ghost? Our past could be a ghost," she says. "Those people and friends who were in my life, I captured their features with a snapshot."

The snapshots she's referring to are photographs, captured illegally, of peasants she met and worked alongside. Candid photographs, in particular, were considered dangerous. In Mao's China, photographs were only to be taken by government officials, posed to clearly demonstrate how happy and heroic workers were. A candid shot could reveal something that might complicate the picture.

Having received a camera from a friend who was sent to a military camp, where it would surely be confiscated, Hung Liu had "many adventures" documenting a community that was invisible to most of China, and most of the world. She worked long hours in the fields; what little film-developing she was able to do took place in the middle of the night because in the absence of a darkroom, she had to wait for the sky to go black, making the world her darkroom.

"Everything was so primitive," she recalls.

The remaining negatives, wrapped in a handkerchief, immigrated with her to the United States in 1984. She developed them in 2010.

The portraits hang on the walls as part of her current show.

So do tiny landscapes the size of index cards painted in defiance of requirements that every brushstroke serve the state. These were tools Hung Liu used to create an environment where she could "survive and not go crazy."

Liu's large canvases depict people in realistic detail covered in layers of pink, brown and green vertical drips. These drips bring to life and even make beautiful the distance between us and our memories. Everything she paints, we see as if through a screen or veil.

"When you have pouring rain in the car," she says, "you can still see what's outside, but you are constantly interrupted."

One of the paintings in the show, part of the Kemper's permanent collection, is called Mu Nu, or Mother Daughter. It shows two women hunched over, connected by a rope, walking over rocks in a shallow stream of water. They're pulling something heavy, presumably a boat. Liu says the mother and daughter are connected not only by a physical burden, but also by a psychological burden.

Still, the image is one of beauty and hope, says Liu.

"The mother is still ahead, the mother is leading the daughter," she says. "But they walk as if not exactly lined up, so I'm thinking there's a generation tie, but also a generation gap. Maybe the younger generation will head in a slightly different direction. Maybe the future will be different. Not only 'like mother, like daughter.' Maybe she can stand up straight after a while."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with the compelling personalities who populate our area. Each conversational portrait is paired with a photographic portrait by Paul Andrews

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.