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Exhibition casts its net on island life

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More than 80 paintings of the Zhoushan Islands are on display at Hangzhou Art and Crafts Museum through May 3.

The paintings were created by fisherfolk who live on the islands, China’s biggest archipelago comprising 1,390 islands belonging to Zhejiang Province in the East China Sea.

The beautiful island scenery and daily lives of fisherfolk have created abundant inspiration for artists.

Their bold painting styles, exaggerated shapes and multifarious colors have since the 1980s gradually found favor with the public. Later, more amateur and professional painters started depicting the islands and the so-called Zhoushan Fisherfolk Painting School was formed.

Originally these painters made a living catching fish. But over time, they began slowly making a living by selling their paintings. Despite now being professional artists, people still refer to them as fisher painters due to the themes they depict and their origins.

In 1988, four subordinate counties of the Zhoushan Islands — Dinghai, Putuo, Daishan and Shengsi — were named the “hometown of modern folk paintings.” All of the work now on exhibit are from artists living in these counties.

There are subtle differences between the works from the four counties.

The paintings from Putuo resemble Western modernist paintings and feature unrestrained lines and layout. People often refer to them as “Oriental Picassos.”

Those from Daishan are usually themed on the ocean and old myths from the islands.

Dinghai painters are inclined to blend the drawing techniques of Zhejiang folk paintings into their works, leading to creations full of imagination and exaggerated shapes.

Exhibits from Shengsi primarily convey a yearning for a better future and admiration for their ancestors who struggled with nature.

These artists have, in a sense, become ambassadors for the islands as they have introduced Zhoushan folk customs to others.

Paintings by Wang Youliang and Zhang Dingkang showcase two customs unique to the islands — boiled fishing nets and a Buddha wearing trousers embroidered with dragon patterns.

In the old days, fishing nets were weaved with cotton string and hemp cords, which would wear out after several years. In order to extend the service life of nets, Zhoushan fisherfolk simmered them in a vat of pig blood. This was believed to strengthen the nets and help attract fish.

In a bid for luck, fisherfolk would beat drums and strike gongs when the nets were pulled out of the large vats. The custom survives today through paintings.

Dressing Buddha in trousers embroidered with dragon patterns is also a vital custom among islanders. It originated from a legend.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a group of fishing boats from Fujian Province went to Zhoushan waters. The boats struck reefs during a storm and all of the fisherfolk died except a man named Chen Caibo. He washed onto the shore of an uninhabited island named Miaozihu.

One day, Chen saw a dozen fishing boats. To help the boats avoid the reefs, he burned straw to guide them. The boats were saved but Chen died due to exhaustion.

The crews went ashore and found Chen’s corpse. In order to commemorate the kind-hearted savior, they built a Buddha which looks like Chen and dressed it in trousers embroidered with dragons.

Miaozihu Island now has hundreds of residents.

Tomorrow presents a special opportunity for museum visitors as four Zhoushan painters will be present, each showing guests how they create their artwork.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Zhoushan government.

Date: Through May 3, 9am-5pm (closed on Mondays)

Address: 336 Xiaohe Rd

Admission: Free


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