Conquering the art world

Updated: 2016-04-01 12:33

By JIAN PING in Chicago for China Daily(China Daily USA)

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Painters who arrived in Chicago from Guangxi 30 years ago have drawn large following

The Zhou brothers, Sanzuo and Dahuang, two celebrated artists from Southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region who have been living in Chicago since 1986, have been recognized as a driving force in the city's cultural scene.

"It's one way to be in Chicago, it's another way to open up Chicago to the world, and the world to Chicago," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at a ceremony honoring them last October.

Sanzuo, 64, and Dahaung, 59, are known as "The Zhou Brothers" because of their long-standing collaboration. They did their first joint painting, The Wave, in 1973 and have worked together on all of their paintings and sculptures ever since.

"We sometimes discuss our concept," said DaHuang. "But we seldom talk when we are working."

"We are two independent individuals working in conflict and harmony," said Sanzuo.

The result is works of art that involve both but are beyond the creativity of either.

When they first came to Chicago from China for an exhibition at the invitation of the East West Contemporary Art Gallery, they arrived with their paintings, $130 in their pockets between them and little to no command of the English language.

"We stopped at a friend's place in Los Angeles for a week, thinking we could learn English first," Sanzuo said with a laugh.

Their cherished ambition was to "conquer the world", as Dahuang wrote in a letter to their mother.

Their journey was not always a smooth one. They didn't sell any paintings at their first show, nor in the first few months, despite some positive media coverage. But they persisted, rejecting friends' advice to change their style to "cater to potential Western buyers".

In order to afford a place of their own where they could live and paint, they sold 10 of the paintings they had brought from China for a total of $1,500 to a gallery and rented an apartment on the South Side of Chicago for $250 a month.

They held their third exhibition less than a year after their arrival, bucking the customary practice of not having more than two shows a year.

It was their breakthrough. The show was held when the Chicago International Art Expo at Navy Pier was in session.

The raw energy and creativity of their paintings, heavily influenced by the rock paintings carved in the Hua Shan Mountain caves in Guangxi, caught the attention of art collectors and curators.

"We are from the Zhuang minority and grew up in Guangxi," said Dahuang. "We are proud of our roots and have inherited a certain indomitable spirit."

Eighty percent of their works at the show sold.

They soon gained representation in the US and Europe. Within eight months of their arrival from China, they purchased their first house.

A flurry of activity followed, including an exhibition at the 1989 Armory Show in New York City, where 16 out of their 18 pieces sold; establishing the Zhou Brothers Foundation in 1991 and setting up their sculpture garden in 1997.

In 2004 they purchased the 87,000-square-foot Zhou B Art Center, where they would host at least 10 exhibitions a year and provide residencies to more than 50 artists. More recently they established the Zhou B Art Center in Beijing.

They did suffer a setback along the way when their gallery went bankrupt.

"Totally unexpected," said Sanzuo. "At a time when we just bought our large studio."

They managed to get some of their work back, wrote off the loss and moved on. They signed with another gallery in New York and never looked back.

In addition to US galleries and museums, they began to show their work in Europe, including Germany, France, UK, Switzerland and Austria.

In 1996, they began teaching at the Hamburg International Academy of Art and Design, and later at the London International Art Academy and Salzburg International Summer Academy.

"Feeling is liberty" became their motto and philosophy. They wanted to encourage young artists to trust their feelings, have confidence, and be free to create. They set the goal for themselves to "paint without restraints" as well. "We still feel like two little children looking through the window to the outside world, curious about what is out there," Sanzuo added.

Sanzuo said he feels that they are now in a position to create freely without worrying about commercial success.

"Our best work is yet to come," Sanzuo said. "I feel the momentum is coming. I don't know what it is, but I can feel it."

 Conquering the art world

Sanzuo (left) and Dahuang, known as "The Zhou Brothers", with their painting in their studio in Chicago.

 Conquering the art world

The Zhou Brothers' studio and working space in Chicago. photos by jian Ping / for china daily

(China Daily USA 04/01/2016 page12)