Feature: When Chinese calligraphy encounters Australia's bark painting -- Australian museum director helps boost understanding between peoples

Mathew Trinca, director of the National Museum of Australia, receives an interview with Xinhua in Canberra, Australia, Sept. 7, 2022. (Photo by Chu Chen/Xinhua)

CANBERRA, Sept. 21 (Xinhua) -- Mathew Trinca, director of the National Museum of Australia (NMA), said his interest in Chinese art started with calligraphy.

"The first time I saw a Chinese artwork was when I was quite young," he recalled. "I was struck by Chinese calligraphy. I was fascinated by how it has literary meaning, but also how it's art."

He saw that the painted characters showed emotions and feelings of the calligrapher, and believed it reflected the "philosophic nature of the Chinese people."

That was the beginning of Trinca's understanding of Chinese culture. Later, the role as NMA director gave him a chance to learn more.

The NMA had its permanent home by Lake Burley Griffin in the center of the Australian capital Canberra in 2001. Trinca joined the NMA as a senior curator in 2003.

He was appointed to the post of director in 2014. After that, he had opportunities to visit China on numerous occasions.

"Each time I'm there, I feel another part of the picture becomes a little clearer to me about Chinese art and culture," he told Xinhua in an interview, adding that he gradually understood at some level the ink painting traditions in China, how to use certain animals or plants in the ink paintings, etc.

Saying that he himself is still "very much a beginner," Trinca said "those things have really been one of the great fortunes that I have experienced over time of going to China."

Trinca said the NMA had a strong connection with China. Since the national museum opened its doors in 2001, they have brought several major exhibitions to China. "To Guangzhou with our first exhibition ever overseas in 2002, again in 2010 the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC)."

The NMA signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Museum of China in 2016, where a 150-piece "Old Masters" art exhibition with Australian indigenous artists was launched in 2018.

Last year, another major exhibition, the Red Heart of Australia, was hosted in NAMOC. In exchange, three modern Chinese sculptures by Chinese masters Liu Kaiqu, Xiong Bingming and Wu Weishan were put on display at the NMA. Both institutions last year signed a new memorandum of understanding to renew the cultural partnership.

"There is no doubt that our relationship to China and to the Chinese people is one of the most important for the Australian people, indeed for the Australian nation," said Trinca. "So it's no surprise to me that the first place we went with an exhibition overseas was to China, and I think it signified something deep and enduring about our relationships."

His most recent trip to China was before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019.

During his trips, he could see a deepening of understanding between the people of the two countries.

"When we went with Australia's bark painting artists to Beijing, taking the exhibition Old Masters there to the National Museum of China, I was so struck by how Chinese audiences were fascinated by the works, which has a very long lineage here in Australia, but was relatively unknown in China. I could see people making comparisons between their own very old traditions of ink painting, for instance, and these great works of aboriginal artists in Australia," he said.

Australia is home to more than 1.2 million people of Chinese heritage, and the Chinese Australian community has a history dating back to the 19th century. Trinca felt that Australian people are fascinated by Chinese art and culture.

"Indeed, the people-to-people links between our two countries are very strong," he said.

Trinca personally had good relations with some Chinese artists, with whom he said he enjoyed "meeting and talking about our common interests."

One of his friends was Wu Weishan, director of NAMOC, whom he recognized as "a fabulous artist in his own right."

In fact, the exhibition of three modern Chinese sculptures, namely "Sculpting the Soul," which ran between last October and February, was inspired by his discussion with Wu when they met in July 2018. Wu's work, the award-winning Sleeping Child of cast copper, was among the exhibits.

Trinca said he was also fond of the paints of artist Ma Shulin, who had been deputy director of NAMOC. "Ma and I really enjoyed each other's company," he recalled. "He became a great advocate for these cultural connections between Australia and China, and his ink paintings of operatic figures are really delightful."

At the mention of cultural exchange, the director would be philosophical. "I think there's a deep truth in all human life that when we share our stories with others, we learn about ourselves in the act of sharing with others," he said.

"When two nations come together and their peoples come together, and they're prepared to exchange stories, they learn about each other," he said. "They develop relationships in ways that otherwise I think would be impossible. And that's really what's going to hold us together as two nations whose history has been intertwined. And I think our future is going to be similarly linked."

This year marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Australia. The NMA is going to bring a work of their collection, the Harvest of Endurance, on display.

The 50-meter-long pictorial scroll detailed two centuries of Chinese contact with, and migration to, Australia, which was completed to celebrate Australia's bicentenary in 1988.

Looking into the future, Trinca said he hoped to see the cultural relationship between China and Australia deepened, as well as the people-to-people links.

"When one considers the great length of Chinese history, 50 years feels like a drop in the ocean. But it's very important for us to work over these 50 years to really deepen these cultural relationships to see the exchange of people between our countries. And I look forward to that in the future," Trinca said. 

Editor: Jiang Feifan
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