Michael Kempson: China and beyond

From top:
Gregory O’Brien, Raoul Island Whale Survey with shipping containers, Astrolabe Reef, 2012-13, etching, aquatint and spit-bite, 51 x 41cm, edition of 30. Printers: Michael Kempson, Ben Rak and Sally Marks, Cicada Press. Photography: Sue Blackburn.
Tony Albert, Greetings from Appin, 2016, etching and aquatint, 50.5 x 50.5cm, edition of 15. Printers: Michael Kempson, Ben Rak and Jac Corcoran, Cicada Press. Photography: Sue Blackburn.
Ryan Presley, dominium, 2015, etching, aquatint and hand colouring, 69.5 x 50.5cm, edition of 20. Printers: Michael Kempson, Ben Rak and Tahjee Moar, Cicada Press. Photography: Sue Blackburn.

Michael Kempson explores the many benefits gained from building connections with China through the realm of art-making.


As a child of 1961, born on the latter cusp of the post-war baby boom, my formative experiences were enmeshed with the pernicious machinations of the Cold War; a dynamic that became more complicated following the Sino-Soviet split of the same year. China was the closest major protagonist to Australia in this period of tense global brinkmanship, and the most antithetical state ideologically. It was a turbulent period, as China’s mysteries, garnered through its isolation, fostered a fear of the unknown that was reinforced by our treaty obligations and latent Eurocentrism. The result was a shrill, lockstep Australian foreign policy agenda that continued for the rest of the decade.

Some in Australia sought to rethink this relationship: the remarkably courageous decision of Australia’s then Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, by visiting China in 1971, presciently preceded Richard Nixon’s 1972 détente. Records of Whitlam’s diplomatic engagement demonstrate that in representing Australia’s interests he didn’t shy away from confronting conversation about political differences, particularly during the formal recognition of China in his subsequent official visit as Prime Minister in 1973. The outcome of this plain speaking positioned Australia as an old friend in the burgeoning queue of countries clamouring for connection, and over the years, has delivered mutually beneficial economic, scientific and cultural engagement that has gathered momentum into the 21st century with the growth of China’s geopolitical influence and its burgeoning middle class.

My relationship with China began in 1993 when I met the artist Su Xinping, visiting Sydney with a survey exhibition of his lithographic prints. He went on to become a senior academic at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, one of two leading art schools in the group of eight major Chinese fine art academies. That beneficial connection has, over the last decade, helped to provide an expanding network with participatory opportunities for exhibitions, residencies and forums in academies and print-workshops throughout China.

Of all my experiences in China, the most significant opportunity was the most recent. Organised by Wang Huaxiang, CAFA’s Head of Printmaking, and conducted in Beijing during September 2016, a series of print-related activities launched the International Academic Printmaking Alliance (IAPA). This project is the culmination of a number of precursor events including 2015’s Impact 9 conference hosted by their other major school, the China Academy of Arts at Hangzhou. The other seminal event was the 1st International Forum of Art School Deans (IFPASD) in October 2015 at CAFA involving exchange with nearly 40 printmaking department heads from schools around the world. IFPASD peaked an awareness in China of the benefits of harnessing links with artists and educational institutions that apply different strategies for print-based syllabus content in their tertiary programs. As a participant in three days of forum discussion, one key outcome was a commitment to develop and sustain channels of communication for ongoing international dialogue, referencing the shared challenges inherent with printmaking education and professional practice.

Chinese participation in conferences such as Impact and an increasing engagement with the annual US-based Southern Graphic Council International, has encouraged a dissemination of ideas and information, and China’s own Annual Printmaking Exhibition and Conference for Chinese Academies and Colleges, recently opened its door to foreign exchange. In 2012, I was fortunate to attend as representative of the first foreign art school, along with several UNSW art and design students, the 11th iteration, held at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. It provided an opportunity for artists, academics and curators around the country to exhibit both staff and student work, and discuss the pertinent educational issues of the day in a spirit of great collegiality. The 2016 IAPA venture develops this by creating a new internationally focused model for print dialogue on terms that factor in China’s long and distinguished print history and their growing position in the world as a major power. Consequently, it was clear that our hosts wanted to impress.

Core to the IAPA was an exhibition of over 700 prints representing 28 countries held in a venue of World Heritage status, a four-pavilion complex known as the Working People’s Culture Palace of the Imperial Ancestral Temple, in the vast Forbidden City at Tiananmen. Curated by each international delegate, it also included work by 80 artists selected from art schools and print-workshops across China.

The prints were of superb quality and range, reflecting the strengths of each delegate’s host institution. The countries represented were equally diverse and included the United Kingdom, Nicaragua, USA, Russia, France, Thailand, Canada, Ireland, Serbia and Puerto Rico. The Australian selection, representing the University of New South Wales Art and Design in Sydney, included prints from staff and students along with research outcomes from Cicada Press, allowing for a more holistic selection of current Australian print practice, and importantly a contribution from New Zealand. The participating artists were Tony Albert (NSW), Nici Cumpston (SA), Rhonda Dick (NT), Rew Hanks (NSW), Michael Kempson (NSW), Katherine Kennedy (NSW), Bruce Latimer (NSW), Euan Macleod (NSW), Reg Mombassa (NSW), Laurel Nannup (WA), Gregory O’Brien (NZ), Adam Oste (NSW), Ryan Presley (QLD) and Ben Rak (NSW)

One thematic component of the Australian selection was the exploration of printmaking as a vehicle used to reflect critically on issues of social justice. Noongar artist Laurel Nannup’s Quirriup, a large format linocut and screenprint, names a solitary witness to the Pinjarra Massacre of 1834[i], the harrowing story of which had been conveyed to her through familial oral traditions. This experience is mirrored on the other side of the continent by Tony Albert’s etching Greetings from Appin that depicts a blood-drenched tourist ashtray decorated with Indigenous motifs, referencing the site of the first recorded state-sanctioned killing of Aboriginal people in Australia at Appin NSW in 1817. Reg Mombassa’s Bones poles and wires immerses the viewer in an environment soiled by industry, while Nici Cumpston’s Barkindji heritage connects her to the waterways of the Murray and particularly her desire to chronical the changes made to the landscape by the Federal Government’s decision in 2007 to alter natural flows into Lake Bonney (Nookamka). Her photo-generated intaglio prints, Flooded Gums and Winter II, depict the degradation and misuse of a “river in elegant decay.”[ii]

The other important business of the first IAPA was a two-day forum to facilitate delegate discussion and shape the potential ethos of this collective. The concluding matter was the establishment of the IAPA structure and the election of its officers and advisory committee to shape future events.

Reliable and productive connections are the life-blood of any business relationship. I’ve been very fortunate, that over the past few years the professional bonds established through academic exchange in China have transitioned into close friendships, despite the obstacle of language. And it is through this engagement with China that new relationships have developed with artists from all over the world. In 2013 I met the American artist and academic Joseph Scheer in an international workshop hosted by Xi’an Academy of Fine Art, and over the last few years our paths have crossed many times in China and obscure points around the globe. Scheer is the Professor of Print Media and Co-Director of the Institute for Electronic Arts at the School of Art and Design at Alfred University NY and a leading researcher into applications of cutting-edge print technology. He also hosts residency programs with US-based and international artists with recent guests being Ann Hamilton and Kiki Smith. Scheer was called upon to assist with the development of the images by Nici Cumpston, where digital files were sent to Alfred and freshly minted polymer plates mailed back for editioning in Sydney. This trans-Pacific collaboration would not have occurred without an introduction from friends in Xi’an.

As the world enters an uncertain future with a new US President, a Brexit decision to implement, a resurgent Russia and rumblings in the South China Sea, it’s comforting that at least our artists are continuing a conversation with respect and goodwill. The International Academic Printmaking Alliance is a sincere and altruistic venture that has delivered, with genuine leadership and generous support, a significant organisation dedicated to reinforcing the links that bind printmakers from all reaches of the globe.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinjarra_massacre
[ii] Allas T, Documenting a River, Art & Australia Pp 48-49, Vol 48, No, 1, 2010

Michael Kempson is the Convenor of Printmaking Studies and Director of Cicada Press at UNSW A&D in Sydney. He was an invited delegate to the IAPA, Beijing in September 2016, an artist in residence at IEA at Alfred University, USA in January 2017 and he is working towards a solo exhibition in Beijing, China in March 2017.