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Curator masters the art of introducing Chinese culture

Updated: 2014-06-27 11:37
By Cindy Liu in Los Angeles ( China Daily USA)

T. June Li, curator of the Garden of the Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington Library, believes the garden is like a scroll painting, composed of layers of meanings that reveal a profound, artistic and ancient view of Chinese artists.

The garden (Liu Fang Yuan), based in San Marino, California, is one of the largest Chinese gardens outside of China and has been under Li's leadership since 2004. Working as an expert in Chinese art history for almost 40 years, Li has carved out a career tapping into the passion of Westerners who want to learn more about Chinese art.

Li's passion for Chinese art started in childhood.

"I was always interested in art as a student," she said. Raised in Hong Kong, she learned pencil sketching and watercolors. Upon discovering she didn't have the artistic talent to be a painter, Li followed her other interests instead.

"I love history - there are so many exciting stories especially in Chinese history," said Li. After finishing her college entrance exams in Hong Kong, she decided to find a way to merge her passion for art and history and studied art history. One day after a world art history class, Li's teacher came to her and said that since she was from China, she must know all the Chinese artists.

"I still remember the shame I felt at that moment. I had to admit I didn't know about the Chinese artists," Li recalled. "That day made me look at things from a view that I never had before."

Vowing to rectify her lack of knowledge, Li focused on oriental studies and Chinese art history for her master's degree in the US.

After moving to Los Angeles with her husband, Li started working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as a registrar of the art collection. Because of her specialty in Chinese art, she was selected to be in charge of several exhibitions on Chinese art, especially two major traveling exhibitions from China. One was a tomb sculpture from Chinese museums (The Quest for Eternity) in 1986-1988, while the other featured significant paintings from the collections of the Palace Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai Museum (The Century of Tung Ch'i-Ch'ang), 1990-1992. Li was then promoted to curator in the East Asian art department due in large part to the success of the exhibitions.

Later she organized additional exhibitions of Chinese art. One of them was a set of paintings about the garden Zhi Yuan by the painter Zhang Hong (Paintings of Zhi Yuan: Revisiting a 17th Century Garden) in 1995.

Her success in upgrading the Los Angeles museum was recognized by Jim Folsom, director of botanical gardens at the Huntington Library. At the time Folsom had thoughts of creating a Chinese garden. Folsom needed someone who knew Chinese art including painting, literature, and architecture because a Chinese garden incorporates all of those specialties. Li's exhibition on Zhi Yuan finally convinced Folsom that she was the right person for the Huntington.

She joined the Huntington in 2004 as curator. The creation of the Chinese garden began in 2000 and was truly a cross-cultural effort from start to finish.

"We had designers, engineers and architects from Suzhou Garden in China. They translated our master plan into building plans, filling in all the details," she said. "Then our American architects had to translate the Chinese plans into workable ones with all our safety codes included. We had to work out misunderstandings about what we want such as simplicity in a design that was more identified with the Ming Dynasty than the more elaborate Qing Dynasty."

Li immersed herself into every decision concerning the construction of the garden.

"We chose flowers relevant to the Huntington, such as camellias over the more often used peonies. We chose our own inscriptions and found our own calligraphers instead of using what the Suzhou Company would supply."

Li recalled that she had to build the garden from a unique vantage point. "The choices were hard because for every decision I made, I needed to think in a Western Point of view for my American audience. This is because it is not a Chinese garden in Suzhou; it is a Chinese garden in America."

Despite her personal journey from the East to West, Li still keeps her Chinese culture in many ways. "I cook Chinese food. I speak Cantonese to my family. When I travel to Hong Kong, I still feel a strong connection and feel at home there." She said. "I am a Chinese American. I seldom get bothered by the culture differences or self-recognition issues that many often encounter."

Under Li's leadership, the Huntington has hosted more than 50 public lectures, several symposiums, and many exhibitions, workshops and musical programs with the goal of introducing Chinese culture to an American audience.

The Chinese Garden, which is still under construction in several areas, will eventually contain more than 10 pavilions. Li just launched a musician-in-residency program that featured a concert by Wu Man, a pipa player from China, dedicated to fostering a deeper connection between a Chinese musician and an American audience.

Realizing that many Americans wanted to learn more about Chinese art and culture, she helped to set up an advisory committee in 2005. It is made up of scholars and includes Richard Strassberg, professor of Asian languages and cultures at UCLA, Yang Ye, associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of California at Riverside, and Wango H.C. Weng, who is a private collector and scholar. Each member provides advice on art, culture, music and literature.

"We take a long time to discuss who and what topic to be explored," Li said. The selection of the artist at Huntington depends on various factors such as the artist's reputation, peer recognition and professional experiences. For example, Wu Man was named Musical America's 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, the first time this prestigious award has been bestowed on a player of a non-Western instrument.

The artist's willingness to communicate and educate the audience is also a consideration for Li when choosing an artist. At the concert on June 17, Wu Man introduced to the audience the pipa, a four-stringedChinese instrument.

"I would like to keep the musician-in-residency program flexible so that each artist may work differently from the other and each residency is tailored to the artist's accomplishments," she added.

Li has her own explanation of what makes art international. It could be a Chinese musician who plays traditional Chinese songs with a Western instrument. Li believes that music has to be something that is creative, powerful and beautiful.

The series of lectures, exhibitions, symposiums and concerts that Li and her team have brought in have created a loyal following of American fans who want more.

"I have been so fortunate in having a good following of Western audiences who take a keen interest in Chinese art, music and culture," Li said.

 Curator masters the art of introducing Chinese culture

T. June Li, a curator at the Huntington Library, makes it her goal to introduce Chinese culture to the American audience. Cindy Liu / China Daily


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