Mai Cheng, who was born in Beijing, China in 1955, is educated both in China and in Norway. In Beijing she was among the first students admitted to Central Academy of Fine arts and Design when this institution was reopened after the Cultural Revolution. This means that she belongs to the famous “class of 77” among Chinese artists. Later she continued her education at the State Academy of Arts in Oslo, Norway, where she became a citizen in 1989.
In April 1992 Mai Cheng had one of the first solo exhibitions of abstract art in the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing. Today, she works in a style she calls Feng-shui Art, combining calligraphy and elements from Chinese history with signs and symbols from Greek, Egyptian and Norse mythology.
By this use of pictograms, symbols and archetypes from around the world and throughout our history, she produces art that is both timeless and international.
Apart from Norway, she has exhibited in France (Paris), Germany (Hamburg), Belgium (Brussels), USA (New York) and Iceland (Reykjavík). She has exhibited at several art fairs. Her calligraphy is decorating the outside walls of Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. Since 2001 Mai Cheng has had her studio in Menton, France.
A painter does not meet the same problems as other people when it comes to adjusting her work to new cultures. As long as it is not provincial or limited, a work of art will communicate across all barriers of language. Just like water when it flows across the border, it will not lose its characteristics. This is because the impressions and perceptions that arise out of art are almost universal.
Mai Cheng was born in Beijing. She is educated both in China and in Norway, but today she lives and works in France and Norway. If there are global artists, she must be one of them. Her work is a synthesis between East and West, between new and old, and not least between characters and pictures. Using pictograms, symbols and archetypes from around the world and throughout our history, she produces art that is both timeless and international.
Her project started with the discovery of certain similarities between Nordic rock carvings and the calligraphy from her native China. Later, she began to include other ancient, visual languages, such as hieroglyphs, mayaglyphs and cuneiform characters in her art. In some cases, she even used modern signs and symbols – for instance the hieroglyphic writing that surrounds us in the street, at a train station or the airport, on our washing machine or computer.
“My aim is to enable different signs from different cultures to communicate in a way that emphasizes their common source,” she says. “When I am successful, I feel that I have discovered archetypes and new connections between cultures that normally are separated both historically and geographically.”
In 1977, Mai Cheng belonged to the first set of students admitted to the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Beijing, when this institution was reopened after the Cultural Revolution. In 1981, she saw an exhibition with the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch in the Chinese National Gallery in Beijing (NAMOC), and she decided to go to his homeland for further study. She applied – and was admitted to – the State Academy of Arts in Oslo, Norway, where she studied until 1987. Then she received a postgraduate scholarship at the Art Academy in Bergen, and after that another scholarship to Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, France. This dual education, from academies in China and Europe, may explain how Western technique and Eastern thinking seem to meet and blend in her art.
Mai Cheng’s largest exhibition so far took place in the Chinese National Gallery (NAMOC) in Beijing back in 1992, in the very same hall that ten years earlier had displayed the paintings by Edvard Munch. Here she showed more than a hundred large oil paintings, many of them abstract, which was unusual in China at that time. Today, her work is represented (under her Chinese name Cheng Zheng) both in China Art Association in Beijing and in the Chinese National Gallery.
In all these years Mai Cheng have been working on what a critic has described as “aesthetic archaeology”, letting traces of history shine like hidden messages through the surface of each painting. Under several layers of history, there may be symbols and messages that have disappeared from all languages, remnants that seem expelled to inscriptions on rocks or in clay – signs that appear strangely powerful even though we may not be able to interpret them.
“In fact, almost every type of art is based on archetypes because all humans seem to search for the same conception of beauty,” Mai Cheng explained in an interview. “Therefore, it is not only legitimate, but completely natural to combine the most primitive with the most modern of expressions.”
For this reason, Mai Cheng has been travelling extensively, visiting old temples and examining hieroglyphic writings in a number of countries. She went to Mexico and different parts of Asia in order to study ancient signs and calligraphy. In Egypt, she made the calligraphy that decorates the exterior of the library in Alexandria. The walls that run around this famous building is today covered with scripts and signs from many different languages, put together in an entirety that symbolizes how our common cultural heritage is collected in a library.