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Making cuts for expression

Making cuts for expression

Ahead of a film screening at Beijing LGBT center this Saturday, Gay Star News speaks to the director of a short film about Xiyadie (‘The Siberian Butterfly’), who uses the traditional Chinese art of papercutting to express his sexuality.

The traditional Chinese folk art of paper cutting is not usually used to depict sexually explicit homoerotic images, but Beijing-based artist Xiyadie found a means of self-expression for his sexuality in the 1400-year-old art form.

An exhibition of Xiyadie’s work is now on display in a gallery in Los Angeles. ‘My artwork is really about the desire for freedom: freedom of expression, freedom to live honestly and freedom from the disease my son suffers from,’ he says. His son has cerebral palsy.

Filmmaker Anna Sophie Loewenberg directed a short film about Xiyadie for Queer Comrades, a website that regularly releases films about LGBT life in China. Gay Star News asked her about making the film and the fascinating life and art of The Siberian Butterfly.

How did the film come about?

I used to be housemates with [gay filmmaker] Fan Popo and he told me about Xiyadie. His works were on display in the LGBT centre here in Beijing. Popo had met him and said, ‘he’s really interesting you should really think about doing a Sexy Beijing about him’.

What’s Sexy Beijing?

I have a website called Sexy Beijing where I broadcast 10 minute documentaries. It started about love and relationships in China, but we’ve been doing it since 2006 and it covers everything from feminism to sexuality, gender, romance. Anything sexy in Beijing basically!

I thought about doing telling Xiyadie’s story for Sexy Beijing but I met Xiaogang and Stijan from Queer Comrades and we discussed cooperating on this, and at that point this whole idea came together.

What’s Xiyadie’s story?

He comes from Shaanxi Province and he grew up on a farm. He started doing traditional Chinese papercuts at a very young age.

Papercutting is typically something that women from that part of the country do to express their hopes and dreams and to bring good luck to the family. One of the professors in the documentary pointed out that a lot of Chinese women who are illiterate who are from the countryside use papercuts as their mode of expression.

Anyway, Xiyadie picked it up at a young age and he’s one of the few men who is well-known in his province as a talented papercut artist. But this is a folk art so it’s not something that he would get national acclaim for, or something that could become his living. It’s more like his hobby. 

He went through various challenges in his life. He was married and he had two children including a severely handicapped son, who is basically paralysed and has 24-hour care.

At some points Xiyadie felt very isolated. So he started expressing more personal stuff through his paper cuts and move away from the typical themes that you see. It started to become a unique expression for him.

It was about 10 years ago maybe that he really started to come into his gay identity. He always knew he was gay at some level but it was at that time that he really started come out in his work, in his papercuts.

The documentary is really about that story and the way that that informs his process as an artist. How he has taken these life experiences and challenges and his talent and how he’s created this very unique expression through his art.

He moved to Beijing about five years ago. He had met some other filmmakers who were interested in his story about his son. He made some friends and had an opportunity to come here. He works odd jobs to get by. His family is back home and he sends them money.

Is he living out as a gay man now in Beijing?

Yes, but I would definitely say that his identity is fairly complicated as I’m sure it is for many Chinese men from the countryside. I mean his story of having his family in the countryside is very typical not just for a gay man but for most of migrant China.

So it’s somewhat complicated. Even though he really expresses a lot through this art, at the same time there are many ways in which he is still struggling to balance and negotiate his identity. There are certain people that he doesn’t talk about that part of his life to, or show that art work to.

But generally his life is pretty much as an out… where he works, where he lives, all of those people around him know that he’s gay. He has a lot of support I’d say in the community here. Whereas in the countryside he was very isolated.

How does the artist express his sexuality through his papercuts?

You should just take a look at them. They’re quite explicit.

Was it a difficult film to make?

For me it was really a big challenge because I tend to do this shorter-form work, ten minute segments that are much lighter. So for me personally as a filmmaker it was a bit more challenging. I think the nature that it was about his creative process made it a lot more challenging for me.

Did you follow a conventional chronological documentary style?

He narrates the story and it’s just a half-hour piece so in the sense that it is a profile.

But what I tried to do is spend a lot of one-on-one time with him while he was creating the works. I tried to do that because I really wanted the focus to be on his art. There are a lot things about his story that are very newsworthy. Already a lot of foreign journalists have said, oh this is an interesting guy. If they want to do something about gay life in China, he has a great story.

But I really wanted the focus to be on his artistic process which is a very intimate thing. So what I tried to do is talk to him about it while he was creating the papercuts.

So I think in that sense it wasn’t a typical format and from the response we’ve got from a few screenings, I think people really appreciated that. People said to me, ‘wow that really got deeply into who is really is’.

There are certain things that you can just say, but they don’t have as much meaning, as if you show. For instance, there was this moment with his professor where he was hesitating to show him certain works.

I really tried to capture the complexity of his identity and his process as an artist through some of those interactions rather than having him just tell us.

The film will be available to watch online on the Queer Comrades website next week (14-18 May, date to be confirmed).