Ni hao, friends!
(This is the second post in a 3-part series, sharing highlights of my recent visit to China, on behalf of Make Studio and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR). You can read the first post here.)
In my last post, I wrote about why I was in China and what my NCUSCR group’s orientation in Beijing entailed. In this installment, I’ll begin to talk about what I did in my next destination, Shanghai, especially how I spent my time with Zhu Xin’s/Julia’s organization World of Art Brut Culture (WABC).
After less than two days in Beijing, the NCUSCR U.S. Fellows each set out to the locations of their unique host organizations in different areas of China. Although WABC, founded in 2010 just like Make Studio, has 10 studios (!) throughout the country, my trip was focused on the Shanghai studio where Julia is based. So, unnecessarily large suitcase in-hand, I soon found myself on my own at one of Beijing’s dizzyingly busy train stations where there was a Dunkin’ Donuts amongst the station’s many food vendors, ensuring I had a familiar snack and caffeine for the 5-hour trip to Shanghai.
Upon arrival in Shanghai (population approx. 24 million), I was warmly greeted by WABC staff member Rita and her welcome sign with her drawing of me!
We got to know each other better — I loved learning about Rita’s artistic activities as a prolific cartoonist and illustrator and her aspirations to become an expressive therapist (!) — as she kindly assisted me in getting me to my hotel and in obtaining a local Chinese SIM card for my phone (an unforgettable experience not unlike being at our MVA, and resulting in my phone not working at all, but that is another story…).
Over the course of the next week, I would get to spend a lot more time with Rita, Julia, and other WABC staff, as well as doing a bit of exploring on my own in and around Shanghai.
Just a quick orientation to Shanghai. . . Shanghai prides itself on being uber modern and cosmopolitan and is widely considered to be China’s “capitalist showpiece”, reflected in the Shanghaieses’ embrace of smart phones, using QR codes for everything, and food delivery apps, as well as its constant traffic gridlocks and the glowing skyscrapers of its Pudong financial district (pictured below, clearly not my photo).
However, at the street level and across its diverse neighborhoods, day-to-day Shanghai still runs on traditional practices, small family businesses, scooter and bike based transport (of people and goods), and intergenerational relationships. This was very clear on my daily trips to and from WABC.
WABC itself is situated in a quiet oasis within the busy city, an office park of sorts created in a historical plaza to host NGOS, galleries, a civic museum, a few small businesses, and a children’s community garden.
The WABC studio itself feels like an oasis within an oasis, always colorful and fairly quiet even when humming with the activity of art classes or staff meetings.
On my first day with WABC, I was invited to sit in on a staff meeting (capturing the overall atmosphere, if not everything that was being discussed) and met WABC’s first artist, the very charming Long Xu, who is one of the few WABC artists that works in the studio in a way resembling Make Studio’s program artists (their program model is quite a bit different; many artists work at home or elsewhere in the community and contract with WABC). He and his mom, who works for WABC, are featured in this just released short film, “Unique As Everyone Else”.
I then accompanied WABC’s artistic staff — Rita and Dong — to the weekly art classes that WABC is contracted to provide at a community “school” for adults with disabilities. Similar to day programs in the U.S., but structured like secondary settings that impart job skills training as well as academics, this is a service mode in China for people with disabilities until they are about 35. At that point, I was told, “graduates” often will stay at home with their families to help care for aging parents.
On the way to the school, Rita and Dong helped me to order a tasty and cheap on-the-go lunch of vegetarian baozi to bring on our metro ride across town.
Once there, I observed Rita and Dong lead separate groups in multimodal art activities — incorporating movement, dramatics, and drawing — that they’d each designed. (WABC provides training to instructors and volunteers, particularly about making activities accessible and inclusive, but the content of the classes I saw were driven by Rita’s and Dong’s planning.) The themes of both sessions were around social connection and appreciating others’ strengths. I was really impressed by these young instructors’ creativity and enthusiasm, as well as the talent of the participants! I could easily see that the sessions are eagerly anticipated every week — the participants met us outside as we arrived for hellos, hi-fives, and hugs.
Back at the studio later in the week, during a weekday class and a Saturday class, I was lucky to again be invited to observe and participate as Rita and Dong led adults with disabilities and volunteers in activities that WABC offers for free. (WABC also provides classes to children and youth.) These sessions, like those at the school, were also oriented towards connecting with others, but were more focused on exploring materials and aesthetic/sensory experiences.
Here I should add that Saturday classes at WABC often involve as many, or more, volunteers (folks in the green t-shirts) than participants from the community. This is indicative of the strong support that WABC has from volunteers, and perhaps more broadly reflects the growing interest in volunteerism in China especially among young people (who are not free to come on weekdays). Applying a Make Studio perspective, and seeing volunteers’ enjoyment and the deft way that Dong encouraged them to fully participate in the experience while ensuring that they didn’t try to “do for” community members, I encouraged WABC staff to consider expanding their offerings to fully inclusive workshops or classes.
Please stay tuned for the final leg of this series, Part 3, where I wrap this all up with how I shared the Make Studio message with different audiences in Shanghai and made plans for future exchanges.