Drawing Outside the Lines
w/ Qiuyuhong Lu (they/them, she/her)
A Q&A with BU artist Quiyuhong Lu, exploring how their worldly and cultural experiences have influenced what their art means to them.
So tell me, what is your name, your pronouns, BU college, and class year?
My name is Qiuyuhong Lu and my pronouns are they/them, she/her. I am a senior graduating with a double major in Psychology and Painting.
And, where are you from?
I was born in Shanghai, China, but I spent a lot of time here and there because of family issues. I always consider Shanghai as my dearest hometown though.
That’s interesting, what was it like growing up in Shanghai?
Shanghai is a magical city because it retains some of the oldest and most traditional ways of life but is also so deeply influenced by more modern Western culture. I live in the French concession district, so I got to be familiar with this kind of juxtaposition of cultures fairly early in my life. It is an Utopian experience, and I miss being there every day.
What inspired you to start making art? Was it the beauty of your Utopian experience?
I started drawing when I was very young because my parents weren’t always around to entertain me. I started to focus on rediscovering my heritage during the summer before I came to college. I stayed with my maternal grandmother’s family in Lisboa, Portugal.,who previously lived in Macau -- a Chinese port city colonized by Portuguese until 1999. Some of Macau people immigrated to Portugal around 1999-early 2000s. There, I heard many stories about our past families, which inspired a lot of my art.
Why did you leave for college, and did your pursuit of furthering your skills in art play into it at all?
I was always very interested in the psychology and memory recalling process since early on in high school, so I came into college thinking I would just major in psychology. But it turns out that art is such an important part of my life that I am not yet ready to part with. So, I submitted an art portfolio to the [School of Visual Arts] department and added a second major by the end of my freshman year.
Wow, that was very brave of you to follow your heart and go for art. How did you feel when you left for college? What was that transition like as an international student?
I started studying abroad in high school. I stayed with an American host family in Connecticut for four years where I actually got over some of the most immediate cultural shock - like people being very open about talking about relationships, and less formal teacher-student relationships. Therefore, coming to college felt like a smooth transition.
My high school was super small. We only had 40 students in my graduating class and the majority of the school was rich and white. Living and studying among them brought up a lot of identity issues and kind of forced me to assimilate. Over the course of four years I tried really hard to fit in as much as possible, from what I wore every day to how I spoke. Coming to BU and seeing people proudly expressing themselves as who they are was a wake up call. So I think the collegiate transition was more about me rediscovering myself and owning my identity and heritage.
Since you’ve been in college, what has been one of the most transformative experiences you have had?
Last year my proposal competed against over 2000 artists from the New England area for a mural commission in Wellesley, MA. Four artists were chosen, and luckily, I was one of them.
Painting something at a busy traffic stop is quite nerve wracking, especially when passengers often stop by and observe you. I definitely encountered some ‘Karens’ that would yell at me about whether I had “permission” or not and randomly take pictures of me. But, I also met many sweet and kind people who brought their kids around to watch and learn.
I also confronted the Wellesley Police department, during a commission, for not wanting me to pay tribute to Native Americans that were pushed out of the Wellesley area. The police department asked me to remove the sigil and corn imagery that are often references to Native Americans because of “the tense political atmosphere,” and I refused. It was a transformative experience in many ways: I confronted my anxiety of being observed and judged when creating art. I was able to beautify a city with my painting, persisting and staying true to my vision.
I see how much you pull on your personal sense of self and explore what it means to be “you” in your artwork. Could you talk a little on how that’s been for you to almost recreate yourself in so many ways?
Most of my work is exploring and rediscovering my heritage, and I am especially interested in the visual representation of the plasticity of memory. Each time we recall an event, it would be altered by our brain, so it is always the simulacrum of the essence of an actual experience. I started to see myself at the intersection of multiple identities, fully embracing the fact that I can be multi-faceted and that there is always more to discover. Even though each time I recreate and represent myself in a different way I am just adding onto the plethora of myself-ness and I enjoy the abundance.
What parts of yourself do you think you haven’t been able to reflect well in your art just yet that you soon hope to?
I have been a city girl for most of my life, and I recently found out one of my grandparents was a nomad in Tibet, so it really altered my perspective on who I am. I grew up celebrating Losar (along with Chinese New Year), making butter tea and braiding 108 braids, but I never asked why or really thought of it. Recently, I have found old family images of the Hongyuan grassland and Ngawa county and realized part of my heritage comes from this grassland prairie. My last large scale woodcut project (40*72 inch) is about the dream I had after seeing those photographs, it is a very superficial visual representation of how I imagine a grassland life is. So yeah, definitely I haven’t had a chance to dig deeper about the nomadic or Tibetan culture, but I am excited to do so as my lovely elderly decides to share more of their experiences with me.
I know a big part of you and your art has also been your cultural heritage, you almost blossoming in your understanding and love for it. What was it like discovering yourself in that way,33 and how do you think you have reflected your cultural background in your work as well?
I think creating work about my cultural heritage has definitely helped me accept and appreciate myself. Speaking from my experience, Chinese culture is highly additive and versatile. People still speak with phrases, words, story examples excerpted from archaic literature, and it’s a natural part of our thinking process, speech and writing. Sometimes it’s so natural and common that I never thought of looking up the origin or certain phrases. Creating artwork basically provided me the motivation to do extensive research to understand certain actions and words better. When I create drawings, there is always a specific experience, or observed phenomena in mind, and I would prepare myself by researching, such as reading related or original literature, interviewing people who might have had a similar past and digging through old family photobooks. The more I know about my culture, the more I love it. There are a thousand different associative meanings and cultural significance behind such small things. Besides that, I also often keep these questions in mind: am I creating work to exotify my own heritage? Am I creating work to fit the audience that often find images of non-Eurocentric culture more appealing? I try to find a balance between what I can control and what I cannot, and always thrive to decolonize my methods of presenting my culture as well as eschew drawing something solely enticing because of its romanticized peculiarity.
There are so many people with shared experiences like yours, but also those who could never know what a day in your life feels like. What do you hope both these groups feel when they see your work?
Not everyone’s experience is universal. But there is certain universality in every being’s existence. I think, as for people who are familiar with such experiences, I hope my work lets them feel heard and sparks some of their memories. As for those who aren’t part of my culture, my pieces encourage them to view a life that is distant and unknown, but at the same time just as tender and nurturing as the ones of their own. Martin Hediddger once cited Hölderlin’s “full of merits, yet poetically, man dwells on earth”, I think that applies to both of these groups as we unequivocally share the poeticness of being. I also don’t want to limit my audience to only Chinese people or people who fetishize and generalize the multitude of Asian culture into just an appealing aesthetic. So when composing my images, I always leave off details of narratives and abstract environments, allowing the viewers to insert their own imaginations and understandings.
Your art seems so centered on self-discovery, and I think that’s incredibly beautiful and such a strong way to reflect on who you are and who you are continuously becoming. I imagine it has been a journey for you, so looking back, what do you think you would say to young Qiuyuhong if you could?
I would definitely tell young Qiuyuhong to correct every single person that mispronounces YOUR name and always use YOUR actual name!