Walking into the Buddhism Gallery at the Honolulu Museum of Art last week, Chinese artist Hua Tunan said he had jipi—chicken skin—when he saw the 11th-century statue of Guanyin. Based in Foshan, China, the reed-thin Tunan is in town for a weeklong residency at the museum, thanks to hospitality and travel partners Aqua-Aston Hospitality and Hawaiian Airlines.
As much a social media star as an internationally known muralist (he has 57,000 followers on Instagram), his Instagram post of Guanyin earned more than 1,000 likes. You can see him working on two paintings on the museum’s Central Courtyard stage, one of them a landscape designed to be a longterm backdrop for the Emile-Antoine Bourdelle sculpture La Grande Pénélope, Aug. 2 to 5. In addition, the evening of Aug. 5 he will be at our food-and-wine event August Moon, where a selection of his prints and a painting will be on sale.
Tunan’s large-scale works of animals and landscapes looking like turbocharged traditional Chinese brush paintings, only done with acrylic and spray paint. He is a modern-day Jackson Pollock, throwing his whole body into whipping containers of paint at giant walls, that somehow come out looking like precisely painted tigers and countryside. Tunan sees his paintings as bridging east and west. Which is why, he says while walking through the museum, laid out with east and west wings, this building and collection is “giving me many ideas. It is very nice here. I am finding myself in the design.”
Tunan, accompanied by his girlfriend Kathy Nguyen, answered a few questions on his first day at the museum, with museum docent Debbie Lee translating.
How did you get into traditional Chinese art?
Through my father. He’s an expert calligrapher, and I started practicing it when I was five years old. He is not a professional—he has a furniture manufacturing business—but has a deep personal interest in art and encouraged me to find my own way. He would take me to the library and bookstores and let me explore and find what I liked. Now every time I go to a library or bookstore the smell of the pages takes me back to those times.
Are there any particular traditional artists who have inspired you?
Zhang Daquian for his splash technique, and Wu Guanzhong for his lines.
What about street artists?
Banksy and Vhils [aka Alexandre Farto]. Foshan does not have a lot of graffiti or street art. I actually see things like temples and gardens as street art.
Did you experiment a long time to achieve your technique?
I can’t give you an exact answer—I don’t think I have completely achieved my technique yet. It is continuously evolving. Art is life—everything interconnects with each other. When I see my mom sweeping with a big Chinese broom, it’s like she’s making a huge calligraphy. [He presents a photograph two paint-splattered drills with handmixer whisk attachments inserted in them.] I want to make art a part of practical daily life, and am employing some basic household tools into my art.
The philosophy of tai chi is also a big influence on my work. [He shows an image of the iconic black-and-white yin-yang symbol on his phone.] It’s a basic element that helps me solve problems when I am making art. Its dualism—action and quiet, black and white, western and eastern, is one of the things that motivates my art.
I read that you worked with McDonalds. What did you do for them?
I was one of 12 artists around the world invited to create a design that was used on their French fry packaging during the 2014 World Cup. My work is all about physical movement, and football is a sport—they are very connected. So I created an image of an animal—a parrot—with a football.
You’ve also worked with companies such as Louis Vuitton—how did you come to their attention?
I was discovered through social media. I’m too busy painting to do that. My girlfriend Kathy Nguyen handles the business side of things.
How do you select the animals you paint?
Picking the animals is like doing a self-portrait—it depends how I am feeling. Tiger, leopard, eagle—they all have stern eyes, and that reflects my mood. Sometimes I like doing a panda because I am very cute [laughs]. I brought a panda with me because I want people to know I’m not always so serious. I paint animals because they are universal, and in war they are often victims. I want to raise public awareness of them.
Will you leave a little something behind in Honolulu?
I am hoping to hear if Pow! Wow! has a spare wall I can paint. I would really like to do something in Chinatown. I have done something in the Chinatowns in Chicago and Singapore. This would be my third one. I would love to leave something for Honolulu that supports pride in being Chinese.