Designer Fan Yanyan has earned international acclaim with her history-steeped creations
Fan Yanyan is so intrigued by the Silk Road that she set up her silk-scarf design studio in a Silk Road museum in Xi’an in Shaanxi province.
The museum occupies a site in the Northwest that held the largest market in the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the place tradition says was the starting point of the Silk Road.
Fan didn’t go looking for a job after graduating from college in Xi’an in 2000. She spent two years in Dunhuang in Gansu province,
creating facsimiles of the frescoes in the Mogao Grottoes.
The grottoes are celebrated for their 45,000 square metres of frescoes and 2,415 painted clay sculptures. It’s the world’s largest collection of historical Buddhist art, created between the third and 13th centuries, a peak period for international trade and cultural exchange between Central and South Asia and China.
“There weren’t many tourists there in 2000 – Dunhuang was a quiet, bleak town,” says 38-year-old Fan. “I felt as if I was talking with the ancient painters while making facsimiles of their work in the caves.”
The two years of “lonely cultivation” deepened her understanding of art and history and gave her inspiration, even though she was still uncertain about her future career.
Dunhuang enjoyed a tourism boom after 2002, but it made Fan feel uncomfortable. She left for Beijing to work as a designer for a scarf import-export company. “It gave me a chance to paint on scarves what I learned in Dunhuang,” she says.
She quit in 2008, eager for a less commercial outlet for her talent (meanwhile marrying and becoming a mother). “Although I was in Beijing, my soul had never left those caves in Dunhuang,” she says.
Fan started her studio to paint on silk – the “best and irreplaceable material” – crystallising ancient China’s wisdom and beauty. She painted her memories of Dunhuang on silk for 40 days straight. “It felt like a catharsis, just letting loose the depression and inspiration that had accumulated in my mind.”
Some of the “Dream Dun-huang” paintings she created at the time are exhibited in her studio in Xi’an, and she reckons they represent her best work.
Fan and her family returned |to Xi’an in 2009. She believes |the place is more suitable |for her work because of its |historical connection with the Silk Road and the Tang Dynasty, a peak in Chinese art and literature.
She found new inspiration in the old bronze ware, the Terracotta Warriors, stone sculptures and other places of historic interest in the city, which was the capital for 13 dynasties spanning more than 2,000 years.
Her silk painting “Twelve Chinese Zodiac Signs” – a combination of Xi’an folk art and history – was displayed at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 and caught the attention of Thomas Kong of the US-China Cultural Exchange and Development Association, a non-governmental organisation based in Flushing, New York.
Kong flew to Xi’an to meet Fan, bought a dozen scarves she’d designed and took them to the United States to show at an activity sponsored by the US Congress. The chairwoman of a women’s association asked Kong to invite Fan to design a scarf for the 16th Global Women In Leadership Economic Forum in Dubai in November 2014, as a potential official gift of the event.
It depicts women of four races surrounding the Greek goddess Artemis against the bright blue background that Fan favours in her designs. Fan says the colour is a symbol of the Silk Road. Persian merchants brought to China valuable ores such as lapis lazuli, calaite and malachite that |were ground to make pigments for painting frescoes and sculptures.
The brilliant hues never fade and pose a stark contrast with the surrounding earth tones of the Gobi Desert. “The symbolic blue means different things in the|context of religion, arts and |history,” Fan says.
Wu Mancong of the Xi’an Women Entrepreneurs Association says Fan’s “commitment to art and her persevering workmanship let the ancient arts from Dunhuang enter modern people’s lives. I hope more female entrepreneurs can make good use of their unique talents to make people’s lives more artistic.”
And Zou Yingzi, an expert on Suzhou embroidery from Jiangsu province, admires the way Fan integrates traditional elements and modern styles. “Her dedication and wisdom make that integration look natural.”
Fan recently founded a Silk Road Experience Centre in her studio, exhibiting artworks from the countries and regions along the ancient corridor.
“I hope I can draw all of these foreign cultural elements in a proper manner on silk,” she says. “The combination of cultures |and silk can help more people understand the essence of the ancient international trade route.”