Hu Ming is candid about the days she spent removing skin from the bodies of dead babies so it could be grafted onto burn victims.
She hated the sight of blood, and fainted multiple times when made to watch a Caesarean birth. But dead babies – flayed under her artist’s hand – she could somehow stomach.
For 18 months of the 20 years Hu spent in the People’s Liberation Army, it was her job to collect baby corpses from a women’s hospital in Tian Jin and bring them to an army hospital across the city, where she worked as a surgical nurse in the burns unit.
She used a pillowcase to transport the freshly dead – sometimes five piled in at a time – and later cut them at key points, so the skin would come off like a coat.
The skin was preserved in ‘‘special juice’’ until the time came to transplant it.
‘‘No nurse likes this job, thinking very horrible,’’ said Hu, whose military career, from 1970 to 1989, spanned the last six years of China’s Cultural Revolution, the death of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
More than anything, her art is about women.
‘‘But for me I think OK, I think because I’m from a doctor family. I never feel nothing; I just feel this is my job. You can save people’s life.
‘‘No1 good skin [for grafts] is baby skin; No 2 is little pig. We don’t have much pig in China.’’
Chinese artists are not known for their realistic portrayals, but the straight-talking Hu, a celebrated Chinese-Australian pioneer in the combination of modern and classical styles, has made her name with vivid oil paintings that tell us something about how it really was, and how it is, in her homeland.
She migrated to New Zealand in 1989, compelled by the horrors of Tiananmen Square to leave China, and relocated to Sydney 10 years later.
Today she lives with her partner of 14 years, Bob Burns, a successful businessman, in a sprawling cliff top hideaway with jaw-dropping views of Kangaroo Valley and an incredible assortment of Hu’s works covering the walls.
More than anything, her art is about women.
She paints them as robust, tanned beings – owing something to the Red Army propaganda posters she was reared on and herself once created, but their faces are relaxed and natural and their khaki uniforms are rendered see-through, revealing breasts and buttocks that pertly counter the Maoist myth of the homogenous, sexless soldier.
Hu’s penchant for these robust, vital bodies has been interpreted as a legacy of her time working in the army hospital among the burnt men and women, the sickly, the withered, the dead babies.
She also cites Michelangelo’s life drawings – “real like a photograph” as a great influence –- both in her art and in setting her on a new path in life, out of China.
Hu was born in Beijing in 1955 and spent her school days drawing Chairman Mao’s portrait and reading his famous red book , ‘‘Chairman Mao’s book, Chairman Mao’s poetry, Chairman Mao everything – so boring”.
At 15, she wanted out, and begged her parents, both doctors in the army, to let her join the army.
She was stationed in Tian Jin in an army hospital, 254, of 5000 people.
One of her first jobs was as radio broadcaster, responsible for the eat call, lights out call and wake-up call, sometimes a difficult commitment for a teen who loved her sleep.
She once accidentally played the Call to Arms at 3am, causing everyone, the sick and injured included, to assemble in the quadrangle, while she slept unaware. “Hu” sounds like the Chinese word for muddle, and her fellow soldiers began calling her this. She refers to herself as “a bad soldier”, but seems to have been well-liked by her superiors and, importantly, forgivable.
Her commander never reported the discovery of a contraband book found secreted in Hu’s quilt, Michelangelo’s life drawings.
Hu found the book during her time spent working in the hospital library. There was a room full of forbidden books, and she had the key. She regularly took titles away to read, but the drawings by Michelangelo, she said, changed her.
“The first time I saw this book, this time a big, big wake-me-up,” Hu said.
She took the book to her quarters and would draw from it under torchlight at night until “spies tell my boss”, and then the book was gone.
The library housed forbidden records too. Hu took them back to the radio office on Saturday nights, to listen with four close friends of a similar age. Assembled around the record player, they felt their minds open.
‘‘The first I remember was Beethoven, [Symphony] No 9 and also Tchaikovsky; Swan Lake – this ballet music! Oh, my, God,” Hu said. “When we listen, we think this whole world change. I can see many beautiful pictures... my mind just hungry for this.
“Also like Wagner. Oh my God – so powerful.”
Hu was there when a truck came and took the records away in 1975. They were to be taken to a factory and made into something else.
Hu “cried on the inside”, but she also felt lucky that she had listened to most of the collection. She stashed some of her favourites under the library carpet before they could be got at. “I save 30, I think. Some of my favourite – Tchaikovsky, Chopin – oh my God – so powerful.”
Late in her military service, Hu spent four years studying traditional Chinese painting, graduating in 1983 from Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts with a finetuned grasp of the meticulous Gongbi style.
She worked as a portrait artist in Auckland Markets for a while after migrating to New Zealand, worked for a year as an illustrator at Time/Warner, and in 1991 established an open studio in Auckland, having taken up oil paints after her supply of proper rice paper ran out and she couldn’t find more. Her unique style is the result of oil paint applied in the traditional Gongbi style.
Her most ambitious creation is the 14-metre long Relic of the New 87 Immortals, an appropriation of a scroll painting of the Northern Song dynasty in which a procession of Chinese women through the ages replace the 87 immortals. The work chronicles the women’s changing wardrobes, from the odalisques, imperial concubines and ordinary women of the Qing Dynasty, to the “Western maxiskirt” popularised in Shanghai in the 1930s, the unisex clothes of the ’60s, flared trousers of the ’70s, and bikinis and beanies of the 1990s and 2000s.
More recently, Hu was commissioned to create artwork for Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival. It is her white horse, on a backdrop of vivid pink, which adorns the event’s promotional material.
Many of Hu’s creations are born out of a studio about 50 metres from the house overlooking the Kangaroo Valley. It is a generous retreat, more than 100 square metres in size, purpose-built for Hu, with plentiful light.
The artist wakes early to start work and easily stays painting for nine hours. In winter time she will arrive at 6am or 6.30am, start a fire, have her first coffee and watch the sun rise, then put something on the CD player. Hu likes some contemporary music. Other times she plays the classics – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, powerful still.