Barbara Suen was an artist-in-residency at Imagine Gallery in 2011, generously funded by the Ontario Arts Council. She reached out to tell us about her experiences and the international collaborations that arose from her time in China.

China Residencies: What sparked your interest in China?
Barbara Suen: I am a Canadian of Chinese ethnicity. My great-grandfather was one of Canada’s first Chinese settlers, so I am extremely interested in deepening my knowledge and appreciation of my heritage culture.

CR: Did you apply with a specific project idea in mind, or were you looking for inspiration on the spot?
BS: I had a specific goals in mind. These included:
• Reconnecting with former schoolmates from CAFA [Beijing's leading art school.] I studied there briefly as a Canadian international student in 1981-82, just as China was developing foreign cultural relations with Canada.
• To meet Chinese gallery directors, curators, arts organizers, collectors, and artists
• To research contemporary Chinese art practices 
• To view classical Chinese artworks, as they are extremely rare where I live in Canada.

CR: Tell us a bit about the project(s) you worked on while you were there:
BS: Since I was already familiar with China, I did not do any sightseeing - instead I concentrated on reconnecting with former classmates as well as making new connections to China’s art’s community. I became familiar with the Beijing Art District 798, the National Art Museum of China, private art galleries (such as Red Gate Gallery and Imagine Gallery,) Beijing’s Liulichang neighbourhood, independent artist’s studios, CAFA museum and school. Since I was extremely busy visiting, becoming reacquainted and developing new relations, I had little time to actually produce artworks. 

The two artworks that I was able to create at the Imagine Gallery artist residency studio were the largest watercolour paintings that I have ever produced, due to the very large studio that was generously provided by Imagine Gallery.

CR: Did your work or practice change significantly from your time in China?
BS: Absolutely! I am working on a much larger scale as well as diversifying my portfolio.

CR: Tell us more about the Sino-Canadian exhibitions you organized:
BS: I formed collaboration with a Beijing art exhibition organizer, Ms. Luo XiaoAn. This led to the “China-Canada International Art and Painting Exhibition” at the China Millennium Monument Beijing World Art Museum held from November 28 to December 10, 2012. It was a difficult project to organize and took more than a year because the Beijing arts organizer and I had to obtain support from federal, provincial, and municipal government officials, as well as museum directors, curators and arts consultants from both China and Canada. Since this was the first China-Canada effort at this particular venue, we received widespread media attention in China and Canada.

Twelve months later, in November 2013, upon the invitation of myself and the Mayor of Oshawa, Ontario (my city of residence,) Ms. Luo made her first visit to Canada to explore strengthening cultural relations with the vision of organizing a state-supported future China-Canada International Painting and Art Exhibition in Canada. We are still exploring these opportunities.

CR: What were Beijing and Feijiacun like as a cities?
BS: Beijing was modern and westernized. Feijiacun retains the old charm of traditional China.

CR: How involved are the organisers with the resident's daily life? Did they organise exhibitions or open studios?
BS: Laëtitia Gauden (Imagine Gallery’s director) and Jeff Zhao (at that time, the gallery assistant) were great. They were extremely helpful in every way imaginable!

CR: What parts of China had you previously visited?
BS: In 1981-82, I travelled to many places in China, independently and with the school, including throughout the east coast by ship from Xiamen to Shanghai, Western China along the Silk Road by train from Beijing to Urumuqi, Southern China by train from Beijing to Guangzhou then to Guilin and Kunming, and also visited Hong Kong and Macao.

CR: Did you speak any Chinese before coming? 
BS: I studied Chinese for a year in 1979-1980 at a Canadian university. Then I spent 6 weeks at the Beijing Language Institute during the summer of 1981 prior to my time at CAFA. So I have some very basic Chinese language skills… but still not as good as I would like!

CR: Did China fit your expectations? Or did the city surprise you?
BS: My expectations were met. The only surprise was the air pollution… much worse than I had anticipated!

CR: Are you interested in going back and spending more time in China?
BS: Yes. I am considering another artist residency in Beijing… will have more details by the end of next month.

CR: Anything else you’d like to add?
BS: I think this forum is excellent and a great resource for anyone who wishes to consider an artist residency in China. 

This interview was conducted over email by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.