Born in Beijing, China, in 1960, Ah Xian first came to Australia in early 1989, following the Tiananmen Square massacre. While gaining the freedoms of being an Australian resident, he suffered a sense of cultural loss. Over time he has embraced his Chinese cultural heritage, in particular the ancient Chinese decorative techniques of porcelain, lacquer and cloisonné enamel work.

The figure has been a key concern for Ah Xian throughout his thirty-year career in Australia, and he is best known for his numerous life-sized porcelain busts, often decorated with traditional Chinese motifs and techniques. This cloisonné work continues Ah Xian’s interest in the human form, but introduces a new medium to his oeuvre. Cloisonné originated in the Islamic world and was introduced to China during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and today pieces created during the Ming dynasty are some of the most highly regarded examples of this technique in the world.

For nine months Ah Xian worked collaboratively with artisans at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi, a southern province of China and the ‘home’ of Chinese porcelain. Here he produced a series of nine busts, including Human human – cloisonné bust 3. Local artisans were commissioned by Ah Xian to paint traditional patterns and motifs onto three-dimensional human forms cast from family members and friends.

The bust is decorated in a traditional design known as ten thousand flowers, with the flamboyant peony taking centre stage, it expresses good wishes, as well as longevity. Peonies have long been appreciated in China as the ‘king of flowers’ and are generally known as symbols of wealth and nobility. While Human human – cloisonné bust 3 uses the style and technique of Imperial China, the realism of the portrait creates an incongruity in the pairing of a contemporary human form with a traditional surface design. Despite the beauty and opulence of the decoration, the work exudes an unease: with its closed eyes and expressionless visage, this sculpture feels more like posthumous portrait, a death mask. The extensive floral decoration is slightly cloying, an attempt to camouflage the truth by diverting the viewer with its beauty.

  • Bring Ah Xian into your classroom with this short video.
  • Look at Human human – cloisonné bust. What does this pattern remind you of?
  • Define what a portrait is with your class. Now looking at Human human – cloisonné bust 3 – is this a portrait or a sculpture – or is it both?
  • Human human – cloisonné bust 3 is part of a large series of busts. Look as some of the other busts online. How are they similar and different? What other motifs has he used on these busts?
  • Ah Xian has long been amazed by the shape of the human body and how it has been inspiration for many artists for thousands of years. Find other busts or human forms in AGSA’s collection and compare these to Human human – cloisonné bust 3. What do you notice that is similar about these works – what materials are they made from and when were they made?
  • Investigate the meanings for plants and flowers. Is there a particular meaning that piques your interest? Create a bouquet portrait of a selection of flowers and/or plants that you would give to a loved one. Your selection may be representative of that person or what you wish for them, such as happiness and good health.
  • Create a three-dimensional work of art that combines two elements, one which represents your past and which is symbolic of your present or goals for the future.