Young Chinese artists forge connections online

As part of a BBC World Service series on being creative in China, Nastaran Tavakoli-Far reports on how young artists are forging new links and exploring new influences.

Image caption Sean Leow says Shanghai's young artists are optimistic and original

Chinese-American Sean Leow was not expecting a lot from China's creative scene.

"I packed 20 books when I first moved to China in 2004 as I thought I'd get bored," he says.

However, the 29-year-old found so much going on that he had little time for his books.

Interest led him to search out underground arts and creative events, but Mr Leow says they were hard to find.

Without a platform to publicise their work, he said that young artists found it difficult to promote and share their output.

So, in 2007, Mr Leow set up social networking site

The site allows young creative artists, from animators and painters to musicians and fashion designers, to create unique and colourful profiles of their work and link to those of others.

It also enables them to publicise their events and encourages them to meet online and collaborate in the real world.

The site now has 30,000 members spread across China; 80% of them are aged between 18 and 30.

The team behind recently expanded to set-up NeochaEDGE, an agency representing the best artists found on the site.

Printmaker Nini Sum is one of the artists represented by the team; she also shares their space for her print studio.

Before becoming a member of in 2008, 23-year-old Ms Sum tried to use other websites to showcase her work but found the experience unsatisfactory.

"Websites like Flickr are open to the whole world," she says, "but Neocha focuses exclusively on Chinese creatives so it's easier to connect with other young Chinese creatives."

New influences

Mr Leow says that as well as facilitating creative collaboration within China, the internet has given Chinese artists greater access to creative output worldwide.

Young artists, he says, are increasingly mixing these global influences with traditional Chinese elements.

"Recently one of the graffiti artists we represent used ancient Chinese porcelain as a medium to put white and blue graffiti on."

Nini Sum is also keen to mix influences from abroad with ideas rooted in China's past in her paintings and prints.

"I read all these ancient Chinese novels, and there are a lot of fun, weird, and slightly creepy stories," she says.

"They gave me tons of inspiration, I really want to take a time machine to go back."

Mr Leow credits the Beijing Olympics and the World Expo, among others things, with generating more confidence and national pride in young people.

"Instead of just copying Western references, young Chinese now feel more comfortable to bring their own 'Chinese-ness' into their work.

"What we see is an optimistic, individualist group of people who are really energetic and positive about what they are creating, the influences they get from abroad and what they can do to mash those influences into something unique."

No politics

But, says Mr Leow, one thing for the most part absent from the work of these young artists is a political agenda or message.

He says life has improved considerably over the past two decades and that this, combined with a limited expectation of political change, mean political themes are mostly absent from the work of younger artists.

"They're really focused on expressing themselves in a way that's not going to rock the boat," he explains, "because they have really no interest in doing that."

Photographer Maleonn, who is 38, does touch on political themes.

His latest exhibition, White on White, features old photographs from the 1960s and was inspired by a need to understand what his parents experienced during the Cultural Revolution.

But he agrees that there is a generational divide.

"Artists who grew up in the 60s tend to be angry and those who grew up in the 70s immersed themselves in sorrowful childhood memories," he says.

"From the 80s onwards, digital and trendy art works dominate the scene."

Ai Weiwei, China's most famous contemporary artist and cultural critic, says freedom for artists has greatly improved over his lifetime.

But the 52-year-old artist says politics still serves to limit creativity in China.

"I think creativity and culture have to come with a certain kind of freedom and policies which encourage this.

"If we don't do so then creative output will only have a fake smell."

But Nini Sum does not dwell on such matters.

"I noticed they (older artists) use a lot of repeated elements, like the Cultural Revolution. Maybe it's cool to some people, but I think that's not really our stuff.

"Our stuff is more close to people's daily lives. We use different media. We try out clay or screen-painting or woodcuts. It is more about fun to us."