The Popularisation of Art and Woodcut as Social Engagement
By Krystie Ng (Independent Researcher)
To discuss the development of modern woodcut printmaking in an inter-Asian context, one cannot disregard the historical moment in in the 1930s when Lu Xun introduces European Social Realist woodcut to modern China. From this point onwards, offshoots of woodcut practice start turning away from romanticism and instead take on a more realistic and expressive approach. Woodcut develops such that is not only portrays social reality and offers social commentary, but also often takes on the responsibilities of educating the masses and of disseminating propaganda, in addition to being adopted as a tool to mass organisation.
To attain widespread popularity and to maximize outreach, these woodcut always incorporate elements from everyday life, drawing on colloquial languages and images which resonate with the masses. This approach to art creation makes use of concrete figures, everyday objects, simple language and direct slogans as a set of strong concise cues that command visual attention. The text and images of woodcuts are compositions built out of positive and negative blocks; occasionally we do see artists adding colour by applying multiple blocks to create a layering effect.
(left) Pangrok Sulap, Sabah Tanah Airku (I), Woodcut on Fabric, 360x240cm, 2017
(right) Pangrok Sulap, Sabah Tanah Airku (II), Woodcut on Fabric, 360x240cm, 2017
Although woodcut is generally categorized as an art form, it is essentially to apply an alternative lens by viewing woodcut as the product of activisms emerging from leftist perspective. A common feature of these woodcut is that they provide a medium for artist to engage directly with the masses, especially with precarious groups in the lower stratas of society, such as farmers, labourers, migrant workers, the homeless, and sexual minorities. In these woodcut prints, marginalised communities are not only the target audience but more importantly are also the subject matter. Lu Xun described the phenomenon as " the blending of elegance and Vulgarity "- an alchemic fusion that belongs uniquely to the popularisation of art
A low threshold for entry - owing to the simplicity of the requisite technical skill, the affordability of the materials, and the accessibility of the production methods- has allowed woodcut to play a crucial part in modern mass movements as a propaganda tool. Thus, the role of woodcut in social change extends beyond the main land China of the 1930s. Indeed, it is instrument in subsequent waves of democratisation across the region: the format is observed to proliferate Japan, Taiwan, Bengal, Korea and other part of Asia, including the Nanyang.
A contemporary instance of employing woodcut to respond to social issues can be traced back to the end of Suharto's military regime in Indonesia. Formed in 1998, Taring Padi was made up of young people who occupied the abandoned Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia (ASRI) and converted it into a base to create art and engage with people through art. Since then, they have been going to the countryside to teach children with no access to formal education, to work together with farmers and labourers, as well as to organise people to resist tyranny. This format has subsequently served as an inspiration to many artists, designers, culture workers and other activists of the region; it has been duplicated and adjusted on indirectly inspired the following practices: Denpasar Kolektif in Bali, Pangrok Sulap in Sabah, A3BC in Tokyo, Print & carve Dept: in Taipei, Printhow in Hong Kong and Wavecut Movement in mainland China.
Memeto Jack , Wanita Mencipta Sejarah (Women Create History),
52x40cm, Woodcut on Paper, 2020