Designers should not try to define “Chinese”, they should redefine aesthetics – Dadawa

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When we speak of Dadawa, most people think of her musical achievements. She was one the first talents from China to bloom in both style and voice. Since 1992 she’s published a series of albums, notably Yellow Children and Sister Drum, which earned her international fame as an eminent figure in Chinese contemporary music. Dadawa’s style draws on feelings of emptiness and mystery found in the music of minority ethnic groups from China’s western frontier.

Now we’re discovering a new facet of her artistry; design. It all started from her cooperation with UNESCO in 2009, when she was appointed as Chinese Goodwill Ambassador to travel and collect elements of ethnic music and craft in the Chinese peripheral regions, including Mongolia and Tibet. With the elements collected during those travels, she created the design label KANJIAN Creation (literally meaning, see the creation).

She was inspired by ancient paper-making techniques, silverware and extraordinary embroidery; skills that most artisans have been forced to give up during modernity. Aiming to help artisans develop their craftsmanship and identity, enabling them to make a living with their skills, she started a project for the continuation of Chinese culture and legacy.

Although KANJIAN Creation presents a strong sense of Chinese design-style, Dadawa insists that we should not define any design as “Chinese” or “non-Chinese”. Instead, aesthetics should be come first. She believes this is the very foundation that China’s cultural and creative industries should establish and develop upon.

How to define aesthetics is the top priority of future design development in China. Problematically, aesthetics is a transient concept as it reflects the presence and spirit of an era. Therefore communication among cultural and creative professionals is necessary for finding the aesthetics of our time. Instead of limit herself as a “designer”, Dadawa wishes to discover aesthetics.

During our interview, Dadawa told us she has been thinking of making a work of sounds featuring the correspondence and interaction between abstract sounds and physical matter. She used to think that materials and spirit were contradictory. Now she has a different view; spirit and materials are interactive and transformative, so she is learning about the transformation and content of spirit and materials.

When talking about the difference between eastern and western markets, Dadawa believes that although they are culturally different, the difference is becoming lesser in context with globalization. If there remains a difference in value and taste, it may be that eastern people tend to express emotions through objects, i.e. nourishing or relieving the spirit and creating purpose in objects. As a matter of fact, the difference between both markets is decreasing, making styles from ethnic culture more acceptable to the world.

In 2016, she participated in the production of the ‘KANJIAN—Azure Dragon Guitar’, a unique electric guitar design, handcrafted by renowned guitar maker Dennis Galuszka of the Fender Custom Shop in California, and hand-painted by Chinese lacquerware master Sheng Zhong, using rhino skin lacquer—10 successive layers of different colors on a base of raised, molded lacquer.

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Since ancient times, lacquer has been extensively used on military objects, zither and other musical instruments. Lacquerware is famous for its exquisite craftsmanship and robust texture. It was Dadawa’s idea to implant ancient Chinese lacquer art onto modern musical instruments. The Azure Dragon Guitar is a great attempt to fuse exquisite, traditional Chinese craft with modern musical instrument design.

The fusion of Chinese wisdom with design is also evident in ‘KANJIAN—The Beauty of Insects’ (2016), a series of original design products such as silk scarves, fans, and notepads. Painted by artist Pingshan Bian, the works redefine traditional Chinese craft with modern design language. The objective is to specifically meet human needs and afford quality without luxury. By reimagining traditional crafts the works bring a refreshing style to modern life and a bit of fun to humble objects.

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When asked if Chinese designs are understandable, her answer was affirmative, speaking of ’KANJIAN-—Tease Stone Screen’ (2014) as an example. In that year, a committee of international judges named it winner of the Outstanding Award from World Crafts Council, which represents the highest standard of arts and crafts. Dadawa believes that Chinese designers should neither be content with their ancestral artifacts, nor simply follow western design models. Instead, we should contribute to a new kind of creation; the very reason she made KANJIAN Creation. She hopes it can be a disciple of modern Chinese thought and bring new character to the world.

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Chinese culture is brilliant. It requires the unbiased innovation of tradition, from one generation to another, in order to construct a strong cultural canon. We must rediscover the crafts of forgotten civilizations to reshape modern Chinese lifestyle with the design wisdom and honest living attitude of modern people. Only when legacy and innovation are amplified can the new Chinese generations be nourished by culture. This is her dedication. When more people begin to assume this responsibility, she calls it cultural self-awareness.

About Dadawa
Founder and art director of KANJIAN Creation, musician and artist. She is dedicated to the protection and inheritance of the ethnic culture in China and advocates “Chinese creation”. She has visited Yunnan, Guizhou, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia and Tibet. She also promotes musical innovation and modern folk craft design with young artists, musicians and fashion designers. She was twice appointed as Chinese Goodwill Ambassador by the UNDP (2009) and World Craft Ambassador by the World Craft Council of UNESCO (2014).

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