We’re no strangers to colourful, lively Chinese New Year paintings. Have you ever thought they would be presented to the world in a different light?
In 2006, Luo Weidong and his two younger brothers turned traditional Chinese New Year paintings into fashionable art, and their piece A Cup for Your Toy became one of the official posters of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. In the painting, two cherubic babies ride dancing Chinese lions, while a third baby holds up a football with the Chinese character ‘fu’ printed all over it, leaping onto the international stage with joy.
In the early 1960s, Luo Weidong was born in a small city in Guangxi. Back then, an old professor from the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts lived there as part of the government’s policy to educate the rural population. This professor taught him how to paint to thank his father for taking care of him. At that time, Luo Weidong only wanted to be a champion athlete, and drawing came second.
“When we were young, we were very interested in sports; drawing was just a hobby. I mainly focused on sports.”
His sports teacher was relocated one day, leaving him distraught. On his way home, he met the curator of the local cultural museum, who gave a speech that changed his life goal.
“When he told me paintings could be sold at high prices, I was appalled. Then I thought, if a painting could make so much money, why couldn’t I become an artist?
“He said there was another advantage to being an artist – whether you’re sketching crowds while standing in the middle of the road or in the traffic tower, there are no limits. You could draw whatever you wanted. I was fascinated by that freedom and with that vision in mind, I kept drawing.”
Motivated by this interest, Luo Weidong worked hard and some of his New Year paintings even made it on the school notice boards. During this time, he also took part in CCTV’s national drawing contest and was named second runner-up.
“Back then, a letter from Beijing was a huge deal in a small city like ours. Children nowadays might not understand that kind of honour, but it was unforgettable to us.”
Luo Weidong became famous in their city. He left for Nanning to pursue professional training in art.
When he arrived in Nanning, he didn’t have enough money for rent, so he lived at the train station.
“We didn’t have a place to stay at first. Me and my brother tried to do everything at the station – we sketched there and slept there, and when it was morning, we bought some food and ate there.
“It was the hardest time of all. After a while, we met our teacher, Lei Shikang. He saw me drawing and said, ‘Child, do you want to draw at my school?’ He offered free education, so I helped him with laundry and chores in return. He thought I was a good kid; then he found out I didn’t have a place to stay. He had a storage room for prints under his staircase, and he let me stay there.”
Luo Weidong was admitted to Guangxi Art College when he was 19. His skills improved significantly thanks to professional training. However, after graduation, he chose another path and focused on business.
“After graduation, I was assigned to be a teacher. I taught for six months and realised there was no way I could make art while teaching. There were a lot of ideas I couldn’t pursue, and I couldn’t even afford to buy paint. So, I started a business with my brother.”
Their business took flight during 1987 and 1988. They traded imported books, salt, canned food and even steel and timber. With considerable savings, he finally left the business world and focused on his art career.
Along with his brother, Luo Weidong explored the wonders of New Year paintings and hoped to innovate. Their art career was not all smooth sailing from the beginning though, as they still needed to find people who appreciated their work. The brothers moved to Beijing in search of an audience.
Settling down in the Yuanmingyuan artist village, they rented a store somewhere eye-catching and proudly displayed their work. For the first two days, no paintings were sold. Then, they went two years without any sales. Lacking a clear aim and target audience, they couldn’t even sell their painting supplies. At that moment, Luo Weidong had almost exhausted the funds earned at his previous business. Additionally, his romantic relationship couldn’t survive the distance and poverty, and he eventually broke up with his girlfriend, who lived in Guangxi.
Regardless, Luo Weidong persisted and made sure his brother would be admitted into one of Beijing’s art academies.
“Why was I so persistent on him attending the Academy of Arts & Design in Beijing, even though it took him three years to get in? In fact, he had already been admitted by an institution in Guangxi and another in Guangzhou, but we didn’t let him go because we had learned from our own experiences. Those places wouldn’t bring him success even after a decade of struggle. But, if he went to any institution in Beijing, he would be guaranteed success upon admission, and his work would sell. We all understood this and wished him the best.”
Later, Luo Weidong and his brothers moved to Beijing’s Songzhuang artist village. Times were still tough, but the three brothers managed to create a lot of art. At the same time, they met Su Xianting, the godfather of Chinese contemporary art.
In 1998, the Luo Brothers finally got lucky.
“Right now, my boss, Liang Jiehua, lives in Hong Kong. Back then, he had a manager called Yao Shouyi, who came scouting in Beijing with a curator for the São Paulo Art Biennial, but to no avail.
“Su Xianting told them about us, and they decided to come look at our work. When they saw my originals, they were elated. They said, ‘We’re taking these two paintings,’ and placed about five or six thousand US dollars on the table. I was thrilled. With the living standards back then, that kind of money could support us for at least two years. I was overjoyed to be paid so much. Thanks to the São Paulo Art Biennial curator, about 60 of my other pieces sold at the event.”
Though his career prospects were bright, Luo Weidong wasn’t doing so well in romance. At age 36, his heart was broken again when his girlfriend met someone else and got married in Switzerland. After that, he focused entirely on creating New Year paintings and did not date again until 2003, when his long-time friend, Mr Pei, introduced him to his daughter.
“I’ve known my father-in-law for a long time. He asked me if I was married with children once, and I told him I was single and didn’t have any kids. He didn’t say anything specific, but mentioned he would like to have me over as a guest some time.
“When we were back in Beijing, I thought about his offer, but didn’t dare bring it up. Eventually, he invited me over. His daughter had just gotten home from work, and he told her to greet me. She said, ‘Hello, Uncle,’ before disappearing into her room. My father-in-law didn’t say anything until we were taking a walk outside, when he asked what I thought about her. I understood what he meant, and said it was impossible. The age gap was too big, and she was the only child of an esteemed family. I wouldn’t dare.”
Mr Pei made an arrangement and Luo Weidong met with her again. This time, she didn’t call him uncle when greeting him. Mr and Mrs Pei and their daughter attended Luo Weidong’s exhibition and they had dinner together after the show. This gave Pei Pei, Mr Pei’s beloved daughter, a chance to know Luo Weidong better.
Pei Pei was attracted to Luo Weidong’s funny and upbeat personality, so she gave him her number after dinner. They spent some time talking on the phone and when they went on their first date, she gave Luo Weidong a Chinese writing brush, which he cherishes even now.
Next, something unthinkable happened. After dating for two years, Luo Weidong and Pei Pei got married in March 2005. They had a simple wedding and treated relatives and friends to dinner. Just like that, the girl who once called him ‘uncle’ became his wife, and his old friend became his father-in-law.
“My lover was very brave for choosing to marry someone like me. Of course, my in-laws are also to thank for this marriage.”
Like all married couples, they have their arguments. Luo Weidong always thinks it is his fault.
“Arguments are inevitable in marriage, but I think I am the problem. I’m a Southerner who is too chauvinistic; I’m poor and stingy… I really have a lot to fix.”
Personal, professional and romantic success was followed by more luck. The 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany called for artists from around the world to create an official poster for the event. Out of hundreds of entries, Luo Weidong and his brothers’ New Year painting-style poster, A Cup for Your Toy, triumphed.
“We only won because we were standing on the shoulders of giants – we drew inspiration from what our ancestors and past artists left behind and rearranged these cultural and artistic elements into something new.”
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Luo Brothers first started drawing together. Most siblings would establish their own businesses no matter how close they are, but these brothers prefer the opposite. They have never separated and are still as tight as ever – their relationship is truly admirable.
“Now that I think about it, communication is the key to a good partnership. Of course, we make sure to split our profits fairly. I don’t get more for being the eldest; we all get the same amount. This applies to our parents and in-laws as well. We spend what we have.”
Luo Weidong’s two brothers have their own families, too. The Luo Brothers have achieved national and global success, with their work displayed in famed Chinese and international art museums. They have also had solo exhibitions in China, Australia, Europe and America and their New Year paintings have appeared on mugs and T-shirts, making them part of our daily lives.