2003 Fang & Zaan Self Portrait Show


Self-Portraits – An Insight Into Two New Canadians

Fang & Zaan


The Arts Project,

203 Dundas Street,

London, Ontario, Canada.

November 4 – 29, 2003

Fang Tong and Zaan Claassens, both recent immigrants to Canada, endeavour to portray themselves in a broad cross section of intimate portraits using the traditional mediums of oils on canvas. The two artists both from completely different cultural backgrounds, Tong from China and Claassens from South Africa, both endeavour to speak the “truth” about themselves in their own personal portraits.

Tong’s portraits are, as she stated, a combination of “…abstraction and realism”. While this is true in her portrait entitled “I am in Paris”, with her background representing formulated abstracted figures the evidence of absolute abstraction could not be seen as readily in her other paintings. Tong’s works focuses on urban everyday life as she sees herself in it. Poised in a variety of daily routine the artist’s depiction of “everyday situations” included the act of playing with a bubble wand as in “Soap Bubbles” or trying to make a doll walk in “Can You Walk”. I experienced a level of dissonance in asking myself “Is this really everyday life for the artist?” Playful in spirit and compositionally sound these portraits did attract me to her willingness to depict herself expressing her desire to bring back the days of her childhood.

In “Rest Time”, Tong’s subdued use of colour represented a diluted palette of earth tones with the exception of her use of a trademark brilliant red. Her application of a brand name label upon her shirt drew an unfortunate distraction from the rest of the portrait but did exemplify society’s need to fit in and to be part of a certain “in” class.

Tong’s most noted self-portrait was “Make Up” where the artist is viewed half cloathed and standing in front of the mirrior which often is seen as a emblem of narcissism. The portrait refers to society’s expectations on the average woman to enhance or better one’s appearance by the application of lipstick (once again in an eye catching red) and to gain acceptance in a superficial world. “Make Up” can also question Who is looking at who? is the artist actually fully focusing on her lips or are those who are watching her realizing that she is watching them? This led me to feel a sense of control and determination. This self-portrait was clearly the strongest portrait for Tong and I would like to see the artist elaborate on her contemporary interpretation on what Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt made famous in their ‘bath’ series.

Zaan Claassens, an artist who is clearly not afraid to portray her naked self, displayed works with a strong psychological impact. Claassens brought to the exhibition her interpretation of the ‘four elements’ in both realist and abstract styles. “Air” portrays the artist in an almost classical “nu du dos” pose with an erotic image of her buttocks facing the viewer. This incomplete image of her bottom cuts short Western culture’s previous notion that this woman is vulnerable, as it would have in the 17th-19th centuries. Claassens message is clear, she is a contemporary Canadian woman and one for whom is liberated and free.

“Fire” a more alarming painting depicts the artist, once again naked, engulfed in a fury of flames. Painted in a more abstract style this work carried a feeling of power and illustrated the artist as almost a present day Joan of Arc but without a stake and ropes. Claassens is seen as stoic, proud, and willing to take on new and exciting challenges.

Claassens “Self-Portrait as a New Canadian” was surely the very best portrait of the entire show in that it was purely abstract and truly challenged me to the definition of what a (self) portrait really is. With the artist’s golden hair flowing across the ebb and tide of the waters I could see the artist as a person of change, transforming herself from a former South African to Canadian. The waters were unsettling and challenging and moving just as her life has been in settling in our nation but slowly she becomes a part of Canada, slowly she became Canadian.

“Earth” is a painting of contentment where the artist embraces her son while situated within the great outdoors of the rustic Canadian landscape. Her colours are pure and the overall illuminating. Her brushstrokes are not tight nor lose they are perfect. Paint runs down the canvas in sections as if a tiny trickle of a minute waterfall and those elements slightly reminded me of the “forest” paintings of west coast painter Gordon Smith. “Earth” is an honest painting, it is not contrived or truly unique but something that the artist felt a the time of creating and did so with much success. It will be interesting to see where Claassens takes her painting as I see her as a tireless experimenter looking to go her own way!

Christian Cardell Corbet

Copyright 2003fang-zaan-poster-finaladj


Everything in the material universe can be divided into Earth (solid), Water (liquid), Air (vapor) and Fire (energy) including myself. In this series of self-portraits I have chosen the four elements as symbols of the forces of life. Through the elements I am able to make contact with the unconscious depths of existence. Through juxtaposing and joining myself to the elements I am able to convey the nature of myself, as well as all of humanity (the human condition). This process provides me the opportunity to experience and express the living quality of our life’s energy. The work is an expression of personal life transformation. I do not want to create mere replications of a physical reality, but attempt to transcend bodily existence and so show a unity and harmony with the cosmos/universe.

Air is what we breathe, it keeps us alive and cognitive. It also forms an aspect of spatial reality, something we long for. Air, as open space, symbolizes freedom. Air is the domain of birds.

Earth represents fertility, productivity and stability. It gives birth and provides, but to it we all return.

Fire represents the energy of the body and the life force of the cosmos. Fire transforms material; it consumes the old and something new is born (Egyptian Phoenix). Through the sun it is related to time which also transforms. It alters consciousness and perception. In Fire a tension exists between being incarcerated and being exuberantly free.

Water is the origin of all things. It is the mysterious source that spawned creation. Water precedes and sustains life. All life forms drink of it, yet they come and go, but it flows on. In the sequence of life it is related to both the uterine and seminal fluids, into which life dissolves and from which it regenerates. In the human psyche Water is symbolic of the unconscious depths of the human mind. Intuition, creativity and wisdom.