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Exploring Social and Political Consciousness: An Interview with Letian Qu

In this interview, we will delve into Letian Qu's creative process, motivations, and the profound themes that underpin his artistry. Join us as we embark on a journey through his artistic world, where vibrant hues, evocative lines, and symbolic imagery intertwine to evoke introspection and provoke thoughtful contemplation on the human condition.

18 July 2023

Joana Alarcão

In this interview, we delve into the practice of Letian Qu, a talented artist exploring the realms of social and political consciousness. Letian Qu's artistic expression reflects the impact of political environments, exploring the interplay between physical and mental limitations as well as the consequences of societal ailments.

Originating from China and currently residing in London, Letian Qu draws inspiration from the stark contrast between his past and present realities. Through vibrant colors and expressive lines, he conveys the complex emotions that reside within his heart.

Letian Qu's artwork, including the thought-provoking piece "Successors," has garnered recognition for its exploration of themes such as class divisions and the influence of power. Through his work, he captivates audiences, sparking conversations about intergenerational transmission of ideological and conceptual education.

In his latest series of artworks, Letian Qu sheds light on collective detachment and resilience, inviting viewers to confront the chilling realities of societal suppression. His powerful portrayals evoke deep emotions and challenge preconceived notions, leaving a lasting impact on the viewer.

Golden Cage by Letian Qu. Image courtesy of Letian Qu.

Let's begin with you telling us a bit about yourself. Who is Letian Qu? And how did you start your art journey?

I was born in 1991 in northeastern China. My hometown is an ancient city with a long history, and I spent my childhood there. In my teenage years, I was admitted to the High School Affiliated to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and since then, I have been living in Beijing for over a decade. In 2019, I came to London to study at the RCA, and it has been almost four years now. Therefore, I have always considered myself a traveler.

I have loved drawing since I was very young. It may be because my parents were busy at that time and I didn't have any siblings. That's how most children were back then. So, most of the time, I would stay at home, and drawing became a way for me to entertain myself. I remember a few times when I showed my drawings to my classmates, and seeing their amazed expressions gave me some confidence.

Can you elaborate on how your personal experiences of living in London and following Chinese current affairs inform your exploration of the impact of the political environment on individuals? How do you translate these experiences into your artwork?

I arrived in the UK in 2019, but it was in 2022 that I truly began to use painting as a means to convey this topic. Against the backdrop of the world gradually recovering from the impact of the pandemic and returning to normal life, a bustling century-old metropolis like Shanghai suddenly came to a halt.

Although I live abroad, my heart still resonates with the people in that land. So I thought, What can I do? Painting, a medium I hadn't touched in three years, felt like reconnecting with an old friend. I tend to use common colors to depict different individuals in this type of subject matter. In a certain sense, it implies a collective, an "environment color" that everyone cannot escape. Sometimes, I intentionally portray an individual as a representative of a certain group, letting them become a symbol. Most of my source materials come from personal videos captured on the internet—those shaky images recorded with a mobile phone.

Deputy by Letian Qu. Image courtesy of Letian Qu.

Your art aims to convey unease and pain in response to the constraints imposed by the system and the harm caused by diseases and social issues. How do you use intense colors and bold lines to evoke these emotions and communicate your message?

The strong contrast of colors placed together creates a sense of conflict and generates an unsettling visual effect, which resonates well with the prevailing mood at that time. Moreover, I wanted to create a contrast between vibrant colors and the content imagery. While shaping the figures with lines, I also noticed their significant role in organizing the composition. The lines are chaotic rather than orderly, urgent rather than thoughtful, with fragile and flowing brushstrokes and fragmented depictions of the characters. 

What role does visual language play in expressing the effects of the political environment? 

Through painting, the invisible can be made visible, the intangible can be made tangible, and what becomes visible then transforms into various indescribable feelings within the heart. Visual language is another form of language and another means of communication. As a theme serves as a prompt, my artworks contain imagery, narration, and the space of the painting language itself, working together to extend those difficult-to-describe experiences and evoke associations.

Arresters by Letian Qu. Image courtesy of Letian Qu.

Can you elaborate on the narratives and symbolism present in the artworks Illness, Arresters, Golden Cage and People in Overalls

In the painting of "Illness," the body expressions vary, portraying helplessness, sadness, or numbness. In the chaos, it is difficult to distinguish one from another. They suffer from unbearable medical expenses, blaming the unfairness of fate and their own inadequacy, but they never question whether it is the illness itself or the illness of society.

"Arresters" captures a specific moment during the night when protesters were being detained by the police on the street. The piece aims to convey the oppressive atmosphere and the conflict between the authorities and the protesters.

Furthermore, the faintly visible traffic lights and witnesses can add another layer of symbolism to the artwork. 

The traffic lights can symbolize control and regulation by the authorities. They represent the rules and restrictions imposed by those in power, determining the flow of social order. The actions of the protesters are seen as disruptive or in violation of societal norms, hence the need for intervention and arrests by the authorities.

The witnesses in the painting play a significant role in highlighting the public's awareness and observation of the unfolding events. They symbolize collective consciousness and the shared desire for change. 

The artwork "Golden Cage" portrays a crowded and visually obstructed community surrounded by towering buildings. The dense arrangement of residences reflects reality while also carrying its unique symbolic meaning. What is worth noting is the constraint itself, rather than the specific form it takes. The contrast between the golden and gray colors, order and chaos, serves to highlight the disconnect and conflict between people and their environment.

"People in Overalls" portrays thousands of people dressed in protective gear, awaiting transportation and centralized quarantine. Fear, confusion, and a sense of separation permeate the scene, as everyone despises the detestable virus but silently accepts all the supposedly reasonable arrangements.

Another aspect of your practice is the exploration of the profound and lasting impact of the political atmospheres on individuals. Could you delve deeper into how these imprints manifest themselves in your personal experiences and artistic expression? 


Growing up in a politically charged environment, obedience was deeply ingrained in me from a young age. Expressing my own thoughts was discouraged, and I developed a fear of judgement and a habit of sacrificing my own needs. This affected me both at school and at home, where people expected certain behaviours from me.

My education heavily emphasized the pursuit of academic achievements. Despite my lack of interest in studying, I had a strong passion for art. Unfortunately, my parents initially saw it as a waste of time. It was only when they witnessed others achieving success in an art academy that they allowed me to pursue my artistic interests. The pressure to prove myself and the constant self-doubt stemmed from a society that highly values results and achievements.

One of the key issues I faced was an outcome-oriented education system. Every problem had a predetermined correct answer, leaving little room for independent thinking or creativity. Even in the field of art, we were taught to copy, and teachers often corrected our work according to a unified standard, denying us the opportunity to develop our own unique creative process. This deficiency has had a profound impact on me, often leading me to focus solely on the end result rather than the creative journey.

The expectations set by teachers and parents, driven by their own predetermined standards, further contributed to my lack of confidence and genuine interest. Striving to meet external standards rather than nurturing individuality stifles my creativity. Additionally, the influence of Confucianism, with its hierarchical divisions and adherence to standard answers, posed significant obstacles in both my life and creative pursuits.

Overall, the political atmosphere, outcome-oriented education, and societal pressure to conform have left deep imprints on my personal experiences and artistic expression.

Your artwork, Successors, depicts children taking the oath of patriotism under the guidance of their elders, highlighting the perpetuation of certain ideologies and divisions. Can you discuss the significance of this piece within the context of your own upbringing in China and the broader themes it represents?

This artwork holds significant meaning for my personal background. In the Chinese education system and social environment, patriotism is a mainstream value that is emphasized and instilled from a young age. It evokes feelings of honor and belonging, immersing individuals in a grand historical mission. This heritage can be seen as a symbol of continuity and unity, but it can also be seen as a restriction on diversity and individual freedom.

Elders, as representatives of traditional beliefs and authority, guide children in pledging their patriotism, implying the transmission of specific ideologies to the younger generation. "Successors" explores the themes of authoritative inheritance, ideological shaping, and the interplay between individual freedom and collective identity. This artwork represents a part of my personal experience growing up in China. From a broader perspective, the shaping of values within families and society is an inevitable and unconscious process. However, it is worth contemplating and discerning the root causes of these issues.


Successors by Letian Qu. Image courtesy of Letian Qu.

How do you hope your artwork will resonate with viewers and contribute to broader conversations about the enduring impact of the political atmospheres? 

These paintings are an honest expression of my personal experiences and feelings. I believe that these issues are worthy of attention and have deeply influenced me. Although these efforts may be insignificant, at least I have done something that I consider meaningful. For those who have had similar experiences, perhaps my artwork can stir their emotions and provoke reflection. I don't dare claim to make any significant contributions, and people with different experiences might find my paintings odd or peculiar. Although I don't really care how others perceive them, after all, painting is a purely personal form of expression.

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

The political atmosphere in each country differs greatly, and the political environment, like air and water, is closely related to us, quietly shaping individuals' worldviews, mental health, and family life. I hope that children today can grow up in a relaxed atmosphere, where they can bravely express themselves and pursue their passions. The reality may not be entirely satisfactory, but I still hope that the world will become a better place.

See more of Letian's works here.

Cover Image

Illness by Letian Qu. Image courtesy of Letian Qu.

My art explores the impact of the political environment on individuals, drawing from my experience of living in London and following Chinese current affairs. Through intense colours and bold lines, I aim to convey the unease and pain I feel when I see the constraints imposed by the system and the harm caused by diseases and social issues.

Against the backdrop of long-term pandemic restrictions and lockdown.I created artwork that depicts collective numbness, resistance, and the effects of epidemic restrictions on people’s livelihood. Through my art, I hope to spark a dialogue and promote understanding about the enduring impact of the political environment and the struggles faced by individuals.

What’s on your mind?

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