Claire Roberts

Art historian

About This Project

My first encounter with China was through language. The visionary principal of Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School in Melbourne, Glyn France, introduced Chinese as a compulsory subject in 1972, and six years later I was one of three students to graduate in Chinese. After a year of tertiary study and feeling at a dead end, I applied for a scholarship to continue studies in Chinese at the Foreign Languages Institute in Beijing; I was too young and the field was too competitive to be awarded a government scholarship and instead was offered a fee-paying place which I accepted.

Then, in 1979 I was admitted into the Chinese painting department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), part of the first intake of foreign students since the Cultural Revolution.


Fortunately, the Academy had not yet built a foreign student dormitory, nor was there a separate canteen, so while I roomed with a Chinese-American student, I dined, lived and studied with my Chinese classmates. Life was extremely Spartan. There was no shower block, so we were issued with coupons for the local bathhouse. But the campus was in Shuaifuyuan, just behind Wangfujing, then the most lively shopping and dining area, which meant late-night meals of hundun (wontons) and climbing over the gate to get back into the locked compound.


My period of study at CAFA was the most unexpected gift, creating life-long friendships, and enabling my later transformation into curatorial and art historical practice. Today I am based at the University of Melbourne, having been awarded a four-year Australian Research Council Future Fellowship to examine the international context of modern and contemporary Chinese art.


Earlier this year, I viewed drawings and paintings by CAFA professor Ye Qianyu (1907-1995) in the collection of the CAFA art museum, which are central to my research, and returned with a group of graduate students from the University of Melbourne for some lectures. The relationship with CAFA remains important to me and continues to develop. I cherish my friendships with Chinese artists and scholars who have given me so much over the past four decades.


Claire Roberts is ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor Art History, The University of Melbourne.

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