Madeleine O’DEA and AH Xian

About This Project

Madeleine O’DEA

Journalist and author


AH Xian



Madeleine O’Dea: Looking back 30 years, I realise the most important moments in my China story, the ones that turned what could have been just another journalist’s assignment into a lifelong obsession, occurred in the most modest of spaces.


Not at the Great Hall of the People, where I dined as I covered the 1986, visit of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, nor in the great joint venture factories that were the background to my economic stories.


The events that really mattered took place in the tiny spaces where Beijing’s earliest contemporary artists lived, dreamed, and created (though we didn’t know it then) one of the great artistic movements of our era.


Soon after I arrived in Beijing in early 1986, I heard that an aspiring artist called Ah Xian had just held an interesting exhibition at the Ancient Observatory. Having missed the show in its short run, I arranged to see his works at his home.


‘Home’ turned out to be a curtained-off corner of his parents – in – law’s tiny apartment, where Ah Xian was beginning married life with his sweetheart Ma Li. Their bed was his studio, and there he showed me his paintings – oils full of longing and mystery, and ink and wash scrolls that were defiantly abstract.


In 2017, my work took me to Brisbane, where the Queensland Art Gallery had just installed a highly prized acquisition. It was a sculpture by Ah Xian, one of a series that had earned him Australia’s leading sculpture prize. Today, he is one of China’s most acclaimed artists, one we are fortunate to be able to call Australian as well.


Seeing the sculpture standing in the grand museum reminded me of the tiny corner of an apartment in the city of Beijing where Ah Xian’s dreams and my passion for Chinese contemporary art both began all those years ago.



Ah Xian: My Australian story began in the mid-80s. Shortly after the Cultural Revolution, China was just opening up to the outside world.  At that time, I was young – desperate for knowledge and eager to know about the outside world. In those years, I made some incredible Australian friends in Beijing.


In 1989, with artists Lin Chunyan and Guan Wei, I visited the School of Art at the University of Tasmania for a few weeks to produce work. That was the first time I had left China; the first time I had been on a plane.


My short stay in Tasmania was refreshing. Coming from a cold Beijing where, even though it was early spring, the whole city was still grey in colour, I arrived at this place that was close to Antarctica, but where it was nice and warm! The sun was bright and I remember the smell of the ocean. The studios where we painted were very quiet, as the students were all still on summer holidays. Sometimes we would drink beer and wine, then go for a walk along the bay which was right outside our studio. Hobart’s Salamanca Market was our favourite place to go to on weekends. We went to the zoo where we fed kangaroos, talked to cockatoos, took photos with wombats… it was a fun time.


In 1990, I migrated to peaceful, sunny Australia. Now I’ve been here for 27 years. From the early years of doing manual labour painting houses, to being fully engaged in my art practice and participating in exhibitions around the world, Australia gave me a new life, and made me feel calm inside. Australia gave me a sense of freedom. At the same time, China’s longstanding culture and traditions continue to influence my art.


Madeleine O’Dea is a Sydney-based writer and journalist, and author of The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance and the Making of Modern China. Ah Xian is a Sydney-based artist.

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