3 must-see Chinese artworks from La Trobe’s Geoff Raby Collection

Step inside the Geoff Raby Collection with Bala Starr, Director of La Trobe Art Institute, to discover brilliant work by contemporary Chinese artists.

In 2019, distinguished alumnus Dr Geoff Raby AO donated a significant collection of Chinese art to La Trobe University. Now, 75 of these works are on display to the public for the first time.

The works feature in the new exhibition In our time: four decades of art from China and beyond – the Geoff Raby Collection, presented by Bendigo Art Gallery in partnership with La Trobe Art Institute. You can take a quick tour of the exhibition with La Trobe Art Institute Director, Bala Starr, in the video below.

How the Geoff Raby Collection began

In 1986, Dr Raby was posted in Beijing to work as the First Secretary, Head of the Economics Division, at the Australian Embassy.

‘When I arrived in China to work at the Australian embassy, contemporary Chinese artists had begun to attract the attention of a small coterie of foreign diplomats and business people,’ says Raby, writing for the AFR AFR.

At the time, the local art scene revolved around temporary exhibitions in hotels in Beijing’s Haidian district. But soon Dr Raby and other art supporters began collecting work – and using their own apartments as exhibition venues.

‘Without official status, the artists were unable to show their work in public galleries. Many befriended foreigners, who were eager to make their apartments available over a weekend to hang work and invite potential buyers,’ says Raby.

Today, the Geoff Raby Collection is valued at $3.15 million, and is the largest cultural gift in La Trobe University’s history.

‘It’s a remarkable collection. Geoff Raby is gregarious, and the collection is based on the friendships and deep knowledge of artists' practices he gained in those early years of contemporary art in China,’ says Starr.

Important works by artists Guo Jian, Xiao Lu and Li Dapeng are among those on display in the In Our Time exhibition. Read on to discover more.

1. ‘The cast and the crew’, by Guo Jian, 2009

Guo Jian is a Chinese Australian artist based in Sydney. As an art student in Beijing, he took part in the protests which led to the Tiananmen Square massacre. He migrated to Australia in 1992.

The Geoff Raby Collection includes Guo Jian’s painting The cast and the crew. The work is part of a series contemplating how history is told.

‘With this series, I began thinking about the ‘black and white’ nature of official narratives of historical events and wars, the absolutism of the ‘us versus them’, the ‘us good – them bad’ simplicity of the narratives,’ says Guo Jian in an artist statement.

The figures in The cast and the crew represent opposing nations. Guo Jian chose to depict them in the style of actors posing for a ‘cast and crew’ photo.

‘When I think about past and contemporary conflicts, it appears that governments essentially assign roles of ally and foe, not dissimilarly to how a film is cast with the actors playing roles assigned by the director,’ he says.

2. ‘Dialogue’ by Xiao Lu, 2004

One of the most striking works in the collection is a photograph by Chinese artist Xiao Lu. The photo references a famous moment in the artist’s life and career – when she snuck a pistol into the China Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing.

‘Xiao Lu fired a gun into her work in an installation at the National Museum in 1989. And that shot is popularly understood as the first gunshot of Tiananmen,’ says Starr.

In an artist statement, Xiao Lu reflects on the impact of her gunshot:

‘On the day of opening, at about 11:10 a.m. I raised the gun. I fired two shots aiming at the mirror,’ she says.

‘After sounds of gunfire, it was chaos. Plainclothes police officers began to arrest people. As soon as I saw the situation turning ugly, I went out through the back door. Without thinking, I got on a public bus and then rode it for several round trips until I saw that there were no people left in the museum square. I felt that one should take responsibility for one's actions.’

Stepping off the bus, Xiao Lu returned to the National Art Museum to turn herself in. She was taken to a detention centre where she was imprisoned for several days.

‘Four months later the Tiananmen incident took place in Beijing. At the time, students wanted a dialogue with the government, and the title of my work, Dialogue, was just that,’ she says.

3. ‘Standard Head’, 1997, and ‘Year of the Pig’, 2007, by Li Dapeng

Some of the most striking works in the Geoff Raby Collection are Li Dapeng’s bright oil paintings. The works (two of which feature in Starr’s video tour, above) feature the artist’s iconic pink pigs. They’re are an example of what Raby calls ‘cynical realism’.

In The Year of the Pig (2007), Li parodies the launch of China’s first astronaut into space.

‘We have a pink pig in a space suit, signalling the aspirations of nations in the 20th century, but also parodying the ambition of nations in the space race and other global endeavours,’ says Starr.

Satire is also overt in Standard Head (1997), in which Li depicts a well-known member of the Chinese Communist Party.

‘A happy pig in Cultural Revolution military dress grins from the canvas, lit from behind by an enormous sun rising on a golden future. The pig is immediately recognisable as a party leader,’ says Raby.

‘An extraordinary historic period’

Together, the works in the Geoff Raby Collection document a time of rapid change in Chinese society when China’s economy opened to the world. Raby likens the artistic impact of the shift to that which occurred in France a century prior.

‘I realised I was living through an extraordinary historic period which was like France in the 1890s, which gave birth to the impressionists,’ says Raby in an interview with The Australian.

For Starr, the chance to display the collection for the first time in Australia is timely.

‘The Geoff Raby Collection reveals stylistic and thematic developments in contemporary art in the context of changing political ideologies, social conditions and cultural activities in China and Australia,’ Starr says.

‘It’s been deeply rewarding to develop this exhibition at a time when understanding and cooperation between Australia and China has never been more urgent.’

In our time: four decades of art from China and beyond – the Geoff Raby Collection is showing at Bendigo Art Gallery until 19 February 2023. To learn more about the exhibition, visit La Trobe Art Institute’s website, or watch the video below.

Image credits

1. Guo Jian, ‘The cast and the crew’, 2009, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. La Trobe University, Geoff Raby Collection of Chinese Art. Donated by Dr Geoff Raby AO through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2019. © Guo Jian. Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE Gallery. Photo: Jia De

2. Xiao Lu, ‘Dialogue’, 2004, photographic print on aluminium. La Trobe University, Geoff Raby Collection of Chinese Art. Donated by Dr Geoff Raby AO through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2019. © Xiao Lu. Photo: Jia De