Two women from wildly diverse countries, and who create markedly divergent art, have come together for a striking exhibition which displays how, in such highly individual approaches, can be found common traits and shared vision.

Artists Feng Xiwen (left) and Debbie Bonello.Artists Feng Xiwen (left) and Debbie Bonello.

The exhibition of works by Malta’s Debbie Bonello and China’s Feng Xiwen, titled Innocence, Tranquillity and Beauty Dialogue, opened on Friday in Valletta, appropriately on International Women’s Day – a day which celebrates women in all their diversity bonded by their womanhood.

The dialogue, says curator E.V. Borg, is about life’s journey. And the two artists come at it from totally different angles: “Feng Xiwen has learnt to sing and swing in the cage while Debbie Bonello has flown out of the gilded cage in search of adventure and fulfilment,” Mr Borg says in his interpretation of their works.

“Feng is content in her simple world. Bonello exults in its beauty. Feng finds peace and contentment in sublimated feeling while Bonello overflows with emotion and sentiment. Feng is spiritual while Bonello is sensually emotional.”

Yet – and here come the similarities – both expressions “yearn for tranquillity, serenity and peace”. Both are therapeutic and “both are a palliative; a harmless palliative in Feng’s language, a vigorous therapy for Bonello’s admirers”. Both expressions, finds Mr Borg, convey or intimate a joie de vivre and an élan vital.

Bonello’s works are dominated by landscapes and flowers, the former taking the viewer on a journey and the latter symbolising a woman’s perspective on society.

The landscapes are rooted in the artist’s love of en plein air painting – studies of sky, clouds, vast stretches of water and open spaces, drawn from her travels to Canada and China, Sicily and her native Malta.

Landscape, however, “is only an excuse to revel in atmosphere, mood, feeling, emotion, sentiment and textures,” explains Mr Borg. “Her enthusiasm for life overflows with emotion… she flings herself into space running wild into the wind to feel the breeze against her cheek with abandon…”

Feng is content in her simple world. Bonello exults in its beauty

Bonello’s work is characterised by what the curator calls “loose brushstrokes” which in reality are forceful, energetic, vigorous, full of dynamic movement. “In nature around her she feels the metaphor for man’s moods and character.”

Her flower series, in contrast, deals with aspects of life such as the “cycle of life, female sexuality and the challenges and opportunities faced by women in contemporary society”. A wild flower, for example, symbolises a woman forced to live in a vase, to live only on water, in isolation.

When the Wind Blows by Xiwen Feng.When the Wind Blows by Xiwen Feng.

“Flowers are delicate and elegant and often enough they are used symbolically, such as a rose for marital love.” But their beauty wilts in time, they dry and die. Such is the cycle of life: “Life is a journey.”

In contrast stands the child-like and naïve strip-cartoon technique of Feng, whose hallmark, says Mr Borg, is simplicity. Her works exude a sense of joyful bliss, serenity and silence. “She lives in perfect harmony with nature… with the elements, tuned to the cosmos.” The source of this vision lies in the art of Zen that Feng studied under Zhang Dahua, pioneer of Chinese contemporary Zen painting.

The character of her little monk, ‘Carefree Sisi’ – which has always been a subject of her paintings – is eternally happy whether showered by petals or flying under fleecy clouds… He is pleasantly relaxed and happy in the company of animals or a tree full of blossoms. The little monk waits with patience, listens to the falling snow, finds solace in meditation, is wrapped up in prayer, walks in silence.

Feng’s mentor Xu Songbo, of Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, wrote that when he first saw her work, he felt a pure and happy atmosphere, and saw in it the natural expression of her nature. “Her little monk yearns for nirvana.”

The exhibition Innocence, Tranquillity and Beauty Dialogue is on at the The China Culture Centre in Melita Street, Valletta, until March 22, in collaboration with the Art Discussion Group. It is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 12.30pm and 2.30 till 5pm. Entrance is free.

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