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Cultural crossing

China in Missoula gives a taste of the Silk Road

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Here are some things I know about China: The arrival of red-rumped swallows tells farmers it's time to plant their rice. On the Li River, fishermen use trained cormorants. The birds are tied at their throats so that when they catch fish they won't swallow them, but instead fly back to the boats and spit the fish up. Nomadic tribes still roam north of the Great Wall. In the Gaoligong Mountains, tropical and alpine plants grow side by side. Rivers and seas around China are heavily polluted, yet some people have found ways to preserve animals on the brink of extinction.

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  • Yu Wenga’s “Tian Chan Valley” woodcut

That all comes from the BBC documentary Wild China, which might be the best primer for understanding how diverse and dramatic China's culture and wildlife is. It's also a great complement to the current China in Missoula project going on now through October, which features exhibits, film screenings and lectures focused on Chinese art and culture. The project was spearheaded by Nancy Matthews who worked in cultural exchange and international diplomacy in Washington, D.C., before moving to Missoula. She asked galleries, the University of Montana and other organizations, institutions, businesses and individuals to use their knowledge to present something related to China, ancient and modern, history and culture.

Artwise especially, this project is amazing. One highlight is the exhibit at the Dana Gallery (housed in the space next to the main gallery). Here you'll find Nijat Hushur's incredible four-panel painting of black mountains frosted in milky ice and snow. The original name of it didn't translate well, so Hushur, in honor of Montana, temporarily named it "Glacier." Hushur's homeland is in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which was part of the Silk Road trade route—the place where East and West shared goods, knowledge, culture, art and religion. Hushur describes his paintings as similar to his homeland's specialty honey melon: "It's better bred as it is further removed from the parent plant," he states on his website. "The many strange influences on our culture have also made it richer. It is similar to my painting. Over the years I let impulses from other cultures into my own style..."

Alan Chan's abstracts show warm blues and oranges. Another is a muddied landscape, delicious in its moss and German chocolate cake tones.

Gallery owner Dudley Dana has his own work up as well—an encore of his exhibit Shifting Perspectives, which includes text from his wife Candace Crosby. Their trip to China inspired a more contemporary viewpoint: the photographic collages have a bright urban feel. In one, a purple portrait is projected onto an old farmhouse door, and in the window is the image of a young Chinese man smoking a cigarette inside.

Also in the Dana Gallery is the work of Yu Wenga of the Shaanxi province, whose woodcuts depict serene landscapes of people on horseback traversing riverbanks, purple mountains looming in the background. You can find even more of Wenga's woodcuts at Murphy-Jubb Fine Art, just down the street on 210 N. Higgins Ave. Wenga's hometown was also at one time part of the Silk Road crossroads, and the pieces reflect that rural renaissance flavor. In one woodcut, men move cattle across golden fields and in another, the countryside has been transformed by snow, tinted pink by the night sky, and a farmhouse sits nestled cozily in the wintry hills.

Murphy-Jubb is also showing brightly colored folk art from Chinese farmers, such as Abdurosul Dawat's painting of a man sleeping underneath a deep purple tree, while beside him goats feed in a yellow pasture full of wispy green grasses and pink flowers.

There are other China in Missoula exhibits around town, as well as events. This week includes a performance by the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre at the Ten Spoon Winery on Sunday, screenings of two films by director Pan Chao at the Roxy on Tuesday and a panel discussion on economic and social development in China of the past, present and future at the University Center on Wednesday. The smorgasbord of events on everything from Mao to pandas to mountain climbing in China goes on through October, and programs continue to be added.

It's a good time to get to know a country that's at the forefront of international affairs now—and one that really has been for ages, since the Silk Road and before.

Go to the Missoula Cultural Council for a full schedule of China in Missoula events.

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