Ma Hui (b.1958)

Ma Hui is a Chinese Born Artist, living in Amsterdam and is famous for her knowledge of and expression in using ink on paper. As a first generation immigrant Ma Hui feels a strong bond with her motherland. Inspired by her childhood memories and personal attachment to her hometown, she expresses her emotion through the stroke of ink. 

Ma hui explains: ‘I enable forms to coexist, creating a dialogue between different dimensions and different structures in silent movement’. 

About My Ink Work / Ma Hui

My name is Ma Hui, which means wildflower in Chinese. I was born in China and grew up on the banks of the Yellow River in the northwest of China. In 1983, I graduated from Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts and moved to Europe four years later. I continued my life and career in Amsterdam. 

My experience of settling in rural areas for ‘reeducation’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) shaped my character and my singular art style. When I was just eight years old I was sent to a remote village for ‘reform through labor’. At that time, I seldom had a friend to talk to, however, nature accompanied me every day. From that time on, my relationship with nature grew.

 During my ‘reeducation’ I had to get up early doing hard physical labor, coming back home after sunset. Fortunately the stars and the moon comforted me. I still cherish the image of a starry sky with a bright moon above boundless plains. 

Every day, quietly nature soaked in, feasting me on her delights. Whenever I felt depressed, I roamed the fields laying in verdant grass to dispel my loneliness. Swimming in the stream always gave me courage to carry on. I placed my life into nature’s hands and that is the reason why my artwork is focused on the human-to-nature cycle. It was a life source from which I derived enough bravery and dreams to live on and create art. 

My father was an excellent calligrapher. His strict calligraphy training brought about a special feeling with ink. Ink is the way to express myself. Through extreme familiarity with ink and Chinese rice paper, I discovered my own power. Ink painting is a way to release it. It endowed me with liberation and exultation. It is the footprint of my existence, my past and my future. 

Wind Everlasting(永不休止的风)/200&100/水墨宣纸/2015

Wind Everlasting(永不休止的风)/200&100/水墨宣纸/2015

1. Love of Water

(Reflection on water in my ink work/video installation) 

I have had a strong bond with water all my life. On the banks of the Yellow River I used to listen to boats men’s songs, never getting bored with it. 

I have experienced death and rebirth. Fluid dripping from a drip-feed and the syringe I will never forget. It was September, while playing I suddenly fell into the water. The stream carried me away, but I experienced no fear. When I woke up, I felt water flowing through my body like I was rebirthing. At that time, I came to realize that water is my life source and my art tool. Water is life. 

Then destiny again lead the way, this time to a water country — The Netherlands. In 1987, I moved to Amsterdam. Here, people bravely fought with water, reclaiming land from the sea. I had children in this blessed land surrounded by water and I found my home here. Once again, I was bound to water. 

Ink is the result of soot, resin and water. Water is inclusive, it can dissolve many substances and flow silently. From water there is ink. In my artwork, water and ink dance together in 3D. Water is the sole inspiration of my work, and ink is a trace of water – like a traveler walking on water. Water is grand, it flows quietly, diluting ink images. The ink plaints at the loss of water: "Without any noise I am gone, just like I came”. Water is going, gone, like clouds in the sky, they rain on the ground, nourishing the earth.   

When I stand in front of a spread of rice paper, staring at it, my journey begins. Water and ink flow smoothly, gradually dying the paper black. Branching, mingling, mangling, radiating, the current streaming. Casually but arrogant, it is water’s nature. 

Water is the artist in nature 

I create artwork with water. Letting ink and water leave its inscrutable footprint on the paper’s surface. Thus I leave my footprint on earth. 

2. Loving the Wild Spirit of Nature 

When the Rain Falls(水,是那样的赋予力量)/200&100/水墨/2015

When the Rain Falls(水,是那样的赋予力量)/200&100/水墨/2015

In my big ink art, you can clearly see the typical Chinese style, of imaginative workings of splashing ink and water on paper as in the 

wildness of nature (“puo mo da xie yi”). This is my message. I am trying to express my passion for nature in paintings. Ink is like a wild outbreak of nature plundering water. Ink is eager to occupy - hoping for water and rice paper to become its wild captives. On rice paper, ink will transform, into a picture of barbaric aggression... 

This way I bring my passion and excitement for nature to the fore. Knowing I must break with the traditional ink painting, which is framing me. I resist. Far from the maddening crowd, I have to forget everything to find the inner self. A breath of wildness makes me alive. I begin to conquer rice paper, the wild, confused, black ink slowly drowning me thoroughly ... As ancient wise men said, "a great picture can be conceived by a mentally prepared artist alone.” Inspired by deep feelings of my own existence, the special beauty of the northwestern plateau (in Ningxia) flowing in my veins. 

Whenever I get into a mood of endless creation, I enter a world of my own. I need joyful confidence as well as a desire for conquest. During the creating process I can feel the sorrow and the spirit of sacrifice and even extreme loneliness. I start a conversation with myself while enabling my thoughts to teleport to another space.

3. Spirit (Qi) and Zen (Chan) in my artwork 

This Wind is Moans(风萧萧兮)/25&35/水墨铜板/2015

Buddhism originated in India. After introduction to China it was named Zen (Chan). Zen is a poetic philosophy rather than a religion. Through the ages it has become the spiritual vehicle of Chinese literati for a life that people yearn for. What is Zen? Zen lets us discard all material and mental obstacles. Rather entering directly into the present than to dwell on the past or the future. Ultimately leading us to a state where time is almost unrecognizable. Into a space without movement, attaining perception and tranquility, and a feeling of eternity. This peaceful idea of Zen is reflected in my paintings. 

Ink painting has a unique language, the core is its internal life which enables one to pursue "Qi" (Buddhism and moral energy) and able to feel 

its existence. This is what I said "Qi". The tension and the stability of the ink painting is the result of the artistic conception. I am looking for a combination of “Qi” and art, painting in wild emotions while maintaining stability. I need to be lonely and sorrowful which can bring me into the realm of Zen... To get relief, to dance in extreme ecstasy, to enter the breathing of painting, to dance into the rhythm. Water/ink/paper are slowly opening a new situation. 

Once, a French art critic commented on my work by saying: "In the works of Ma Hui, you can feel the gentle release from sorrow and pain. Water and ink have endowed paper with brand-new life." This may be the Zen Buddhist stroke in my artworks. Life is a cycle. You will return to your starting point, and once you start, you will never end. This is the ideal spiritual realm pursued by Zen, which is also the indispensable power of my creation. The secrets of nature not only exist in appearance, the inner experiences and adventures are also one of eternal meaning. My ink painting is born out of Zen tranquility. 

4. The tree wants to rest. But the wind never stops

This theme reflects my feelings about life as an unstoppable movement of time. Day to day life goes by without much space to reflect. The days pass by, while the wind covers our thoughts, our idle intentions, under layers of dust and sand, eternally, unbearably. Is it the human condition, our fate, to commence this nameless journey and not to know its destiny? Just to go on, aimlessly moving forward for movement’s sake, dancing to life’s tune, an unspeakable rhythm, seemingly endless motion? From the moment of birth to our inescapable demise we may attempt to halt the flow of time, but we are bound to fail. Human development through the ages, if anything, tells us that man learns little from past mistakes, from fellow-humans, from past lives. We tend to forget that the wind continues to blow. Meanwhile we dismiss the passing of time as if we may live forever, without even beginning to fathom its uncertain meaning. Never enough. 

This video-installation is my personal celebration of time and motion. It tries to convey emotions that are finding their way on this long winding road, feelings of loneliness, of sadness but also of joy. We must continue, 

with little to protect ourselves in a constant battle to deliver us from evil winds. 

5. Poetry and ink painting 

Wind Dancing With the Flower(风雨欲来)/25&60/水墨铜板/2015

“Shi Hua”, poetry and painting, is typical for oriental art. Among the tradit ions of Chinese culture, the integration of paintings and poetry is a unique art style. Especially, because the language of China itself is poetic. My father was a poet; thus, I began to write my own feelings in the form of poetry during my childhood. But it was in Europe that I started writing poetry for myself and combining paintings and poetry. In my opinion, poetry i s a bridge across nature and culture, the signifier and the signified, heart and world, spirit and material, finite and infinite. It is the crystallization of Chinese culture and philosophy. 

Poetry can make ink aspire to the goal of my heart. It is also my key to open the gate of Western art and it helps me realize the cultural differences clearly and legibly. It is my philosophy and my way to explore art. Poetry can broaden my vision to experience nature, reality and life. It is an indispensable tool for me to express my feelings directly. 

Both my poetry and abstract art are expressions of total freedom. Without constraint. I can be as innocent as an infant in my poetry using words to express my inner self. Four years ago, while printing my catalogues in Shenzhen, an old writer with whom I had lunch, was reading my texts. He stared at me:” Your poetry is as free as the birds in the sky. Your language can be understood without title or ending. I really envy you.”  Maybe the old gentleman had a point, describing what I am really striving at? I like to write poems as "Haiku’s", in a single line, portraying nature – a river flowing, the sun casting shadows. 

6. Between two worlds 

Rain is Water Dropping From Heaven(雨是上天滴下来的水)


I have lived abroad for thirty years, more than half my life. The longer I live, the tighter my bond with China. The distance and diversity of culture made me, as a Chinese living in the West, understand more clearly the connotations of China’s ancient culture. As if I am observing the contours of a distant mountain    after the rains, splendidly and profoundly. I was born and raised in China, my motherland. This influenced both my destiny and my art. The bearings of her long history, dignified and luminous, flow through my blood and weigh heavily on my conscience. 

How to position myself between tradition and modernity, while carrying on finding my own way? Discovering new forms to paint. This became my destiny, pursuing a method to integrate the essence of Chinese and Western culture. And I am still trying. 

I will continue to explore painting skills. Ink is an element with cultural specialty, it can transfer from black to white instantly. The uncontrollable randomness and instantaneity lead to the concept of time and unbound spirits which are not commonly used in Western paintings. In my artwork, I combine water and ink in an organic whole, and then separate them naturally to form a special kind of interdependent relationship. Is this the right way, to combine Chinese and Western "positions", that I am longing for? 

I am trying to combine ink with different kinds of paper, not only rice paper. Different kinds of feelings crisscross and richen and thicken the images. Sometimes I may use Western painting skills introducing a faded shadow for special effect. With different visual concepts, I can endow the ink with arbitrary interpretation. 

Everything will be flowing in this process... 

Dealing with the black and white and forming the multi-element impression of the picture, the philosophical nature of ink inspires me a lot. Gray areas, like in Western art, influence me much. Using resin in ink gives me the power to control water. I sprinkle red color as spiritual dust... 

Finding myself in two worlds... I hope my work is not only a tool of my language, but also a means of expressing my emotions. It may not be meaningful to others, but it forms the cycle of my life. 

‘Ma Hui is an adult blessed with a young child’s vision. It is poetry sealed on paper’

- French critic François Gonse in Le Petit Journal

Chinese/Dutch artist Ma Hui was born in Chengde, Hebei Province in 1958, to the family of a high-ranking party official. Her extensive range of artworks embodies her two very different cultural identities in a number of ways. Her feelings about shuimo, Chinese ink and water on paper, stem from her days of early childhood on the banks of the Yellow River in Ningxia.

Ma Hui studied at the Art College of the University of Xi’an, after which she spent time in Tibet to paint the cultural life of ethnic minorities. In 1987, she moved to Europe to further her art studies in Switzerland and Holland.

While in Ningxia, the symbiosis of yellow earth and streaming water evoked lasting emotions, literally colouring her artistic career that spans four decades on two continents. Both cultures resonate in her shuimo, an ancient Chinese configurative art form that Ma Hui has masterfully transformed, resulting in giant eruptions of ink and water on rice paper.

Ma Hui’s oeuvre is considered to belong to the forefront of abstract shuimo, as part of a new leap forward in Chinese contemporary culture. In 2006, she was awarded the prestigious Aemstelle Prize by the Cobra Museum in The Netherlands, for a wall-sized installation of ink on canvas, entitled ‘Yellow River’.