Above and right: Ada Yang playing the guqin and her husband Yang Yan explaining the calligraphy to their students; Ada Yang painting plum blossoms in her studio. Photos Provided to China Daily
A whirlwind romance brought Neneh Ada Yang to Beijing where, inspired by her husband's painting, she discovered a hidden talent for art
Two years ago Neneh Ada Yang knew nothing about China, but today her talent for Chinese art impresses even masters in the field.
"I'm very proud that I might be the only African that can paint Chinese," she says with a smile, sitting in her Beijing art studio surrounded by paintings of trees, flowers and towering mountains.
The 26-year-old, who could not speak any Chinese when she arrived in China in 2011, is now skilled in several traditional Chinese art forms, including Peking opera, calligraphy and playing the seven-stringed guqin.
But her specialty is in traditional Chinese painting, which is distinguished from Western art in that it uses xuan paper, a high-quality paper made for painting and calligraphy, or silk, with a special brush, ink and paint made from mineral and vegetable pigments.
Her work has been successful enough for some to be exhibited in the National Museum of China.
Many people go to China in search of the exotic, but for Ada it was a relationship with Chinese landscape painter Yang Yan, who visited Africa in April 2011, that brought her to the country.
"I was a third-year college student learning business administration in Sierra Leone," she says.
"I love singing and dancing, and had participated in three movies, but the only thing I knew about China was the kungfu star Jackie Chan, who I had seen in movies."
Yang and Yang Yan met through friends and soon fell for each other, even though they had no common language.
For the 55-year-old Yang Yan, it was a romance he had been waiting for for 20 years after seeing a sculpture of an African girl. When he saw Yang, instinct told him this was the woman he'd been waiting for.
Yang was also drawn to this man with a long beard.
"The first time I saw him, I was attracted to him. I had never seen anyone like this before. I was looking at him, trying to figure out what kind of person he is.
"He is very different. He likes to visit different places and mingle with people. Even though he doesn't speak English, he could still have fun with people, with action. He also likes nature."
The two got married in Sierra Leone a month after meeting and Yang followed her husband to China without telling her family.
It was a bold move for her and not without challenges.
"I talk to my friends and realize that there are big differences between my country and China - language, culture and climate. But I know when you go to any place, you need to respect their culture, so I decided to follow what people do here. Day by day, I just understand people, culture and China so fast," Yang, who now speaks fluent Chinese, says.
She was surprised to discover her husband was a painter when she saw his studio. In the beginning she had no deep feelings for his work, she says, but gradually she developed a liking for it and a passion to paint herself.
"I see him painting every day. He paints his happiness, his joy, he likes it so much. Mr Yang is that kind of person. When you see him painting, you want to paint. He gives you that spirit that makes you feel you need to learn to paint. When he paints, he puts all his attention, his effort, his love into it, which can be very infectious."
When Yang Yan left his desk, Yang picked up the brushes and began to paint mango trees - common in her hometown - using different colors and brushstrokes to show how they looked at various stages of growth.
At the end of the 2011, she held her first exhibition, at Beijing Agriculture Exhibition Center.
"People didn't believe I had painted the artwork so I invited them to come over to my studio the next day to see it for themselves."
Since then, Yang's art has been shown on many occasions, including at the China-Africa People's Forum, and has been bought by both collectors and galleries. Some has even made it to Africa, with one buyer from Morocco.
Yang Yan, who has been painting for more than 40 years, says Chinese painting materials are easy to manage, so his wife was quickly able to use them to express emotions and memories.
What stands out in her work, he believes, is its innocence and purity.
"She can be very focused and express everything in the scene she paints, which is very precious. To her, art is only art; it has no connections with anything else," he says, adding that commercialization has made purity in art a rare thing in China.
An 80-year-old master of Chinese painting, Huang Yonghe, even wrote to her: "The purity in your paintings has taught me a lot."
Yang and her husband have collaborated on some artwork, including on a series of paintings of plum-mango trees.
On the treetops there are plum blossoms, while on the trunks there are mangos. This series of work was sold to African embassies and Chinese museums.
"Chinese people like plum blossom, which symbolizes integrity and nobility, characteristics that are admired in Chinese culture, while mango symbolizes Africa. This creative idea is very refreshing," Yang Yan says.
Yang adds, "Chinese painting is like a spirit for me now. Most times when I go to exhibitions, I represent China."
But her ambitions now extend beyond exhibiting her own work. The couple now plan to launch a class teaching traditional Chinese arts, with a focus on painting.
"Many Africans come to China but don't know much about its culture and people. So when they go home, they don't know how to introduce the real China to their friends," she says.
She is now also working on putting together a culture exhibition at their art studio of Chinese and African art.
(China Daily Africa Weekly 05/31/2013 page29)