American artist creates ecological awareness and cultural interaction
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2024-01-27  ·   Source: NO.5 FEBRUARY 1, 2024
Augustina Droze at her exhibition METAZOA in Beijing on December 17, 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

In the fantasy world created by contemporary U.S. painter Augustina Droze, swirling and colorful flora and fauna deliver to onlookers an exuberant explosion of creativity.

Based in Beijing for the past nine years, her paintings fuse Eastern and Western aesthetic ideals that ultimately convey her love of nature.

After moving to China in 2015, Droze has been working at Tsinghua International School (THIS), affiliated to Tsinghua University High School, as an art teacher and head of the art department. She has also been a creator of public art, such as large murals, to transfer positive social messages such as environmental awareness and climate change.

METAZOA, an exhibition of Droze's works in Beijing from late last December to the end of January, attracted many viewers. The works on display investigated the boundaries of myth, dream and biology, creating a hypnotic peek into Droze's take on magical realism.

"I've always loved animals and nature, so I use them as ways to express my life experiences. Whatever I want to say, I say it through the animals in my paintings," Droze told Beijing Review.

Beauty of life

Through her art, Droze shares a surreal view of the world, which is full of fantasy, daydreams and beauty. The ecological elements deliver both the beauty and fragility of nature.

Among her works, many paintings are named after countries, e.g., the pieces Australia and Philippine. She has also merged the maps of countries into paintings, and depicted invasive species harmful to the environment in these countries.

"The purpose is to draw people's attention to how critical the ecosystem is," Droze said.

With great concerns about environmental protection, she is also in the process of creating a nationwide mural project to lift people's awareness on environmental preservation and climate change.

Before moving to China, Droze knew very little about the Chinese zodiac, a system dating back to the Qin Dynasty—more than 2,000 years ago, but later realized just how important the culture (still) is. 

And so, in 2022, she created a series of works inspired by Chinese zodiac signs. These signs, or shengxiao, are 12 animals that form the cycles of time. People's animal signs are determined by the lunar year in which they are born. Droze reinterpreted the Chinese zodiac signs through hybrids of the 12 zodiac animals and matching flowers.

This year marks the Year of the Dragon on the lunar calendar. The Chinese dragon is an auspicious creature that symbolizes strength, wisdom and good luck, as well as commands wind and water.

In Droze's zodiac series, the dragon elements are paired with bleeding heart plants. Though the main color palette is pink and feminine, the dragons look fierce and strong. "The dragon paintings show both strength and femininity, just as I have in myself," she said.

Chinese culture slowly seeped into her work during her time in China. "Typical cultural elements, like the zodiac signs and blue and white porcelain, are lending my creations a sense of natural osmosis. Chinese culture is broad and there are so many layers. I think I've just scratched the surface," she said.

Her paintings have also reflected her emotions from daily life. She has shown the way she sees the world as an expat and a mother living in China with all the wonderful and exotic experiences that come with.

The Delirium series, portraying groups of animals spinning around, represents Droze's life experiences, especially in the lead-up to and following the birth of her second child. "In that chaotic time, as the world was experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt like I was in a state of not knowing which way was up and which way was down. I used the paintings as a way to express how I was dealing with the confusion," she said.

A painting of dragons at METAZOA, an exhibition of Droze's works, on December 17, 2023 (LI XIAOYANG)

A keen explorer

Droze and her husband decided to move to China to gain a new experience—one of living in another country. At first, they weren't planning on being here for the long haul. "But we've been here for so long now. It did change the trajectory of our life, and we've been happy with it," she said.

Droze has seen a lot of changes of Beijing over the past decade. As she observed, the city has modernized and life has become much more convenient than it was when she first moved here, with people being able to order food, hail a ride and shop online with the tap of a mobile screen. The air pollution has also considerably reduced.

And the city still retains its rich history. Walking through the hutongs, Beijing's traditional alleyways, always makes her feel like stepping back in time. "It's like seeing history right in front of you," she said.

As China seeks to cultivate more versatile professionals and promote traditional Chinese culture on campus, art education has seen a growing role in China's school education in recent years. Since becoming an art teacher at THIS, Droze has been looking back on her Beijing journey and continuously adopts new ways to teach her students.

In her classes, students learn a range of art techniques, including painting, sculpture, ceramics and fabric art. Art education is about exposing students to different techniques and styles as well as art history, and showing them the joy of art, she said.

In 2022, Droze was nominated as a Distinguished Artist Envoy of the Beijing American Center of the U.S. Embassy in China. She hopes that following China's lifting of international travel restrictions early last year, more China-U.S. cultural exchanges will get underway, just like the Philadelphia Orchestra's latest performance in China last November.

"As an American living in China, I have a voice of how important cultural interaction is and how rich and beautiful the Chinese culture is. The two countries can come together in different ways to form a new sort of beauty," Droze said.

(Print Edition Title: A Stroke of Ecorealism)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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