The Many faces of Haihui Wang

From portraits to landscapes, Howick artist, Haihui Wang, has as many strings to his bow as colours to his palette, as JON RAWLINSON discovered.

Some people may be considered two-faced; while being one of the most genuine people I’ve been lucky enough to meet, Haihui Wang, has plenty more faces than that! The Chinese-born Howickian says, although he paints “all sorts”, portraits are a particular favourite.

“I try to capture the essence of my subjects, not just their physical appearance; the experience behind the face, their story and personality. Faces are kinds of masks; I look to explore what’s behind them.”

Unsurprisingly, when I ask his opinion of Charles Goldie’s work, his face – the actual one! – lights up.  “Portraits are very challenging and require high skill and technique. Not many can do a very realistic style of portraiture.

Every time I see his old Maori women or men, I enjoy their wrinkles!” he laughs. “His portraits seem more real than photographs; even more real than reality.”

Face value – three of Haihui’s portraits – (left to right) ‘Xan’, self portrait (sleeping) and ‘Sister’.

Haihui has painted friends, family and even (from photographs) Sir Barry Curtis and the Dalai Lama. His work has been exhibited locally at Te Tuhi, Uxbridge Arts & Culture, and the Fo Guang Shan Temple in Flat Bush.

“I work both from photos and from people sitting for me. Often, people are busy so they don’t have the time, but I prefer to paint from real life because there is more information to work from than in a two dimensional photo.”

In addition, this talented creative also delights in bringing life to life, through painting landscapes.

“Landscapes; they’re alive! I’ve experimented with different styles and subjects,” he confirms. “I usually use oils because they have more depth, while the colour is more subtle and, I think, organic. For me, acrylics are more artificial, they have a plastic feeling. And, I only use watercolours sometimes, not often.”

Beyond the mighty Goldie, Haihui also enjoys the work of two of New Zealand’s contemporary greats, including the frequently bird-like paintings of Bill Hammond, and the often haunting landscapes of Otago painter, Grahame Sydney.

And yet, always the keen student (as any good teacher should be), he draws influence and, more importantly, pleasure from the work of the old masters.

“When I go to a museum or art gallery I can spend hours looking at just one picture. I feel a connection with other artists, even if they passed away centuries ago. It’s like they’re reaching out to me. I feel like they could be my friends, as if we share a common bond.”

While some artists learn on the front lines without any formal study, Haihui believes his education – he holds a masters degree in fine arts from Elam – has been useful in honing his craft.

“It has broadened my mind and given me plenty of contacts. It’s also about inspiration. You need other people’s feedback, especially from other successful artists, to improve and to come up with new ideas.”

On finishing his studies, Haihui worked as an exhibition designer at Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi and the Papakura Art Gallery. However, since he was a child, his dream was to make a living from his love of art. Today, he’s living that dream, painting and tutoring fulltime.
Art has also proven useful in surmounting cultural divides, helping him better connect with his fellow Kiwis.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, which race you belong to or which language you speak, like music, art brings people together and we all identify with it,” he says. “I try to cross cultural and language barriers to touch people’s hearts, no matter whether they’re a Kiwi, Chinese, Indian or anything else.”

Personally, artistically, I have two left thumbs! I’m covetous of the talents of those who can paint as well as Haihui. So, whenever interviewing any artist my last question is always one which is very simple, yet many struggle to answer: why do you feel the need to create?
I’m delighted to find that he meets my ‘challenge’ head-on, inspiring me in turn with an almost lyrical sincerity:

“[Creativity] is like writing a diary; you’re trying to understand the world and clarify your mind. You can express love, anger, sadness, whatever your emotion, through art. It’s like meditation; every time I hold a brush I feel so fulfilled and joyful in the centre of my heart. I’m so lucky that I can paint!”