The artistic collaboration between Karen Bit Vejle and Xiaoguang Qiao was born in fire. In 2010, Sino-Norwegian diplomatic relations were strained when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the annual Peace Prize to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobao. Although bilateral relations normalized six years later, it was under these strained conditions that Vejle and Qiao’s cross-cultural conversation began.
With the support of the Norwegian government, Danish papercutting artist Karen Bit Vejle traveled to China in order to exhibit her work there. As an artist, Vejle draws inspiration from Norway’s medieval wood carvings and the nineteenth century papercuts of Danish Golden Age author Hans Christian Andersen. She is also knowledgeable about other cultures that have fostered the art of papercutting, including China. China witnessed the birth of the art form over 1,500 years ago: papercutting became a craft that thrived amongst women artists in rural areas who used it as a form of expression.
When Vejle visited this cradle of papercutting, she sought out a colleague with whom to collaborate on a project. Together, Vejle hoped, they could explore how their two cultures approach the same artistic medium. In April 2013, she met Professor Xiaoguang Qiao at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and they selected a common motif in Nordic and Chinese art—the dragon—to depict alongside each other. The dragon figures prominently in Chinese culture throughout time and is an auspicious symbol (called “long”), while the Norse dragon is most often associated with the Viking period and the Middle Ages as an apotropaic (evil-repelling) symbol.
Though the artists spoke different languages and relied on translators for verbal communication, Vejle feels that she and Qiao are “likeminded” in their artistic philosophies, even while their styles and methods of display differ. For example, Vejle’s mounts sizeable papercuts between glass plates and relies on lighting the papercuts in such a way as to cast shadows, giving the two-dimensional works a three-dimensional, or sculptural, presence. These methods were new to Qiao. The artists’ works informed each other, as previous cultural encounters had on artists of earlier eras. One of Vejle’s papercuts produced during this collaboration alludes to earlier exchanges. One piece in the exhibition features a knitting pattern popularized by Norwegian women in World War II. The pattern became a cryptic symbol of camaraderie among compatriots, yet its origins are Asian.
Their cross-cultural approach lent itself to an exhibition that travels the world. Hosted by the ArtHouse Jersey in the Channel Islands in 2016, the exhibition Paper Dialogues expanded to include two new artists, Layla May Arthur and Emma Reid. It is this iteration of the exhibition that will travel to the National Nordic Museum in the fall 2021, encouraging American practitioners in the art of psaligraphy to join in the conversation.