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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Li Cunxin, 2017–2018

by Jun Chen

Li Cunxin
Li Cunxin, 2018 Jun Chen. © Jun Chen

Li Cunxin (b. 1961) is the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet. Born into an impoverished family in rural Qingdao, China, Li was selected for the Beijing Dance Academy at the age of eleven. After seven years’ training, he received permission to train with the Houston Ballet in the United States of America. He defected just days before his scheduled return to China in 1981. For sixteen years, he performed with the Houston Ballet, becoming a principal dancer and appearing with companies across the world. Having danced with and then marrying the Australian Mary McKendry, in 1995 he became principal artist with the Australian Ballet in Melbourne. During his four years with the company he maintained a punishing regimen, training and working as a stockbroker in between rehearsals and performances. Published in 2003, Li’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer was adapted into a feature film in 2009. In 2012, working as a broker, he accepted an offer from the Queensland Ballet to become its fifth artistic director. Li was Australian Father of the Year in 2009 and Queensland’s Australian of the Year in 2014, and has two honorary doctorates. The Museum of Brisbane mounted the touring exhibition Mao’s Last Dancer The Exhibition: A portrait of Li Cunxin in 2017-2018.

Jun Chen

‘I was very happy to be asked to undertake a portrait of Li Cunxin. Not only do we share a common heritage and culture, but to an extent we share a similar journey, leaving our country of birth to pursue our artistic careers. I wanted to show Li as he is, a lifelong dancer, self- assured, depicted in the world that he knows best and surrounded by other dancers about to undertake the rigours of rehearsal in preparation for another performance.’

Jun Chen (b. 1960), based in Brisbane, Queensland, trained in traditional Chinese brush painting at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, China. He migrated to Australia in 1990, and in due course completed his master’s in fine art at the Queensland University of Technology. Since the late 1990s he has exhibited regularly in Australia and Asia. He has become a regular finalist in the Sulman, Wynne and Archibald prizes; he was highly commended in the latter in 2017 for a portrait of the late art dealer Ray Hughes. Recognisable by their thickly applied paint and expressive, gestural quality, his oil paintings are held in public institutions including the collection of Parliament House, Canberra, and Guangzhou Art Gallery in China, and in private collections throughout Australia and abroad.

Commissioned with funds provided by Tim Fairfax AC 2018

Related information

Portrait of Li Cunxin, 2017–2018 (detail) by Jun Chen
Portrait of Li Cunxin, 2017–2018 (detail) by Jun Chen
Portrait of Li Cunxin, 2017–2018 (detail) by Jun Chen
Portrait of Li Cunxin, 2017–2018 (detail) by Jun Chen

20/20

Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions

Previous exhibition, 2018

20/20 showcases the dynamic suite of new portraits commissioned to celebrate the National Portrait Gallery’s 20th year. Leaders and individualists invited by the Gallery were matched with unique artists to create distinctive contemporary portraits.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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