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Shen Jiawei, 2016 by Mark Mohell
Shen Jiawei, 2016 by Mark Mohell

When Shen Jiawei arrived in Australia in 1989, he had practically nothing. Sixteen years later, he had two portraits he’d painted standing side by side in his studio. One was of the former Mary Donaldson, Australian-born Princess Mary of Denmark. The other was of Shen Xini, Chinese-born princess of his own harmonious domain in Bundeena, New South Wales.

Shen Jiawei (also known as Jiawei Shen) was born in China. During the Cultural Revolution he laboured in the Great Northern Wilderness, but even as he worked there, he gained recognition as an artist. Some of the paintings he made gained national renown, and are now recognised internationally as icons of the times. Wang Lan was the beautiful daughter of a founder of the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics. At sixteen she was sent north for farm work in Heilongjiang, near the Russian border. There for seven years, she sketched and made woodcuts whenever she could. In 1975 she met Shen Jiawei. After the revolution ended in 1976, Lan studied and taught for nine years in Shenyang. In 1982, she married Jiawei; six years later she completed an award-winning mural, more than twenty-three metres long, for the Dalian Youth Palace.

The couple’s daughter, Xini (‘Aurora’) was born in May 1989. By then, Jiawei was in Australia, making his living drawing portraits of passers-by at Darling Harbour. Lan and Xini arrived at the end of 1991. Lan worked as a cleaner, learned English and began to drive while Jiawei sketched at Australia’s Wonderland and made his Archibald debut. In 1997, they settled in Bundeena. The following year, they became Australian citizens and adopted a tiny puppy, Billy.

Xini and Billy, 2006 by Jiawei Shen

Jiawei loved the gentle Billy so much he thinks of him as his ‘only son’. The family cat was tyrannical, but Billy overlooked her rudeness, allowing her to eat her fill from his bowl before finishing the rest. Xini’s window gave onto a courtyard; while she did her homework inside, he’d rest his paws on the sill until she came out and wrestled with him. Later, she’d read a book while he dozed close by, sometimes resting his chin on her leg. One year when Jie Jie (‘big sister’) won several medals at school, she sat Billy down in the garden, and bending so she was face to face with him, solemnly hung the medals around his neck, sharing the honour.

Having painted many major portraits in Australia, Shen was commissioned to paint Crown Princess Mary of Denmark for the National Portrait Gallery in 2005. Photographs taken in his studio in this period show the portrait of Mary, imperious in silk chiffon, against a dreamlike backdrop that melds her worlds, beside the portrait of Xini, a wary, part-rebellious look on her teenage face, her bones fine in her cotton top and skirt, standing before the white oleander that surrounds the Shens’ home. With Xini is Billy, then in his noble prime, and a blue-tongue lizard they glimpsed often in the garden. In one photograph, the real Xini in her school uniform caresses the real Billy in front of their painted likenesses, Princess Mary’s slender figure looming over them.

Billy was loved by all, and Jiawei painted him countless times; his portraits hang in many homes in Bundeena.

In Australia, Wang Lan became a passionate gardener (‘Lan’ means orchid). Her love of animals and peace is expressed in all she does. In recent years, Shen Jiawei has researched and written several books. One is called simply Wang Lan. He wrote it, he told her, ‘To prove that a person such as you has lived in the world’. 

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