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Dr John Yu
, 2004

by Ah Xian

glazed ceramic

John Yu AC (b. 1934), retired paediatrician and administrator, was born in Nanking, China, and moved to Australia with his parents when he was 3 years old. Educated in Sydney, from 1961 he worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children (now the Children’s Hospital, Westmead), becoming Head of Medicine and serving for nineteen years as its Chief Executive before retiring in 1997. For many years he has chaired and served on diverse bodies related to children’s health, education, medicine and the arts. Chancellor of the University of New South Wales from 2000 to 2005 and Chair of the Australia-China Council from 2000 to 2006, he was a member of the board of trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1997 to 2006, when he was made a Life Governor of the Gallery, and from 2003 was Chair of VisAsia, promoting appreciation of Asian visual arts and culture. He has published books and many papers on paediatrics, management and decorative arts, and holds several honorary doctorates. A scintillating speaker, both suave and sincere, Yu was Australian of the Year in 1996.

Ah Xian (b. 1960) moved to Australia from Beijing in 1990 and worked as a house painter while awaiting permanent residency status. He began casting porcelain busts and painting them with traditional Chinese designs in 1997; an artist-inresidency followed, he sold a bust to the Powerhouse Museum, and he held his first solo show in Melbourne in 2000. The following year, he won the National Gallery of Australia’sinaugural National Sculpture Prize with his life-size painted cloisonné enamel figure Human human: lotus. Approached about the portrait of Yu, his first commission, he hesitated, for its difficulties were legion. In 2003, having made a cast of Yu’s head and shoulders, he conceived a design incorporating ‘a contrast and tension between the completely celadon bust of John Yu and colourful little children climbing around him, yet great harmony as well’. Referring to the Chinese traditional style of putting some children’s figures around the Laughing Buddha, the bust reflects the shared cultural background of artist and sitter, the honourable profession of paediatrics, and Yu’s passion for celadon-glazed ceramics.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Commissioned with funds provided by Marilyn Darling AC 2004
Accession number: 2004.186