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Untitled (preparatory study for sculpture of Dr John Yu)
, 2003

by Ah Xian

pencil and white chalk on paper

John Yu AO (b. 1934), paediatrician and administrator, was born in Nanking, China, and moved to Australia with his parents when he was three years old. Educated in Sydney, he worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children (which became the New Children's Hospital, Westmead) from 1961 to 1997, retiring as its Chief Executive in 1997. Since then, he has been its Emeritus Consulting Physician, and he was Chairman of its Governing Council from 1998 to 2000. Chancellor of the University of New South Wales since 2000, he has also served on a variety of boards and associations related to children's health, medicine and the arts. He is currently Vice-Chair of the Board of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and has also been associated with the Powerhouse Museum, the Penrith Regional Art Gallery and Musica Viva. He has published a number of books and many papers on paediatrics, management and decorative arts. Yu was Australian of the Year in 1996.

Ah Xian came to Australia from Beijing in 1989, having already gained some recognition and experience as an artist here. His application for permanent residency took many years to process, and he worked for a long time as a house painter. He began casting porcelain busts and painting them with traditional Chinese designs in 1997; an artist-in-residency followed, he sold a bust to Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, and he held his first solo show in Melbourne in 2000. The following year, he won the National Gallery of Australia's inaugural National Sculpture Prize with his life-size painted cloisonne enamel figure Human human: lotus. At the end of 2001 the National Portrait Galley approached him about a commissioned work. He hesitated, because making a porcelain bust is dangerously unpredictable: the work may break at any stage, the process is very expensive, and it takes a long time. But he met John Yu in early 2003, found him 'kind and gentle', and made a cast of his head and shoulders. By mid-2003 Ah Xian had conceived the design; there was to be 'a contrast and tension between the completely celadon bust of John Yu and colourful little children climbing around him, yet great harmony as well.' He explained that this mimics the Chinese traditional style of putting some little children's figures around the Laughing Buddha and Guanyin (the mercy god). 'I believe that this design will confirm Chinese traditions as part of John's and my cultural background, the characteristic way I make my works, and John's joy and passion in collecting ceramic vessels especially in celadon.' The bust of Yu is currently under way. Ah Xian sent sketch for the perusal of the NPG Board in June 2003.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Commissioned with funds provided by Marilyn Darling AC 2004
Accession number: 2004.235