(By the way, if you haven’t checked out her artwork, I encourage you to do so. She’s a talented artist. You can see her work at www.hibel.com.)
The opening up of The People’s Republic of China to the degree where it has welcomed the world inside its borders for the 29th Olympiad—hardly conceivable a scant thirty years ago—has occurred in small, incremental steps, beginning with the ping-pong diplomacy days of President Richard Nixon. In addition to sports, art has been instrumental in this increase of freedoms within China. Perhaps two important small steps toward China’s increasing freedoms that have occurred along the way were the historic 1986 Edna Hibel art exhibitions in Beijing’s China National Art Gallery, and Chongqing’s Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts. These were the first exhibitions by a foreign woman in China.
Here is a brief history of what occurred in the aftermath of Edna Hibel’s exhibitions in China, both of which were endorsed by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, and then-Chinese Ambassador to the U.S.A., the Honorable Han Xu. (Other official endorsements came from then-Florida Governor Bob Graham, the then-American Ambassador to China, Winston Lord, along with officials from important American art institutions, such as the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.)
The Beijing opening of Hibel’s exhibition was seen by many millions of Chinese on television. During the broadcast, the host said, “Hibel’s beautiful art touched the hearts of the Chinese people.” Several viewers from outlying provinces reported that they had sold their bicycles—their only mode of transportation—in order to travel to Beijing to view the Hibel exhibition.
Upon the conclusion of these historic Sino-American art exhibitions in 1986, China’s Consul General to the U.S.A., Ni Yaoli, proclaimed to a large audience, “Edna Hibel has built a golden bridge between our two nations.” Immediately, another exhibition invitation was extended to Edna Hibel by the Chinese government.
As an example of this “golden bridge,” one of the paintings in Hibel’s groundbreaking 50-year retrospective exhibitions in 1986 in China was a portrait of one of her classmates, Winnie Cheng, who returned to her native China shortly after the painting was completed in 1936. Winnie and Edna corresponded, but lost touch with each other after the start of WWII. As a result of the exhibition, however, a photograph of the Winnie Cheng painting appeared in a Shanghai newspaper.
Consequently, Winnie’s son and grandson were found to be living in the U.S., and a tearful meeting was arranged where Edna learned that Winnie and her husband had died shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Edna then created a drawing of Winnie’s grandson, William, which was slated to be used as a poster in “A Golden Bridge,” the forthcoming Hibel exhibition scheduled for September 1989 in Beijing. Unfortunately, the Tiananmen Square incident intervened and that second Hibel exhibition in China did not take place.