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From student to sculpture artist: 20 years in Yunnan with Matti Dubee

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Imagine coming to China in 1992 and living in Yunnan since 1997. Surely not many expats currently in the Spring City can tell as many stories as Canadian-Finish entrepreneur Matti Dubee. Some may remember his work on KMS Magazine or his involvement with The Hump hostel. Apart from those endeavors, he has also worked on local government projects and for advertising agencies.

Lately, however, the spotlight is on his new role as an artist. We sat down with Dubee to find out about his current exhibition at Kunming's IWE Art Museum to discuss what his art is about, and the journey that led him here in the first place.

Green Lake Park in the mid-1990s (image credit: Jim Goodman)
Green Lake Park in the mid-1990s (image credit: Jim Goodman)

GoKunming: What were your impressions of Kunming when you came here for the first time?

Matti Dubee: Well, the first time I came to Kunming in 1995, my impression was the same as many peoples' was at the time — wonderful weather, never hot, never cold, lots of nature nearby. The city had a lot of old areas, but those very quickly got torn down in the build-up to the 1999 World Horticultural Expo.

GK: So what is the biggest change you've seen between then and now?

Dubee: When I first arrived, I think there were two or three buildings taller than 20 stories. Now virtually every building is taller than that. There's lots of traffic now, but there is more to do. It's becoming a more and more interesting city.

GK: How do you see the foreign community changing?

Dubee: It's growing, obviously. There always was a big foreign community, but it wasn't very visible — especially concerning the Southeast Asians. But as more opportunities come up in Kunming, the foreign community has adjusted to that. When I first showed up, either you were a student, a teacher or a missionary. Now it's a lot of different people, with all kinds of different careers and jobs and businesses.

GK: What was it like to make the first foreign-oriented community magazine?

Dubee: When I moved to Kunming, I'd previously spent quite a bit of time in Hong Kong. There was a magazine called BC Magazine, which was a kind of bars, restaurants and activities guide for Hong Kong. I found it to be so useful that myself and a couple of other friends decided to make a similar version for Kunming.

It was meant for both the foreign community and for foreign travelers. Most travelers were using the Lonely Planet as a guide. While it's a very good book, it's so big and it has to cover so much of China, that it's always going to be out of date. With my magazine, we put it out every two months, and even then, within the first week, it was already going to be out of date because one place that we advertised got closed down and bunch of new places popped up.

GK: What was The Hump like when you first opened it?

Dubee: The Hump was a force of nature. Within about six months of opening the first two bars and guesthouse, we had seven bars, we could sit about 2,000 people and it made no difference if you were there on a Monday or Saturday night. By 9pm there wasn't an empty seat. I wanted to make a place basically anyone could go to because at that time the main entertaining area in Kunming was Kundu and a beer was like 30 kuai.

We were selling these small bottles of Honghe Beer — which I don't think even exists anymore — for three kuai a bottle. So that meant no matter how poor you were, if you had ten kuai in your pocket, you could go and have three beers and still have cash to take a bus home. It created this really weird vibe where we had students and millionaires drinking side by side.

GK: Was it mostly for foreigners?

Dubee: When we first opened, we were attracting foreigners, but the idea was always to use foreigners to bring in Chinese people. That's why we had a guesthouse. Let's face it, backpackers are the worst customers — they simply don't spend money. But having foreigners in the bar made things exciting for Chinese customers and having the guesthouse and the bars together ensured that we always had at least couple of foreigners running around.

GK: When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

Dubee: During my first year of studying Chinese language in Shanghai in 1992, I accidentally discovered I could sculpt. A friend of mine and I were knocking back some vodka and I let him paint on my dorm room wall. A couple more drinks and most of my wall was painted over.

At that time, I thought it would look really cool if a hand was coming out of it. I remembered from kindergarten how to do paper mache and I just happened to have some old newspapers and a bag of flour. So the next day I made the hand and it came out looking like a hand, then I made a head and it looked like a proper head.

I had never had any proper art training or any sculpture training, it just clicked with me. So I continued for the rest of the school year making paper mache sculptures in my dorm room. Then the next year I studied at the Shanghai University Fine Arts College where I did a sculpture program.

GK: What mediums do you use now?

Dubee: For my Dali paper technique, I primarily work with newspaper and glue. Lately, I also made a sculpture with the interior made of paper mache, but the exterior with fiber glass. In the past I've done a bunch of sand sculpture festivals, and I also worked a bit with clay, but it's not my favorite medium.

GK: Tell us about your technique, works, and inspiration?

Dubee: The technique is to try to make the paper mache hard and thick enough so I can sand it down until I get the stone look that I like. But I also have to get the right shape. I make a lot of changes as I sand, adjusting the shapes to get the contours that want. I primarily make female forms. I just find them aesthetically much more pleasant than male forms. I do make some other objects and some animals, but the female form I think is where I've found my style.

I take inspiration from the things around me — whether it's the place I'm at or the people I'm around or what my mood is, or even what music I'm listening to. Sometimes if I wanted to make something darker, like my Urban Forest Spirits series, I actually listened to sort of darker music to put myself in that kind of mood. A lot of Goth music for that.

GK: What are you trying to express with your art?

Dubee: It depends on the project. Some pieces are purely eye candy. With some I want to make people think a little bit, and some I want to tell a story. I don't think I have one way that I make my pieces.

GK: How has your time in Kunming and Yunnan influenced the way you view and create art?

Dubee: I've done sculpture projects in Dali twice and I've always found Dali to be a very good place to work. With my latest series here in Kunming, I was even more concentrated on my art. Yunnan is good — normally, it's a fairly sunny place, which is helpful for working with the paper and glue, because in dry sunny weather it dries much faster.

Editor's note: Dubee's sculpture series Dreams, created using his 'Dali paper' technique, is open to the public until August 13, 2018.

Images: Matti Dubee and Yang Rui

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(1): Go see the exhibit.
(2): AMAZING to see Matti with hair!

Not sure if my comment is clear, meant to be a joke. What I meant was, the exhibit is really worth seeing; thing about Matti with hair refers to the photo above.

i remember him as a cool guy... keep art alive instead of money! yes?

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