Published: 10:12, June 20, 2024 | Updated: 14:56, June 20, 2024
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Leather art connects past and present
By Yang Feiyue

Skills that originated centuries ago among Mongolian craftspeople still used by artisans today brings about a revival, Yang Feiyue reports.

Jia Hongwei outlines a pattern to carve later at his art workshop in Hohhot, North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Blooming flowers, galloping horses and spectacular mountainous landscapes seem to spike your senses when walking into Jia Hongwei's leather painting facility in Hohhot, North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Those vivid images give off a leathery sheen under the light. Observed at close quarters, they are all delicately sculpted out of a single cowhide.

"Leather carving artworks feature a rich variety of subjects, including life scenes of various ethnic groups along the Yellow River, vibrant and beautiful peony flowers, majestic eagles spreading their wings in flight, and proud, elegant peacocks," says Jia who was born and raised in the region.

Leather painting primarily involves carving and inlay on hand-tanned leather, making it a challenging craft.

Jia Hongwei, leather craftsman

"Anything that can be painted on paper can also be depicted on leather," he says.

Widely considered a microcosm of herdsman culture and an important cargo on the tea road that used to connect East China's Fujian province all the way to Mongolia and Russia, leather painting from the autonomous region was named a national intangible cultural heritage in 2021.

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The art form evolved from the Mongolian people's long-term use of leather and has a rich history and culture.

During the Song (960-1279) and Liao (916-1125) dynasties, the Mongolian people not only made leather clothing, boots and bags but also engraved texts and recorded events on the material.

This marked the emergence of the earliest leather carving work, according to Yan Lirong, a scholar from the School of Art and Design, Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology based in the region's Baotou city.

In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the variety of leather materials used in Mongolian carving expanded to include sheepskin, bearskin and cowhide.

The leather was also made into protective clothing for the army and boots for civilians.

Jia demonstrates leather painting for students. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Mongolian leather products incorporated more decorative elements, with techniques, such as embroidery, applique, and inlay used to adorn leather items with coral and silver ornaments.

However, after the Qing Dynasty, Mongolian leather carving began to decline.

Part of the reason, according to Jia's observation, was modern lifestyles leading to less demand for leather products and mass-produced industrial items elbowing out manual products.

However, his fate was sealed when he witnessed, as a young child, his father, also a herdsman, making clothes and other items from leather.

He still remembers his grandfather producing leather paintings.

"It feels like part of my home," Jia says.

In his opinion, locals are showing their love and respect toward friends and nature by creating art on leather.

After finishing his studies at a local art school in the early 2000s, Jia decided to carry forward the art, especially when he noticed the country is putting a premium on protecting intangible cultural heritage.

"I'd like to tap into what my ancestors have been doing," he says, adding that the materials involved are abundant in the region and readily available to him.

His artwork features people celebrating before the Tian'anmen Square. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

He has long noticed many daily items on the grasslands bearing leather painting elements, such as saddles and boots.

"They were both beautiful and practical. However, they were not particular about material selection, the workmanship was rough, and they had an unpleasant smell, leading to a decline in their popularity," he says.

Having an art background, Jia started to restore and optimize the traditional craft and explore ways of integrating it with other forms of intangible cultural heritage.

"Leather painting primarily involves carving and inlay on hand-tanned leather, making it a challenging craft," Jia explains.

Its forms include relief and openwork, the latter featuring patterns or designs being created by cutting, piercing or carving away parts of the material to create intricate, lacelike effects that allow light to pass through.

"It demands high-quality leather materials, which have to be meticulously selected, such as thick cowhide with fine pores," Jia says.

The hide will first be moistened to make it softer and more flexible.

The process then begins with drawing the design on paper, which is then applied to the hide for further processing.

Skillful carving will ensue, giving rise to vivid shapes coming out of the hide.

"It must be slow and precise to avoid any errors," Jia says.

An energetic scene depicts folk customs, including musical performances. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

After the carving is complete, the leather is dyed meticulously before other operations are added, such as assembling accessories and inlaying gemstones and mounting, transforming it all into a complete work of art.

"The crafting process is at the core of leather painting and a major test of an artisan's skill," Jia says.

He did hundreds of experiments to ensure the hide won't crack open when he tried inlaying leather painting with thangka elements.

"You also have to find the optimum ironing temperature to keep pearls and gemstones steadfastly stuck to the hide without burning it," he explains.

At the end of the day, good leather artwork should be visually dynamic, with clear layers and contrasts, smooth lines and rich colors, while the inlaying and stitching techniques should enhance the integration of color and relief, he adds.

Ever since Jia established his own leather painting business in 2003, he has been exploring ways of promoting the art and applying it to modern life.

To date, leather painting elements have made their way into daily items, including cushions, place mats, belts, brooches, earrings, wallets and phone cases, as well as bags and shoes.

This has enabled more people to understand and appreciate the beauty of leather painting.

His endeavors have also won recognition and support from the authorities.

Since 2016, Jia's art business has received subsidiaries from the China National Arts Fund, as well as the Ministry of Culture and Tourism on multiple occasions.

It has encouraged him to lead a group of local artists to deliver multiple large-scale pieces, including those depicting the prosperity of the prairie area and distinctive folk dances that were chosen as gifts in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of autonomous region in 2017.

Jia works on a leather carving featuring intangible cultural heritage elements along the Yellow River. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Under his leadership, many locals have picked up and upgraded their leather painting skills.

Guo Xiulian, 45, became one of Jia's apprentices after finishing costume design studies at the Inner Mongolia University of Technology.

"Even though I have an art background, drawing on cowhide is different from drawing on paper," Guo says.

"At first, I felt it very difficult because not only are the drawing steps different, but the leather art does not allow for mistakes. It must be done correctly the first time, as errors cannot be corrected," she adds.

It took her more than two months just to get the hang of drawing on cowhide.

However, little did she realize it would take her more than 10 times as long to get the hide carving down to a fine art.

She started with making lines before moving on to engraving patterns.

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"It was the most difficult part, everything was so tedious … my shoulders ached and my hands trembled so much I could barely hold the tools," she recalls.

Fortunately, she gritted her way through and became a master of the art after more than 20 years of practice and innovations.

In March, Jia's leather painting facility was named by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism as a national demonstration site for the production-based protection of intangible cultural heritage items during the 2023-25 period.

To date, Jia has set up a leather painting museum at the Monishan town, a national intangible cultural heritage and tourist attraction site in Hohhot.

"We received more than 500,000 visits last year and expect to see 700,000-800,000 this year," Jia says.

He is now working on a series of leather painting pieces that present vivid stories of cultural exchange in various provinces on the ancient tea road.

"I hope more people will see the charm of leather painting through these historical expressions and savor the charm of Inner Mongolia's cultural elements," Jia says.

Yuan Hui contributed to this story.

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