Growing up in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, the artist known as Xiyadie began making paper cuts because of the women in his village. “My mother is an expert at paper-cutting flowers,” he told me recently over WeChat, writing in Mandarin. “My mother trained me, but I actually learned more about the art of paper cutting from my grandmother’s generation.” He was around 16 years old when he first took scissors to fine Xuan paper, developing his skills by depicting auspicious sayings and folk-art motifs.
Now 59, Xiyadie is gaining international recognition for his cut-paper art, which has come to look immensely different from traditional forms intended to adorn windows. His works record his experiences as a gay man in China, often showing intimate, candid encounters with lovers that are set within vivid environments teeming with plants and animals. Occupying delicate sheets as large as nearly 5-feet-square, the dense but harmonious scenes demonstrate how Xiyadie has harnessed traditional skills to his own purposes. Many are brightened with water-based dyes and Chinese pigments that are enticingly flamboyant as cake icing.
“He has this incredible technical dexterity,” Rosario Güiraldes, associate curator at New York’s Drawing Center, said. “And also this incredible way of subverting and estranging this ancient art form.”
The Drawing Center is currently hosting Xiyadie’s first institutional exhibition in the US, which functions as a kind of mini-survey. Titled “Queer Cut Utopias”—a nod to the scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of queer utopias—it examines four decades of Xiyadie’s practice, featuring works from 1982 to 2021 spread across two floors of the gallery. The show, along with a documentary about Xiyadie by Anna Sophie Loewenberg and catalogue essays by Güiraldes, Hera Chan, and Alvin Li, distances Xiyadie from the trope of the inscrutable and isolated outsider artist.
Xiyadie’s biography might otherwise be easily fetishized, as is the case of many artists who have no formal art-school training. The artist, who is based in Shandong province, has rarely exhibited his works, in part because showing images of queer love in his home country risks government censorship. But he also made art covertly for years, for his eyes only, to express himself while hiding his identity from his wife and children.
The large-scale work Gate (1992) alludes to his double life and its tensions. It shows the cross-section of a house, where, inside, beneath a blanket of flowers, a woman nuzzles a child; just beyond a door that appears to be ajar, a man performs oral sex on another man, their bodies sprouting plants whose vines climb toward the roof. In Sewn (1999), a man confined by walls sits on a sword’s edge, sewing up his penis while gazing at a portrait of another man. Such works convey the artist’s “fractured sense of self, or even the guilt that I think Xiyadie had for many years,” Güiraldes said. “He really did feel like something was wrong with him.”
Xiyadie is open about this past, sharing how his misery and helplessness led him to undergo evaluation at a hospital. “This confirmed that I am gay,” he said. “Everything I went through proves that homosexuality is a natural phenomenon that cannot be changed. After this, I know who I am and became confident.”
Creating his art is a liberating experience. “With scissors in my hand,” Xiyadie added, “I immersed myself freely in my ideal world. I feel free and in harmony, expressing the highest sentiment in my heart.”
Born in 1963 into a large farming family, Xiyadie has “beautiful memories of the spring” from time spent in his grandfather’s garden—which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, due to the Communist regime’s forced redistribution of rural land. He knew he liked men from a young age, but it was only in the 1980s, when he moved to Xi’an for work, that he began making art about his desires. He married a woman, and they had two children.
In 2005, seeking better opportunities to support his family, he relocated to Beijing, joining the swelling class of migrant workers moving to cities. In the capital, he discovered a new freedom as he began frequenting cruising spots like parks and bathhouses. He also gave himself a new pseudonym to protect his identity that means “Siberian Butterfly”—embodying his hope for surviving and living without restraint amid harsh conditions.
Beijing is also where Xiyadie first exhibited his works. He met the independent curator Yang Zi and the editor of Gayspot magazine, Zhao Ke, who convinced Xiyadie to show his cuttings at the Beijing LGBT Center in 2010. “For the first time,” Xiyadie said, “I felt very lucky to be in Beijing.”
But the exhibition, which included works by other queer artists, was censored by law enforcement. “Many artists’ works were taken away by the police, but mine remained,” he said. With a “haha,” he added, “The police mentioned that the paper cutting was very good. In fact, I don’t think they fully understood my work.”
In China, paper cutting is highly esteemed and widely seen. The medium, which has been named a form of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, is “such a legible vernacular art form in China, there’s this sort of instant recognition of it,” according to Güiraldes.
The nature of the medium, where cuts through one sheet of paper result in interconnected lines, also tends toward complex positive and negative shapes that can take time to parse. In Xiyadie’s paper cuts, dynamic human figures are wholly entwined with plant life and ornate architectural motifs: tendrils sprout from toes, extending into blossom-filled trees; hair doubles as fecund soil from which flowers grow, their contours becoming those of fruit, birds, goats, roofs, the moon.
This living environment indicates “a harmony that is ecological,” Hera Chan writes in her catalog essay. “It naturalizes queer love into built structures and further encapsulates all that into nature. These are images that show the unity of all lifeforms flourishing, deeply embedded with each other, an antidote to environmental extraction.”
Many of Xiyadie’s earlier works, in particular, exist in their own blissful, verdant worlds. In Flowerpot (1991), two men have sex at the center of a flowerpot, their limbs evoking roots and their heads, seeming to radiate with light, amid flowers and birds. The image is of seclusion and freedom.
“I am trying to search for a free and harmonious way to live,” Xiyadie told me. “In my dream world, there is a simple house at the foot of a large mountain with endless pine trees. In front of the house, there is a tiny stream with flowing water that you can see through to the bottom, where little fish swim languidly and freely.”
Every scene is based on Xiyadie’s own real experiences. As he started showing his art, he seemed to increasingly situate acts of love in more specific locations. Gate (Tiananmen), 2016, is an unabashed depiction of two men openly embracing at Tiananmen Square, the site where a government massacre had taken place 27 years earlier.
There’s a voyeuristic aspect to it all—a fact underlined by a 2018 domestic scene in which a man appears to lust after his electrician under the indifferent eye of a cat. Xiyadie put it simply: “It is a record of nature and man.”
The Drawing Center exhibition’s largest and most recent work—measuring 4 ½ by nearly 10 feet—demonstrates this sentiment with full force. Titled Kaiyang (2021), it brims with dozens of figures of all scales performing sexual acts in gardens, outside temples, in a bathhouse. The panorama stands out for how it acknowledges Xiyadie’s own desires while situating himself within a broader community he is gradually coming to know.
Near the end of our conversation, he told me about an unforgettable experience he had while exhibiting in Sweden a decade ago. A man and his boyfriend were looking at his art and holding each other, weeping. “Seeing that brought tears to my eyes,” Xiyadie says. “I am moved and feel alive by this response. Through my work they have come to understand nature, including understanding and accepting my natural state!
“I am liberated, and I finally live to understand what and where I want to belong in my life. Truly, this is my motivation.”