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Refugee Artist's Work Recognised Worldwide

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
11 Mar 2015

One of two portraits of Cardinal George Pell painted by Shen Jiawei seen here with longtime friend and art lover Byron Hurst

Former refugee from China, Shen Jiawei, once sketched portraits for tourists in Sydney just to make ends meet.

Today his portraits include some of the most recognisable faces and hang in galleries and institutions around Australia and even the Vatican.

Clients and art curators are always amazed at his life-like interpretations. A recent example is his portrait of Cardinal Pell, former Archbishop of Sydney featured here in a photograph taken by Jiawei's long-time friend, teacher and gallery trustee Byron Hurst

The self-taught artist and now Bundeena-based  Jiawei has created not one, but two outstanding portraits of Cardinal Pell. The larger of these went on show in Melbourne last month at the Portrait Artists Australia Exhibition in Melbourne last month and has also been shown at the Royal Art Society of Victoria's most recent exhibition. There are also plans for the painting to be exhibited in Sydney later in the year. But not before the second, and most important of the two portraits of the Cardinal, is unveiled later this month.

Shen Jiawei (left) with his portrait of Pope Francis and Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove and ACU Vice Chancellor Greg Craven (right)

Commissioned by the Australian Catholic University (ACU), the ceremony planned for the unveiling will not only include Jiawei's portrait of Cardinal Pell, but two other important portraits by the artist commissioned by the university. One of these being the former ACU Chancellor and now Governor General of Australia, His Excellency the Honorable Sir Peter Cosgrove and the other by Jiawei is a portrait of ACU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Greg Craven.

The date for the unveiling ceremony of the three artworks has not yet been finalised but promises to be a gala occasion attended by the Governor General, Lady Cosgrove, ACU's Chancellor the Honorable John Fahey AC, Vice Chancellor Craven along with senior faculty and staff.

Artist Jiawei will also be there as will his friend and mentor, Byron Hurst.

Byron is the Visual Arts Teacher at De la Salle Catholic College, Cronulla, curator in Sydney's annual Clancy Art Prize and the Chair of the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Art Centre at Gymea where Jiawei's work has frequently been exhibited.

Jiawei Shen's painting of Mary Mackillop to mark her Beatification in 1995 changed his life and his fortunes

Not only has he known the artist for many years but Byron was one of the key people involved with the commissioning of Jiawei's portrait of Pope Francis which was presented to the Holy Father in April last year on behalf of the Australia's Catholics.

The portrait of the Pope which hangs in a villa in the Vatican gardens that houses the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is the result of a series of chance meetings.

In Rome in 2013 to further his art studies after completing the Path of Peter Pilgrimage through the Holy Land organised by Harvest Pilgrimages and the Archdiocese of Sydney's Catholic Education Office, Byron attended an Anzac Day Memorial Service at Rome's Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

"Before leaving on the trip I had been given cards, medals and a fair bit of material by students to be blessed by the Holy Father once I reached Rome. So I asked John McCarthy, the Australian Ambassador to the Vatican if he could help organise this," he says.

The Ambassador was happy to assist and when Byron went to the Embassy to pick up the cards and medals, the Ambassador invited him for afternoon tea. It was while having tea that Byron noticed a print on the wall of a painting of Mary MacKillop inside a Cobb & Co coach. He recognised it immediately as one painted by Jiawei which had won the $25,000 competition organised by the NSW Government and the Church to mark the beatification of Australia's first saint in 1995.

Byron said he knew the artist, which was when the Ambassador came up with the idea of commissioning a portrait of Pope Francis by an Australian painter as an ideal way to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Australian Embassy at the Holy See in 2014 which was also the 100th year since the first appointment of a Papal Nuncio to Australia.

Jiawei was the perfect choice.

Cardinal George Pell follows Pope Francis into the ceremony where the Holy Father saw the portrait painted of him by Jiawei Shen for the first time

"Not only is Jiawei a superb portraitist, he is also a painter of history. For him history is extremely important after growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution when Mao and the Red Guard destroyed so much of his nation's history," Byron says.

Co-opted by the Red Guard during this turbulent time, the talented Jiawei was forced into service and became one of China's most celebrated propaganda artists with huge scale paintings glorifying workers, soldiers, farmers and Mao's revolutionaries. But the downfall of the notorious Gang of Four brought in another purge and Jiawei was forced to flee, arriving in Australia in 1989 with just $45 in his pocket.

To make ends meet he sketched portraits of tourists in Darling Harbour. This earned him enough to pay for English lessons and a one-room rental but little else. But the competition to mark the beatification of Mary MacKillop in 1995 changed all that. He not only gained recognition but began receiving widespread attention and increasingly important commissions.

His paintings hang in the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection and include his painting of Australian-born Princess Mary of Denmark while his portrait of former Prime Minister John Howard is a permanent fixture in the Members Hall of Parliament House.

But from the time he painted Mary MacKillop in 1995 to last year's portrait of Pope Francis, Jiawei has had a close connection with the Catholic community as well as an ongoing friendship Cardinal George Pell.

Artist Jiawei Shen's with Pope Francis in front of the portrait he painted of the Holy Father

"His Eminence not only stored the finished portrait of Pope Francis at Cathedral House until all the complicated paperwork and red tape for its importation into Italy and the Vatican could be finalised, but I am sure he was instrumental in obtaining permission from the Holy Father for the portrait to be painted," Byron says.

During the several weeks the painting was in Cathedral House, Cardinal Pell was able to show the work to both the then Chancellor of ACU, Sir Peter Cosgrove and Vice Chancellor, Professor Greg Craven.

A short time later Cardinal Pell was appointed to Rome, Sir Peter Cosgrove named as Australia's 26th  Governor General and ACU commissioned Jiawei to paint portraits of both men as well as that of the university's Vice Chancellor.

Jiawei and Byron Hurst, as well as Cardinal Pell and Ambassador McCarthy attended the ceremony at the Vatican in April last year when Pope Francis was presented with his portrait on behalf of Australia's Catholics. It was during this time that Cardinal Pell sat for his own portrait with Jiawei choosing the St John Tower in the Vatican Gardens with St Peter's in the background as the ideal location as the ideal backdrop.

Photography by Byron Hurst