Speech Acts- Li Yuan Chia // Iona

For our third installment of the series of Speech Acts blog posts; highlighting information from the BBC4 documentary Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain's Hidden Art History, this week we explore the artist profile of Li Yuan Chia.

Untitled  (1993)   Li Yuan Chia

Untitled (1993) Li Yuan Chia

Li established the LYC museum in Cumbria, to which Speech Acts pays tribute within the Clore Art Studio activites and within Gallery 12 itself, which features a recreated LYC space, complete with the logo lettering.

Speech Acts  exhibition Gallery 12

Speech Acts exhibition Gallery 12

Speech Acts  exhibition Gallery 12

Speech Acts exhibition Gallery 12

Li was bold and progressive in his career, creating work and establishing a new art scene in the unsuspecting Cumbrian hills. The LYC Foundation describes him:

“Li had a unique vision, a kind of spiritual vision of space, which represented a fusion of the open field of 20th century Western abstract art with the Chinese tradition of summing up all phenomena in a system of simple signs. Words were among these signs; Li incorporated words in his visual art, and also wrote poems. He evolved what he called the ‘cosmic point’, a visual element, sometimes as small as a tiny dot, which defines or stimulates the void. After working in painting, sculpture and installation modes, Li developed photography in a highly personal way.”- LYC Foundation 2016

Yuan Chia was originally from China. He was an established and respected artist in the late 1960s and swapped London for Cumbria to pursue his dreams of creating a groundbreaking museum; bringing new avant garde art out of the metropolis and into the rural communities. The LYC went on to exhibit internationally renowned artists including Barbara Hepworth and Lidya Clarke, but also gave equal value to the work of the local community. His interactive magnetic disk sculptures were an early example of kinetic art, where children were encouraged to interact with art in sensory and holistic ways; almost unheard of at the time.

Despite his trailblazing career, Yuan Chia has been almost entirely forgotten by the art world. In the documentary, he is presented as one of Sonia Boyce’s personal heroes, as she visits the remains of the LYC, and responds with great emotional to the remote, isolated and decayed old building.

LYC Gallery present day © Art Stack

LYC Gallery present day © Art Stack

“He’s not really been championed for all the work that he’s done, he was really cutting edge”- Boyce.

Li Yuan Chia outside the LYC Museum in Cumbria ©LYC Foundation

Li Yuan Chia outside the LYC Museum in Cumbria ©LYC Foundation

Li single handedly built extensions to the museum and hand-made every detail, which made him popular with the local people and less so with the planning authorities.The remains of LYC have been left empty for decades, however the iconic hand-made sign still blazes through the overgrown, ivy coated windows.

LYC window ©LYC Foundation

LYC window ©LYC Foundation

Li Yuan Chia’s personal archive is kept at the John Ryland’s Library in Manchester, catalogued by Melanie Keen. In the documentary, Keen explains that he accomplished all the things he set out to do, which were primarily working with the local community and their children, whilst producing exhibitions. This was all achieved through grit and determination, without any support from the district council.


“He felt victimised for only wanting to do something good”- Keen.


The council had taken him to court for extending his home and museum. “He would’ve come to prominence more had there been … if the artworld had been more receptive to artists who came from elsewhere”- Keen.

Li died in 1994 and almost completely forgotten by the London Art world, even though his ideas were becoming more popular.

Image courtesy of ©LYC Foundation

Image courtesy of ©LYC Foundation

Li has since been re-discovered on the burgeoning Asian art market, often called “the father of Chinese abstraction”.