40-Plus Years after Their First Collaboration, a New “Water Lily” Series from the Zhou Brothers

In 1973, Da Huang Zhou and Shan Zuo Zhou—the Zhou Brothers—created their first work together. It was a relatively simple work, and a symbolic one: The Wave (1973), an oil-on-canvas seascape, depicts a sailboat drifting away on ocean waves. It marked the beginning of a journey, destination unknown. From that point on, for the next 40-plus years, the Zhou Brothers created a wide range of paintings, prints, sculptures, and performance art pieces. In 1986, they relocated their practice to Chicago, ultimately opening their own gallery in 2004. That space, Zhou B Art Center, now offers “The Water Lily Pond of Life,” an exhibition highlighting the duo’s new painting series.
Longtime fans of this Chinese contemporary artist duo will recognize the water lily theme from an earlier era in the artists’ oeuvre. In 1978, near the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, the Zhou Brothers created their first “Water Lily” series, a collection of 100 paintings that fused two styles—Eastern technique and Western-style modernist abstraction—and the practices of oil and watercolor painting.​

In the years that followed, that exploration and reinterpretation of Eastern and Western traditions became a hallmark of the Zhou Brothers’ practice. The duo started touring the world, exhibiting, teaching, and speaking at museums and academies across Europe, espousing their adopted philosophy: “Feelingism,” a concept the artists translate as “Feeling is Liberty.” It’s a simple notion, but a revolutionary one, particularly for artists who lived through the Cultural Revolution.
Decades later, their new Chicago show is less concerned with the East–West dichotomy—a subject they’ve examined in past series—but still engaged with water lilies and the “Feeling is Liberty” philosophy that has long guided their practice. In fact, their new Chicago show is more than a singular exhibition; it’s a bridge between the past and present.

If the Zhou Brothers have proven anything, it’s that there’s promise in the future. Fittingly, the Chicago exhibition comes on the heels of an announcement that the Zhou Brothers have broken ground on a new Zhou B Art Center in Beijing—a satisfying, full-circle return for these ambitious, endlessly creative collaborators.