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ArtNüStories

How women artists are navigating China’s complex feminist landscape

BY LUISE GUEST

The “F Word” – feminism, that is – can take you into risky territory in China. I first confronted this ten years ago in my research for a book about women artists

During my research back then, I was guilty of assuming false equivalences between our experiences as women. On one occasion, the interpreter I had hired refused to translate the word feminism, insisting there was no corresponding Chinese term. Even then, when my Chinese language skills were still very limited, I knew that was ridiculous. I asked another artist if she deliberately chose to work with textiles in order to allude to the domestic labour of women. She stared at me and said flatly: “No. It’s just that I am really good at embroidery, that’s all.” Several artists I spoke to also insisted there was no such thing as feminism in China – that it was an irrelevant western import. I began to understand that I could not assume shared understandings about gender.  

Yet feminism has a long history in China. We can find plenty of extraordinary, bad-ass women in the distant past, but perhaps the best-known is late Qing Dynasty feminist and cross-dressing revolutionary martyr Qiu Jin (1875 – 1907). Her advocacy of dynastic overthrow – and female emancipation – resulted in her execution in 1907. In that same year, anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen (c. 1884 – c. 1920published her biting denunciations of patriarchal Confucian gender normsfirst translated into English in 2013 – “On the Liberation of Women” and “The Revenge of Women.”

Liu Xi, Low to Earth, 2018, overall dimensional variable, stoneware, raw clay, Photo: Eric Set © Gaya Ceramic Arts Center, Bali. Photo credit: Liu Xi.

In the early twentieth century, resolute xin nüxing or “new women” fought for female suffrage and the right to an education. After 1949, gender equality was the explicit policy of the Chinese state: female comrades were called to hold up “half the sky,” and in 1965 Mao Zedong told a group of students: “The times have changed, men and women are the same.” This, of course, did not prevent women from having to shoulder the double load of domestic labour and family responsibilities. 

Today, a confluence of influences and theoretical positions is giving rise to new Chinese-specific feminismswith determined young activists encountering authoritarian repression and surveillance. Recently, a number of young artists have explored gender identity in their work, including aspects of non-binary gender and the possibilities of the post-human. Others, such as Shanghai-based ceramicist Liu Xi, whose strong feminist stance underpins her sometimes transgressive sculptural practice, have explicitly examined female sexuality in ways which would have been unthinkable in the past.

Yet traditionally, many women artists in China have often preferred to examine themes of gender in subtly coded ways. My conversations with women artists in the past decade have revealed complex reasons for their ambivalence; In part, this is because of their memories of state-sponsored feminism, in part because of understandable resistance to being labelled and limited by their gender, and in part also to the real risks of being associated with a feminist movement. How, then, do artists navigate this difficult terrain? 

Yu Hong 喻红

Yu Hong, Witness to Growth, Work, 41 Years Old, photograph and oil on canvas triptych, 100 x 274 cm. Photo credit: Yu Hong.

Many women artists explore the dissonance between private and public selves – an unsurprising theme in a society emerging from collectivism. Yu for example, oscillatebetween ambitious, multi-figured canvases exploring social issues, and paintings focused on herself and her family. She examines the experience of the individual in a transforming Chinese societyher own life, her family, and her female friends have formed the core of her work.

A series entitled “Witness to Growth” that documents her life since the birth of her daughter in 1994 juxtaposes official news photographs with moments in her own and her daughter’s lives. Another, “Half Hundred Mirrors,” reflects on her life from the vantage point of turning 50: with insights on her childhood during the Cultural Revolution, her life as a young artist, her marriage to fellow painter Liu Xiaodong, and her relationship with her daughter.  

Female subjects have dominated her work.SHE –  Performance Artist” (2005) depicts fellow artist and former classmate Xiao Lu, whose notoriety after firing a pistol into her own installation at the 1989 China/Avant-garde exhibition continues to resonate, even today. Yu’s melancholy image juxtaposes multiple photographs of Xiao raising a gun with the solitary figure of the artist in her bedroom. It suggests Xiao’s life has been overshadowed by her youthful, spontaneously rebellious action. 

Cui Xiuwen 崔岫闻

Cui Xiuwen, Angel No. 11, 2006, C-print, 119.5 x 100 cm. Courtesy of Eli Klein Gallery ©. Photo Credit: Cui Xiuwen.

Cui Xiuwen – who died much too young at 51 in 2018 – was one of very few Chinese women artists overtly aligning herself with a feminist viewpoint. She established the Sairen Gongzuoshi or Sirens Studioan independent studio founded by four female artists. Her important video work, “Ladies Room” (2000), shot with a concealed camera to document the mundane activities and conversations of sex workers in the toilets of a Beijing nightclub, revealed women in private moments removed from the objectifying gaze of their clients.

Later works such as the One Day in 2004 and Angels series featured models who represent the artist herself. Sometimes bruised or visibly wounded, they are often asleep, or sleepwalking through the city. The vulnerable bodies of young women, unaware of our gaze, are placed within the imposing architecture of the Forbidden City, representing the authority of the patriarchal state. Cui’s allegories juxtapose a claustrophobic sense of implacable gendered power structures with traumatic childhood memories. 

Liu Xi 柳溪

Liu Xi, Our God is Great, (2018-2019) porcelain, 52 pieces, dimensions variable. Photo credit: Liu Xi.

Like Cui, Shanghai-based sculptor and ceramicist Liu Xi explicitly acknowledges the influence of feminism in works such as “Our God is Great,” an installation of 52 porcelain vaginas, coloured black with the application of Chinese ink. Liu challenges long-established taboos by explicitly representing female genitalia and sexuality in works that recall the vulval imagery of 1970s feminist art such as Judy Chicago’s famous “Dinner Party.”

Liu was born into a family that expressed deep disappointment at the arrival of another girl; she told me she was made to feel that she had little value. Her work is in some senses a catharsis – as she manipulates the malleable clay into organic forms, she is controlling a complex process that requires patience and exacting knowledge. Porcelain is fragile yet also endures for thousands of years – a suitable metaphor for the strength and resilience of women.

Bu Hua 卜桦 

Bu Hua, Brave Diligent, 2014, silk wall carpet, 200 x 300 cm. Photo Credit: Bu Hua.

Painter, printmaker and digital animation pioneer Bu Hua similarly refers to childhood memories in her artwork. Her nostalgia for more innocent times is mixed with a sense of foreboding. Bu created a character, a feisty young schoolgirl, as a courageous alter ego. Wearing her school uniform and the red scarf of the Young Pioneers, this xiao nühai fights monsters in fantastical landscapes filled with real and imaginary beasts, giant birds, reptiles and insects. Her heroine is brave and defiant. In Beijing dialect, she is sami – a “girl with swagger,” Bu told me.

But beyond dense foliage and curling clouds, dystopic city skylines are dominated by ominously smoking factory chimneys; it is China’s continuing environmental failures that most worry the artist. Intentionally juxtaposing a “cute” aesthetic, and references to the beauty of Chinese gardenswith symbols of social decay and looming catastrophe, Bu suggests that women and girls are empowered to battle contemporary demons.

Dong Yuan 董媛

Dong Yuan too, is focused on her own past and family relationships. An installation of more than 500 separate paintings maps her memories of the place where she found happiness and solace during childhood. One piece, “Grandmother’s House” (2013) reveals the rich imaginary of memories and fantasy that lies beneath the everyday. In this homage to a beloved matriarch, Dong records a way of life that now seems fragile and ephemeral. 

The work of each of these artists emerges from significant life experiences – of complex familial power structures, childhood memories, sexuality, fertility and infertility, birth, motherhood, female friendship – but also from their exhausting interactions with a stillpatriarchal art world. They reveal hidden histories and speak to female subjectivities. Through a lens of gender, their work may clearly be understood as underpinned by a feminist intention, whether explicitly claimed or not. 

About the author

Luise Guest is an independent writer and researcher based in Sydney. Since 2010 her writing about Chinese art has been published in print and online journals including Yishu, The Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art, Art Monthly Australasia, Artist Profile, Ran Dian, and The Art Life. Her first book, “Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China”, was published in 2016 by Piper Press, and she wrote the text for “99 Chinese Artists” for the White Rabbit Collection (2019). Currently a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales, her research examines Chinese women artists who subvert the conventions of ink painting. Visit her website: http://luiseguest.weebly.com/

About the editor

Jessie Lau is a journalist, researcher and artist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics—with a focus on China and other parts of Asia. Her work has been published by The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Channel 4 News, The Nation and The Economist, among others. She serves as a Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a Hong Kong and China reporter with the South China Morning Post. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie