Is contemporary art in China still a man’s world?
24 mar 2014 by Kirsi Hyotyla
"Is contemporary art in China still a man’s world?" is Kirsi Hyotyla's first feature of the series Notes from China, which will expand on the state of contemporary art in China with posts including interviews with Chinese artists and coverage of art exhibitions in China.
Contemporary art in China began to be recognised after 1979 when the inaugural of China empowered artists to create a conceptual space for their work. Women however, were at the time largely nonexistent in the scene. “I know that there were some female artists actively working in the eighties and nineties, such as Li Shan from the Wuming Group, and Xiao Lu who participated in the 1989 contemporary art exhibition at the Beijing National Museum, but they were quickly oppressed due to political incorrectness. These female artists were oppressed due the same reasons as the male artists at the time,” Sui Fong, born in the 1980s, recalls.
Sui Fong is an art graduate from the Chinese University in Hong Kong, who has a few close female friends who work as full-time artists. According to her, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) holds a good proportion of female students graduating each year. “I think that the conditions are relatively fair for women to study art and to turn art into their career. I think that it is old fashioned to focus on male or female physicality, biological issues or male domination in the field of arts. Although the class in which my sister is currently studying art has twenty male and five female students, the status of female artists is vivid.”
Art students of the art institutions in China have received the same art education since the 1980s regardless of their gender, even at the academic levels. During the 1990s, more research on literature and art in China with a specific focus on gender came about, thus leading to a fresh concept of ‘women’s art’ and the appreciation of artistic expression outlining gender distinctions.
Beijing-based Yuanyuan Yang, a Chinese female artist and an art-editor born in the late 1980s, shares her point of view on gender in contemporary Chinese art: “My cultural background plays a very crucial role in my own artistic practice, including my Chinese identity, Chinese personal and collective memory as well as the now and the past of Beijing. I would never want to overemphasise my gender; on the other hand, I am highly interested in the paradoxical sexualities of any individual, the masculinity of a female figure; or the femininity of a male figure.”
Chinese artist Yuanyuan Yang, Self-portrait, 2012, mixed media.
Image courtesy of the artist.
Contemporary art by women in China is not confined to women’s issues such as marriage and childbearing. Women are still encouraged to have focus on their family and home, not to run after to pursue a personal dream. Is the lack of women’s art in China mere a lack of Chinese women’s identity? Considerable amount of the contemporary art at present is about addressing personal histories and bringing them into the present-day, and about exploring that present-day and how women exist in it. Since the 1990s word about western art made by women has unceasingly flown into China and a substantial number of works of Chinese female artists have traces of mimicking Western art.
Chinese artist Zhu Yu, From Desire to Desire, 2012, video installation.
Image courtesy of Kirsi Hyötylä.
“I have been impressed by Leung Mee-Ping’s work. She would spend years on a project to document contemporary issues using for instance human hair and children’s clothes in the artwork. Maybe the themes or the materials she uses are more on the feminine or female side,” says Sui Fong. When asked about women artists succeeding in the current art scene in China she replies: “Personally I think that to succeed means to be talented, perseverant, and to be able to market oneself. Men may be stronger in perseverance by nature and more rational but as the art scene in China is becoming evermore mixed with different cultures I believe that women will emerge through the changing cultural norms.”
Xiao Lu, 2011. Image courtesy of Hong Kong University Press.
The contemporary art museums and commercial galleries created to display contemporary art in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, seldom give women solo shows. Is this a matter of the age-old doctrine that the right to talk about art in China is mainly controlled by male? Is contemporary art in China still a man’s world?
“I have seen several solo shows of female artists in China, latest one in autumn of 2013. They have all been more in the style of Art Deco or landscape painting without much concept,” shares Jacqueline Liu, a gallery assistant, in Beijing. ”That has a lot to do with Chinese traditional culture and education. When the society allows women to think more freely we will possibly have more contemporary female artists. The Chinese society is still very traditional and only beginning to appreciate contemporary art now. In the past year, seven out of ten openings our gallery had were actually exhibiting work by female artists.”
Chinese artist Zhu Yu, From Desire to Desire, 2012, (broken glass, led lighting, pieces of mirror, pig feet and chicken claws, line / thread). Image courtesy of the artist.
“Male artists have been dominating the art markets in general and not only in China. I think that there is in fact more female artists than male artists in Chinese art world nowadays, especially among the artists of the younger generation,” contemplates Yang. “I guess I have always understood myself more as a human being instead of making a strong distinction between being a female or being a male. In my opinion, male and female artists play equal roles in China. I am sure there will be more young people involving themselves in the creative industries; however, contemporary art has only existed in China for a short period of time. What I hope is to have more art institutes, bookstores and galleries appearing in our contemporary scene.”
Yin Xiuzhen at MoMA, New York (2010).
Image courtesy of Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images North America.