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Art Through a Woman's Eyes
Women artists have turned out to be active painters of a colourful "half sky" in today's China, contributing to the vibrant contemporary Chinese art scene in their own special way.

Increasingly becoming aware of what "feminism" means, they look into the world they are living in from perspectives that were unimaginable for older generations of Chinese women artists. Believing they should have the same rights and chances as men, today's Chinese women artists are working hard to express themselves, observe society, and, hopefully, break the long-assumed mythology that "there have been no great women artists."

"Since the 1990s, Chinese women artists have distinguished themselves with their unique perspectives that are also different from their male counterparts. They have begun to rediscover the value of their own genre in their art practice," said Jia Fangzhou, an art critic now living in Beijing. He was one of the major organizers of an influential national exhibition in 1998 that featured Chinese feminist art in the 20th century.

"As a result, there have been more diverse concepts and methods in their works of art, although we can still detect the common nature of art by women," Jia said. "That's far different from the stereotyped feminine style in the works of traditional women artists in the past."

The old days

Just as Linda Nochlin, a US feminist art historian, explained in her famous article "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971), the unfair attitude of society to men and women should largely be blamed.

The situation was also true in China in the thousands of years before the founding of New China in 1949 when women began to enjoy unprecedented equality with men. In ancient China, the pleasure of practising art was primarily a privilege of men and most of the important artists were men.

In an article published in a recent issue of the Beijing-based magazine Literature & Art Studies, art critic Liao Wen pointed out that, for many centuries, there have been few historical records of Chinese women artists. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a woman scholar named Tang Shuyu began to collect and record the names and information of about 200 "women who were able to paint" in ancient Chinese history.

"A majority of them were fair ladies born to wealthy families. The rest were primarily prostitutes," Liao noted. "Painting was no more than a skill to kill time or a means of entertaining men. Still, under the pressure in a male-dominated society, the women often had to hide their artistic talents to live up to the so-called 'virtues,' which further constrained their chances to become good artists."

According to Liao, the art of these women was also judged by male-dominated standards. A work by a woman was regarded as good only when it "reflected the feminine nature of a woman in a man's eye," or, it "looked almost like a work by a man," she explained.

Such standards continue to influence today's art scene in China, added Liao, who is author of the book Feminist Art: Feminism as Method (1999), published by the Jilin Fine Arts Publishing House.

Although women have enjoyed equal social status in New China and women artists have become more and more active in almost every aspect of modern Chinese art, there were not any major breakthroughs in artistic concepts, methods and judgements until the 1990s, according to Liao.

"Their artistic concepts are not much different from ancient women who were able to paint. Most of the women artists keep on painting subjects such as women, children, flowers and landscapes. They do not have a distinctive feminist awareness and a deep concern for the living conditions of women in contemporary society.

"Although some of them tried to apply 'varied' techniques in their work, they were unable to break away from the traditional modes and few of them experimented with methods of Western modern art like many male artists of their time. Few of the Chinese artists active in the modern art movements of the 1980s were women," Liao continued. "The judgements of their art works remained male-dominated and generalized. Too much emphasis was given to the feminine characteristics in their works."

New perspectives

Woman painter Zhou Sicong (1939-96) was probably one of the earliest contemporary women artists who consciously expressed her deep concern for and doubt about the fate of Chinese women from an apparently feminist perspective.

In her famous ink painting "Yi Women," which was painted in the 1980s, the artist portrayed two women of the Yi ethnic group taking pains to carry heavy bunches of firewood on their backs. In many of Zhou's other paintings of women, the figures often bear heavy burdens on their backs.

"I always feel that women are too tired, without any rest," Zhou herself once explained.

This kind of self-consciousness and sympathy have been given fuller expression in the works of some Chinese women artists active since the 1990s, when more women artists have had an increasingly strong awareness of the "I" (or "self") in their art practice.

In her article "My Feeling, My Body, My Way - Defining Feminist Art of the 1990s," which was also published in the same issue of Literature & Art Studies, Xu Hong, a researcher and artist from the China National Art Museum, examined the latest trends in the artistic creation of contemporary Chinese women artists.

Going further from older generations of artists such as Zhou Sicong, she said, artists Feng Jiali, Jiang Jie and Chen Haiyan use their art works to disclose the fate of women and to reflect the thinking and feelings of women.

In Feng's oil paintings, women with heavy make-up and shiny clothes open their eyes wide, with a strong expression of being lost in a rapidly transforming Chinese society threatened by increasing commercialization. Jiang's plastic sculptures of abandoned baby girls, however, provoke thoughts over the worrying prejudice and discrimination of women that is still a social problem in China, especially in remote rural areas.

Some other women artists, however, are more inclined to expressing their individual experience in more intimate, personal manners.

Lu Qing, a graduate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, is noticeable for her rebellious stance by breaking away from her former training in oil painting and turning to using her own body as the subject of her conceptual photography. Li Xiuqing's installation work "Gate of Life" uses three rough, scarred woods to build a gate-like structure, reminding viewers of the great pain inflicted on women's bodies and souls in sexual life and in giving birth, while commending the women's perseverance and great contributions to the proliferation of life.

Still other artists have boldly used the traditional materials and skills that are typical of women as resources and inspirations for their own artistic creation. Their work, in a way, injected new life into traditional things that were often disregarded as trivial or "womanly" in a male-dominated society and prompt people to reconsider the value of being a woman and being "womanly."

Shi Hui, a professor at the Hangzhou-based China National Academy of Fine Arts, is widely recognized for her unusual installation works that use the skills of weaving materials such as threads, cotton, and paper. Her famous work "Netting," which was featured in the 2000 Shanghai Biennale, amazed visitors with the enormous and mysterious spiritual world she weaved with her own hands, just like a silkworm weaving a home of its own.

"Such works are no longer the work of an artisan or a work in the traditional sense. They are rather evidence of contemporary Chinese women artists' efforts to find new meaning and beauty in traditional and folk resources," remarked Xu Hong.

Controversies remain

In spite of the apparent changes in Chinese women artists' works, art critic Jia Fangzhou said:

"Women artists seem to pay little attention to things outside their personal and family life. They are more concerned about digging into their inner vision and finding inspiration from personal experience and physical language. They seldom touch a theme and a subject matter from the perspective of rational analysis. They are more interested in the emotional and intuitional aspects of art and many of their works come from child-like imaginations.

"Not many of them are interested in politics, history and philosophy. They are more concerned about subjects related to nature, life, human instincts and even living conditions. And they generally lack interest in men's world and they seldom use men as the subject matter in their art works, which is very different from male artists who would be more likely to portray women."

Liao also criticized the fact that many Chinese women artists today are still influenced by the values expected in a male-dominated society from their art.

"The mainstream of art by Chinese women artists is not much different from their predecessors in subject matter, in concept and in technique. It's a pity that the 'mainstream' modes of art by women remain largely soft decorations without much to do with the feminist awareness and living conditions of contemporary China," said Liao.

It is true that men and women are born equal. Being artists, they should enjoy equal rights and chances. But we should not expect art by men and women to be exactly the same. Otherwise, the world would be colourless and lifeless.

(China Daily May 12, 2003)

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