“Women,” now showing at SF’s Chinese Cultural Center (CCC) and curated by CCC’s Deputy Director and Curator Abby Chen proves that art does not have to be large and loud to be powerful.
In “Women,” thirteen contemporary artists from China and the United States explore gender and sexual identity. The exhibit’s themes of oppression, repression, depression and gender differences upset the official Chinese art community when it opened in Shanghai in last year.
The opening salvo in the show is an exhibit of materials created by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within China who work with sex workers. Under the guise of preventing STDs and HIV infection, these women are under constant hostile scrutiny by the Chinese government.
As a result of this scrutiny, says CCC’s Chen, these groups have had to think very creatively about how to communicate their message.
“The way they do things is really almost like performance art,” says Chen. “They use guerilla tactics to occupy the public space. They establish multiple identities to navigate social media. Their operations mirror the acts of rebellion evident in the works of the participating artists, and their presence in the exhibition serves to underscore the subversive nature of the works on display.”
Artist Gao Ling, collaborated with the NGO Shanghai Nv Ai, a lesbian advocacy group, to create a public performance piece called “Subway Performance.” In a protest against governmental dictates about “provocative” dress, Ling and other women ride the subway wearing tea strainer bras. They cover their faces to protect their identity while holding signs that say “It’s a dress, not a yes, ” and “Want to flaunt, not a taunt.”
To openly declare oneself other than straight is still a risky business in China. To make art criticizing the official stance on sexual minorities or to illuminate some of the painful history that women and other sexual minority groups have suffered can be dangerous.
Many of the artists represented in the show still prefer to remain anonymous. World famous Ai Weiwei narrowly escaped permanent imprisonment only was released due to international protests. None of the artists showing here have that degree of protection.
Because of the cultural climate in China, the documentary “My Little One,” a documentary about gays living in Guangzhou Province, has the interviewees wear masks while being filmed.
Qui Jin, China’s first women’s rights activist, is profiled in a film by Bay Area husband and wife team Rae Chang and Adam Tow. Qiu Jin became a national heroine — she was a leader in the toppling of the corrupt Qing dynasty in 1911, paving the way for the formation of the Republic of China — but her turbulent life recalls the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Like many other revolutionary third world feminists, Qui Jin’s life did not end well. She was murdered during the turmoil of the 1911 revolution.
Hong Kong-born artist Man Yee Lam’s installation “Silk Cocoon,” a web of heavy white silk threads leading to a large, oversized cocoon, is based on stories of woman silk weavers who made enough money to free themselves from the conventions of Chinese society. These women took a vow of celibacy and were known as “self-combing” women. A video accompanies the installation in which Lam weaves herself into a cocoon and then cuts herself free as a symbol of rebirth.
He Chengyao, a prominent and controversial performance artist in China shows her troubled family history by staging performances using her naked body as a vehicle of expression.
A former oil painter, He Chengyao was born to an unwed teenage mother. Her mother, hounded by gossip and ill treatment, went insane and ran through the streets naked.
In a series of photographs, He Chengyao presents herself half naked, embracing her elderly mother, a unique and deeply moving mother/daughter duo that address the still taboo issues in China of both nudity and mental illness.
“She was always running around naked with her hair in a mess,” the artist recalled in an interview on culturebase.net. “I’m always having flashbacks. I could never get away from it. When I grew up, I used to feel that it was me running naked, not my mum.”
“I want to show that we are all seeking light in our lives but that it’s an illusory thing and you can never catch it … our destiny is in other people’s hands.”
With this exhibit, women and LGBT artists have taken a huge stride toward the light and making their own destiny.