December 16, 2015
The rise of the female visual artists in Chinese contemporary art has, since the 1990s, been one of the most extraordinary and remarkable aspects of the country’s culture. China’s contemporary female artists began to explore themselves and their artwork during this period, and focused on developing unique approaches to style and technique. As their styles matured and became distinctive, so too did these talented artists rise to prominence.
Feminist theory and feminist philosophical movements drove the inclusion of the feminine spirit in Western art, especially post-1960, when feminist ideals captured the attention of the art world. Many prominent Western female artists emerged during this period. In contrast, it would take another three decades for female Chinese artists to follow the suit, but with a few notable exceptions, like Pan Yuliang (1895-1977). She, like a handful of her artistic sisters in that period, engraved her name on Chinese art history; however, Pan left China in her early years, studied art in France, and spend there rest of her life.
Pan Yuliang’s example proves that it was not lack of talent or artistic aptitude that silenced Chinese female artists prior to 1990. Historically Chinese society has been both feudal and patriarchal for thousands of years. Although feudalism was abolished decades ago, a patriarchal attitude still dominated the art world, with male artists leading the field in artistic creation. This persistent male influence proved more difficult to overcome in the East than the West; additionally, Western female artists realized the significance of feminism earlier than their Chinese counterparts. This realization is reflected in their artistic creations. On the other hand, Chinese women, including artists, still lack this awareness on the necessity of a fight for their rights. While an emphasis on feminist theory and gender identity could strike the public in China as overly radical, female artists living under the oppressive structure of traditionally patriarchal Chinese society needed to adopt a feminist perspective to pave the way for their entry into the art world.
The 1990s marked an important period in Chinese modern history—a period in which the society underwent a number of crucial transitions, both culturally and economically. The rise of female artists in China is closely connected to the development of the society as a whole. Gradually, women began to break traditional chains, allowing female elites in cultural and ideological spheres to emerge. They have actively participated in all kinds of social activities as independent individuals, as equals and rivals to their male counterparts. The exploration of contemporary art by female Chinese artists closely parallels this social shift.
The fact that many of Chinese female artists found their own voice by seeking self-transcendence could be regarded as a remarkable progress. The majority of their works concerned the experience of being female in China. Endeavouring to reflect deeper thoughts and meanings through their creations, female artists adopted a bi-directional attitude which was intended to convey to the audience a feeling of a past giving way to a new reality, a reality that offers more possibilities for women to be discovered. Yet, traditional undertones are still laced throughout their message, not to undermine it, but to make it more accessible and comprehensible to the general public.
Compared to Western female artists who placed a great emphasis on the independence of women, Chinese females of 1990s chose to draw the inspiration for their art from their daily experiences. They spent more time on self-analysis, with many of their works based on real life experiences, searching internally for the history of repressed women.
Chen Qingqing, born in 1953, is an excellent example of an explorer. Her work merges ancient techniques with modern sentiments, presented through the lens of her personal experience. She never studied art, and did not begin her career until the age of forty. She always utilized materials such as fabric and fibrilia with traditional techniques such as weaving. In her series of works, Yi, Qingqing used fibrilia as the chief material, to create a series of “clothes” via hand-weaving. Both the material and the method speak to Chen Qingqing’s link to an ancient Chinese past. Fibrilia was the most common material for weaving, and throughout Chinese history the belief that “men should farm, and women should weave” has been ubiquitous. Qingqing’s works, her materials, and her technique bring the viewer back to that ancient age, while celebrating feminine beauty.
Xia Junna, born in 1971, has been a renowned artist since 1995. Her works help to combine the Chinese obsession with feminine aesthetics with the uncertainty and fear that Chinese women and girls might feel in such an oppressive environment. Xia Junna captivated the art world in the early 90s and was regarded as “the star of the market.” Her expressionist works pair delicate colours and symbols of femininity, like blossoms, with women who at first glance seem relaxed and comfortable. However, under closer examination, their faces exhibit subtle confusion, fear, and distress. This juxtaposition reflects a different angle of the elegant, aristocratic life and its perceived pleasures, highlighting the contradictions and subconscious disorientation that accompanied them.
Artist Yu Hong was born in 1966 and graduated from Central Arts Academy. Her series of oil paintings, Witnessed The Growth, started in 1999, told the story about her own life, created a “personal epic.” She is an embodiment of the self-exploration that so many Chinese female artists of this period embarked upon. Each stage of a woman’s life is represented on her canvases. The series is not yet finished, and her efforts to complete it are expected to continue for a very long time. She takes apparently ordinary scenes and imbues them with powerful life.
Exploring one’s inner self, the past, the conflicts between men and women, individuals and society made Chinese art in the 1990s ripe for a foray into the psychological. No female artist of the time period better represents this than He Chengyao. Her mother had experienced a brief psychotic episode, which greatly influenced this artist. He Chengyao’s works have focused on psychological themes, including her own family’s history of mental illness, often utilizing images of the female body as symbol.
Self-examination and the female body also play a central role in the works of artist Chen Lingyang, born in 1975. She pairs images of the female body experiencing menstruation with ancient social and cultural symbols in her photography series 12 Months Flowers. Each month features a different style of ancient mirror, reflecting intimate female anatomy in the midst of menstruation, and paired with the flowers which customarily represent that month. This courageous work, which celebrated introspection and the reality of the female body, was censored at the time of its creation due to the perception of it being provocative.
Shen Ling, born in 1951, is a wonderful example of the new freedom and pleasure that female Chinese artists in the 1990s began to experience. A professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sichuan, Ling started to “draw like an artist” when she was very young. She said that the desire to create art is in her blood, as the strength of colour contrasts enables her to express the passion and pleasure she feels deep in her heart.
It may have taken a little longer for Chinese female artists to find their voices—or for Chinese society to listen to them—but they are making up for the time lost. In addition to the incredible progress and notable achievements in the 1990s, Chinese female artists have continued to gain momentum. They continue to make indispensable contributions to the Chinese art world and the to global art scene. Perhaps they have not yet received the recognition that their male colleagues enjoy, but that may not necessarily be a bad thing. Because Chinese female artists have pursued art without the market-based motivations of their male counterparts, they have been driven to create art that is sincere, authentic, and spiritually intact. The female artists of the 1990s truly created a foundation for what will be a vibrant, lively, controversial, and valuable tradition in Chinese art.