World Chambers

A Forum for the Arts of Contemporary Chinese Women

Jia Fang Zhou’s Essential Characteristics of Women’s Art

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  1. Not paying close attention to those extrinsic objects that have nothing to do with personal feelings and life. Instead, paying more attention to intrinsic inspiration from personal experience and instinct. Such works of art show are (sic) more intimately about the individual.
  2. Seldom taking motif analysis rationally. Stressing artistic intuition. Their works are full of childlike fantasy, free sketching, an irrational composite of images and a mysterious interaction between the physiological and psychological.
  3. Being apathetic towards politics, history and philosophy, and on the contrary, concentrating on the themes of nature, life, humankind and survival. Even paying attention to tiny, petty and ordinary things much more than seeking the sublime.
  4. Being generally disinterested in the men’s world. They rarely use man as artistic object, unlike male artists who commonly treat women as objects of study. Women’s art cares more about those questions pertaining directly to women. When they face their own ego, a new spiritual domain hitherto unobserved, provides women artists with a free space to explore.
  5. Their methods of discourse are developed from traditional handicrafts. The traditional division of work was ‘male farmer, and female weavers,’ which trained women to have deft hands. Although modern women seem to have little link with such handicrafts as stitching, weaving and embroidery, women artists reveal an interest in them in their art and turn it into a kind of individual discourse. They are not common to the art works of all women artists, but surely are specific phenomenon in women’s art as a whole.
  6. Materials are often chosen from daily life and a sense of propinquity. Women artists not only prefer those of such traditional handicrafts, but are specially sensitive to these materials. Here, installation artists who manifest and (sic) distinct characteristics of gender: needles, thread, cotton, silk, wool, fibers and light materials. In the hands of women artists, these objects of daily use are transformed into conceptual materials (1998. Shi ji, nu xing yi shu zhan – Century woman. Xianggang: Shi jie hua ren yi shu chu ban she, you xian gong si, 9).

Some of these characteristics are supported by the art produced by women, and in those instances, it is clear where these aspects of the “women’s art” category come from. Two common confirmations of this category are works that 1) embrace materials associated with women in pre-modern China; and 2) works that illustrate the female form and / or the female experience as their central subject. However, even in these instances, I think that one can read more into the work that what is intended under the limited category of “women’s art.” Some of the following examples feature graphic representations of the female form, so have been placed after the jump.

For example, Lin Tianmiao, who has garnered international attention that includes exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Lin uses twisted and woven cloth and fibers, which recalls the art of silk and other cloth making and embroidery, which was not only the domain of women in pre-modern China, but also a measure of their personal worth as examples of a girl’s embroidery were used in the making of marriage contracts to convince the families of prospective bridegrooms that the girl was a good value.

Lin Tianmiao, (Detail), The Proliferation of Thread-winding Installation, 1995 (Liao, Women's Approach to Chinese Contemporary Art, 1995).

Lin Tianmiao, (Detail), The Proliferation of Thread-winding Installation, 1995 (Liao, Women's Approach to Chinese Contemporary Art, 1995).

A combination of these two qualities is also common. This can be seen in the work of several artists: Shi Hui, whose Knots Series (1994-95) consists of calligraphy paper and cotton thread molded within a wooden frame to form shapes found in nature such as bird’s nests in which “the irregular hole at the center of this woven shape stands as metaphor for female reproductive organs and the traditional Chinese world-view concept of yin,” which represents the feminine (Gu & Yang, 2003, 11). Chen Lingyang’s video work, Twelve Flower Months (2001), “combined images of menstruation and a woman’s sexual organs with the elegant aesthetic appropriated from Chinese classical painting and traditional props of female life, such as window lattices and dressing table mirrors” (Ibid, 48).

Chen Lingyang, Twelve Flower Months, 2001, c-print (Gu & Yang, Yishu, fall 2003, 44).

Chen Lingyang, Twelve Flower Months, 2001, c-print (Gu & Yang, Yishu, fall 2003, 44).

Hu Xiaoyuan combines the attributes of these two categories also, using the traditional handicraft of embroidery to represent the female form and genitalia in a fashion that is at once beautiful and graphic. It is a method that reflects tradition while turning tradition on its ear by boldly detailing female nudity.

Hu Xiaoyuan, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Xuan Huo Jia Die, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006, The artist’s own hair, white twill-weave silk, old embroidery frame, 31 cm diameter (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, 143).

Hu Xiaoyuan, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Xuan Huo Jia Die, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006, The artist’s own hair, white twill-weave silk, old embroidery frame, 31 cm diameter (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, 143).

Detail, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Xuan Huo Jia Die, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006 (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, 143).

Detail, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Xuan Huo Jia Die, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006 (Grosenick & Schubbe, 2007, 143).

Hu also illustrates an additional point of Jia’s six characteristics: using personal items and art to reflect deeply personal themes. To make her works of embroidery she grew her hair long then shaved it off, creating her own, very personal, thread. According to tradition, a person’s hair and person should be preserved out of filial piety and gratitude for the gift of physical life bestowed by one’s parents. In her simultaneous reference to and revoking of tradition, Hu’s work illustrates, but also surpasses the characteristics upheld by Jia and other critics of the 1990s and the early oughts.

Hu Xiaoyuan, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Die Lian Hua, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006, The artist’s own hair, white twill-weave silk, old embroidery frame, 17 cm. diameter (Grossenick & Schubbe, 2007, 141).

Hu Xiaoyuan, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Die Lian Hua, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006, The artist’s own hair, white twill-weave silk, old embroidery frame, 17 cm. diameter (Grossenick & Schubbe, 2007, 141).

Detail, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Die Lian Hua, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006 (Grossenick & Schubbe, 2007, 141).

Detail, A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away – Die Lian Hua, 1/1/2005-3/17/2006 (Grossenick & Schubbe, 2007, 141).

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Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

June 4, 2009 at 5:30 PM

2 Responses

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  1. …I’m most definitely interested in the sublime! And I love sketching male models, clothed or nude. Oh, and I’m female.

    Maša Kepic

    August 1, 2009 at 10:00 AM

    • Hello, Maša! Thank you for illustrating that these characteristics do not apply to all female artists. They also did not apply to all female artists in China during the period in which they were written. I first read this list in Chinese, and I was so incredulous at the demeaning language that I thought surely I had translated incorrectly!
      The charge about focusing on the female form over the male form is an odd one. True, China’s modern female artists pay special attention to the representation of women, but so do China’s male artists. Since its come to vogue in 1979, nude painting, for example, has been predominantly a man’s word, but the subjects are almost always female.
      I am glad that you found my blog. I enjoyed looking at your website, and I particularly like your piece titled, “Devil’s Kitchen.” It was fun to see your work–thank you!

      Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

      August 1, 2009 at 2:28 PM


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