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A Forum for the Arts of Contemporary Chinese Women

Jia, F. (1999). Nüxing yishu zai jiushi niandai (Women’s art during the 1990s). Art Observation, vol. 3. Translated from the original Chinese.

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Women’s Art in the Nineties

The nineties was the decade in which Chinese female artists became the most dynamic. Since 1990 [when] eight young female painters united to begin an exhibition, female artists have become increasingly active. In1995 this practice became a hot trend: in Beijing alone, the quantity of female artists’ exhibitions was not less than twenty or more. Until 1998, female artists were involved in an expansion of exhibitions: in March in Beijing “Shi ji–Nu Xing Yi Shu Zhan” (Century Woman Artist Exhibition), in April in Taibei, “Taiwanese Female Artist’s Exhibition,” and in June in Berlin, Germany, “Half of the Sky.” Exhibitions of Chinese female artists — the line up and powerful academic research that each of these three exhibits possess — they are the important landscape at the turn of the century of Chinese contemporary art. Therefore recall the previous nine years, and the “Chinese Modern Art Exhibition,” which was the last [exhibition] to cause a temporary sensation: the “gun attack incident.” Unavoidably, this gave way to people sighing with deep feeling over one of the deeper implications hinted at: the curtain on new art closes, female artists are brought on stage. Since the individual who opened fire was a young female artist.

Women’s Art: New Theme of Conversation in the Nineties

Female art was the new topic of conversation during the decade of the nineties. It was also a popular topic within the [discussion of] China’s “post modern” and the contemporary art. Speaking like this is not to imply a denial of the accomplishments of previous female artists, it is merely to say that former female artwork certainly did not have convex displays of a type of clear female characteristic, therefore it is extremely difficult to judge their work in terms of gender. Nevertheless, coming into the nineties, the creative work of female artists appeared to more advantage, as distinctive from that of male artists. Female artists no longer needed male standards and male creative processes in order to paint. They began to establish a type of self-study and consciousness of the particular [and] recognizable similarities of their own gender, leading to gender specific discrepancies discovered within the value of their own selves. Once women attempted to use personal experience and “women’s perspective” to interpret this century, women’s creative works were not only different from male artists, but also different from the work of any former era of women. Therefore this singular practice embodied “women’s art,” and the advance of these concepts composed the topical content of “women’s art” and its “post-modern” overtones.

Once we had the one “coupled artist” age of collaboration. When men and women are equal in theory (as in couple collaborations), it keeps women from their sense of self-exploration, so the meaning of equal transforms into women’s effemulation. Under these conditions, female artist’s work can only represent one type of characteristic: “non-sexual” [by means of] anti-feminine intentions during the time of this trend. However, today the couple artist age of collaboration has passed, the “wife’s” paintings already differ from “husband’s” paintings. And this sort of difference stems from these women’s realization of their “womanhood;” and also the realization that they have their own perspective. They have their own experiences and standards of judgment. Additionally, the way that [women] feel and experience the world, and the way that they think, is different from men. It is these gender differences that are the foundation for the construction of female art. It is on top of this “corner stone” that female art can reveal a unique aesthetic, a moral character, and a spirit of direction.

Women’s Art and Male Art

When we try to distinguish art in terms of gender and confirm the concept of “women’s art,” theoretically there is a very complicated condition: if we declare that all art created by women is “women’s art,” then it means that we have to agree on an extension of the concept at the same time: all art created by men is “male art.” If we agree on that concept and take it a step further: it raises the question, what distinguishes male art from female art. How can we answer that? If there is no gender-based distinction in art, then why should we define gender-based categories in art?

Actually, within the art produced by humankind, the greater part of it is distinguished as belonging to “neutral” [art], the primary method stems from distinct gender-based perspective, so [in the category of neutral art] there is no need to make these sorts of distinctions. If we put artists into classes based on uncomplicated divisions of male artists and female artists, then it’s as if we place previous artists in the place of the bourgeoisie like the supreme class, we could cave into a theory of a type of dualism. Nevertheless, within this artistic category there is certainly a group that possesses a clear divergence based on gender, and gender-based characteristics. Thus, in regarding this section of art [one is] supplied with that particular viewpoint. We test this sort of situation below with a graph that shows:

(*Apologies for the lack of a graph here–chalk it up to technical difficulties. Imagine two overlapping circles. The one on the left is labeled, “male art,” and the one on the right, “female art.” The area in which they overlap is labeled, “gender neutral art.”*)

Male Art                                                                                             Women’s Art

1                 2

Gender Neutral Art

Circle one indicates all male artists’ artistic productions;

Circle two indicates all female artist’s artistic productions;

The value of the intersection of circle one and circle two is the portion of artists whose gender-based distinction diverges from these groups, namely “gender neutral art.” The portion of both circles that does not overlap, equals the portion where the existing group’s sexual distinction diverges, this could also be called “male art” or “women’s art” to take into account that group’s inclusion.

The differences between female art and male art are produced by [the artists’] experience based on respective differences of sexual distinction. From this deep layer of sexual distinction, the heart’s resources are triggered. As a result of having male gender and female gender, there exist divergent parts from physiology to mentality. Due to the long term of the father’s power over the consciousness of women, [the father figure] exerts influence that determines their art from its starting point to its style of presentation, [so] in this sector there can exist differences. It is also from these types of differences, female art can reveal unique/personal value. Therefore the meaning of using gender distinction in the process of [this discussion]: female art’s appearance and development filled out an empty space of art history—the prior version of art history is basically the history of the male visual experience. The development of the female visual experience makes this history complete. This is where the real value of using gender distinction in the discussion of art and the advocacy of women’s art lies.

Furthermore, from the perspective of art history, women’s art could be broadly defined as being the entirety of women’s creative works. Due to [the fact that] they as a group are constantly being stifled, and being placed in the periphery of art history. Therefore when we historically, and completely settle accounts [regarding] only their art productions, it is very natural to broadly use the concept of “women’s art.”

The Basic Characteristics of Women’s Art

Since “women’s art” is an independently existing [category] separate from male art, then it is supposed to be describable and also have its own relatively stable characteristics and appearance. However, due to its plentiful, colorful, and various orientations, and due to its being located in an actively changing process, it is not possible to attempt to describe it. Nevertheless, we try to include the following points based on the current status of the development of female art:

  1. They don’t care anything about things outside of themselves, things not related to their personal emotional life. Further, [they] emphasize the excavation of their heart’s resources, and from personal experience attain the body language from which [they] obtain inspiration. The works of art include the trends of unique personal features and aspects of privacy.
  2. They very rarely use rational angles of analyses to involve a subject matter and grasp a theme. But rather emphasize the emotional characteristics of their artwork, and emphasize the importance of direct feeling, enabling base physical senses to emerge. [Their] creative works are more like childish illusions, like stealing things as one pleases, expressive in the unreasonable blurred appearance. This is to say that a clear path is not readily visible from [their] physiological to mental reaction.
  3. They are not interested in politics, history, philosophy, but express a special concern for nature, life, humanity, and the question of existence. So much so that a dull ordinary life is paid close attention to, [as if] something surpassing lofty [ideals], and the pursuit of glory.
  4. They universally lack interest toward the world of men. They barely use male figures in their art (perhaps this is the thing that inhibits [their] deepest parts). The biggest difference here is that male artists usually use female figures in their art. Questions that are personal to women are paid increasingly close attention to by female artists. They face their own egos, which allows them to explore and open an area of “art expansion.” This art stems from never exploring the knowledge outside their field of experience, which provides valiantly for female artist’s success.
  5. The linguistic style of this art developed from traditional hand-worked arts [handicrafts]. In the paired skills held by men and women, the division of labor practices was such that men tilled [the soil], and women spun [cloth]. There then appeared the innate ability [of women] to build a nest, to sew, weave, knit, and handwork embroidery. Even though modern era women have already lost this relationship, contrary [to modern times] the artistry seems to have already enabled the peaceful production of a natural accumulation [of skills]. In the arts, women naturally maintained interests in the artistry of sewing, weaving, knitting. [These skills and related media] simultaneously became one special type of female linguistic style. This linguistic style is analogous to weaving, or the language of sewing. Even though it is not widespread, it does exist within female artwork, however it is a specialty contained in female art.
  6. Mediums of art are selected from the last life transformed [i.e. traditional feminine culture] and the close feelings [toward that life]. Female artists not only have one type of particular partiality for the traditional skills of weaving, moreover the related materials of these skills possesses an especially sensitive type of feeling. Material selected for art installations express distinct female characteristics: needles, thread, cotton, silk, gauze, various types of fiber and light/gauzy material. These everyday ordinary materials transform technique via female artist’s deployment outside [the home], and changes in tradition, which were agents of change for certain concepts. In other words, using women’s inner wisdom to conceptualize and analyze daily life brings ordinary feminine material into technique and transforms art.

In summation, today’s female art is already far from traditional female artist’s expressions, which were of a slender and reserved type, clearly beautiful as if inviting a singular unique style [parlor art]. We can already use a traditional appreciation of beauty to look within women’s creative productions, but [female artists] also have the power of expressing visual intensity, in this they are almost on par with male artists, and are not below them. From poetic atmosphere, that conveys one’s emotions, of illusion, romance, aesthetic importance, ideals, [the art] transforms into a type of mysterious, crazy, strangeness, with an abundance of ideological language and a spirit of visual sense motivating it. This type of [art] is directly practical, directly from human life, directly of the self. Contemporary female artists display for us what is one horizon within the vast scenery of art. However, even though there are numerous different concepts and various techniques, we can still see some common qualities. It is precisely in these common qualities that “women’s art” becomes something worth discussing.

**Thank you to Dr. Deborah Porter and Fiona Meng-Fan Lu for invaluable assistance and consultation on this translation!**

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Written by Andrea Descoteaux Hugg

August 3, 2009 at 1:56 PM

Posted in Nuxing Yishu

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