Half the Sky talks up the need for more female artists in public spaces

Updated: 2016-05-03 08:10

By Deng Zhangyu(China Daily)

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Where are the women?

That was the question Australian writer Luise Guest often asked curators, gallery owners and art teachers during her monthslong stay in China in 2011.

The overwhelming absence of works by female artists in public spaces caught her attention, leading her to conduct a five-year research on the subject.

As a result, she produced the book Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China, which also comes at a time of rising global interest in Chinese art.

The launch of Guest's new book in China in April was accompanied by a group show, titled Half the Sky: Chinese Women Artists, at Beijing's Red Gate gallery, where paintings, sculptures, videos, installations and photos are still displayed.

Half the Sky talks up the need for more female artists in public spaces

"It was very interesting that I noticed more female students than male at China's art colleges, but I didn't see an equal representation in galleries, books or journals," Guest says, adding that admission into Chinese art colleges is tough.

Before she began her research, Guest was told that many female art graduates in China didn't focus seriously on their careers after marriage or motherhood.

But after her interviews with women artists in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Xi'an, she found such perceptions to be incorrect.

In fact, most female artists were fighting family pressure to give more time to their work. Many women she talked to were also married to other artists.

"In China, I see lots of artist couples. Maybe, male artists can better understand their spouses," Guest says.

Of the 32 female artists featured in her book, a few are internationally known, such as Cao Fei, whose video work Second Life has been shown in many galleries and museums across the world since 2007. Others are successful in China.

But the problem is that they don't get the same level of exposure as male artists do, Guest says.

She says people in the West have a "knowledge gap" about China's female artists.

An Australian or American might even know the name of an artist or two, when asked about China's contemporary art, but it would most likely be male, like Zhang Xiaogang or Fang Lijun, Guest says.

"To find them (women artists) was not an issue. The problem was how to include more women in my book, as I found more and more interesting women when I had the conversations," Guest says of the writing process.

The title of her book is based on a quote by China's founding father, Mao Zedong, who said in 1955 that women hold up half the sky in China.

Xiao Lu, a female performance artist included in Guest's book, says it will take time for China to change in this regard. Women need to realize their value to push for equal opportunities, too.

Guest has included women who work with different art forms from three generations of Chinese - those in their 50s who experienced the "cultural revolution" (1966-76); a generation born after 1980, influenced by Western pop culture and consumerism; and more younger people growing in the internet era.

Artist Lin Tianmiao, who is also in the book, has made an embroidery piece that uses expressions in both Chinese and English, such as sheng nyu ("leftover" women) and xiao san (mistress).

"It's very crazy for us to see that women at a young age are labeled as 'leftover women' here. But nobody talks about 'leftover men'," Guest says of cultural and social issues that have a bearing on art, demonstrated through the female artists' works.

She says her book mixes Chinese history, language and social context with the aim of letting foreigners know more about Chinese female artists.

First published in Sydney in February, the book is available only in English in China.


 Half the Sky talks up the need for more female artists in public spaces
Luise Guest (top) focuses on the works and lives of Chinese women artists in her new book. Photos Provided To China Daily

(China Daily 05/03/2016 page20)