Fair focus

Updated: 2012-03-23 07:47

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Fair focus
O Zhang, based in New York, says women and women's stories are central to her work. Provided to China Daily

Chinese photographer spotlights women's issues

O Zhang created her first piece of art when she was 3, "painting" with a stick in the mud of a rural village she called home until she was 7. Her parents had been sent to the countryside during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), and art materials were scarce. Later, her parents (an English translator and an English teacher) moved the family to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, where she entered a children's school for the arts and "never looked back", she says.

Zhang has since exhibited her photographs and installation works internationally, including an exhibition of all-female Chinese artists titled Half the Sky at Drexel University, Philadelphia, late last year. She has also exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, and in private collections including the Uli Sigg collection in Switzerland.

"I was very fortunate because my parents gave me freedom and independence to choose my own path," Zhang says. "I decided I wanted to be an artist very young. Looking back, I can't think of a specific 'click' moment of deciding; I just knew for as long as I can remember that I felt I was born to do art, and I didn't feel I had an alternative."

Zhang's work has generally focused on women's issues, beginning with a photographic series titled Masterpieces in My Eyes created in 1998 outside her traditional curriculum at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. She projected classical Western paintings of naked women on the bodies of real women, in an exploration of the link between painting, photography and the female form, she says.

"At that time, as a young female artist in this male-dominant society, I wanted to figure out what the meaning of seeing and being seen is," she says. "A lot of naked females have been depicted in art history, so I was trying to explore what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a model, and what it means to be beautiful. It was a very early stage of questioning female identity. I had no idea about feminism in the 1970s in the West. At the time we received very little information about the outside world."

At the academy, students focused on traditional art forms including painting, drawing and imitation of the masters, Zhang says. She felt stifled by the curriculum, and after graduation traveled to London to study photography at the Byam Shaw School of Art, now a part of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. In London, she continued her exploration of paintings and the female form in a series titled Water Moon, which in a reversal of subject matter projected Chinese erotica paintings onto naked female figures.

Later she continued her photography studies at the Royal College of Arts, before moving to New York in 2004 with her husband Peter Garfield, also a photographer and installation artist. They live in Brooklyn, in the back of a house with a garden her husband designed and landscaped. She works out of a studio at home and attends a residency art program at Brooklyn College.

She continues to be inspired by women's issues, she says.

"Women and women's stories are very central to my work. I've always cared about people on the edge, marginalized groups. I guess it's related to my own rural experience, because I struggled as a rural person coming to an urban area. I felt a lot of discrimination, and I've always felt that humans should be equal. That stuck with me. I continue to be curious about how we look at other people in need."

Joseph Gregory, chair of visual arts at Drexel University, says that Zhang's work is clearly personal, and suggests an attempt at "possession" of female identity.

"She's very interested in the question surrounding women's art, and in particular the art of Chinese women," he says. "She's truly an international artist, but you never leave your Chinese-ness behind, so she has a particularly fertile and interesting take on the intersection between Western and Chinese traditions."

A 2004 series titled Horizon captured 21 young girls all aged between 4 and 6 years old, living in the Chinese countryside.

"I wanted to capture the gaze of these girls before their innocence disappeared," she says. "Urban girls know how to pose, know how to smile. I wanted to capture these girls who had never seen a camera before. For me, that was kind of symbolic of China, because China opened up the gates not that long ago. Now, so many things are going in and out of China, that certain innocence has been lost. But I think the innocence in these girls' gaze is very strong, and I wanted people to pay attention to these females in rural areas, who are the most repressed group in China. Urban expansion is taking over the fields and the farmers have lost their farms and their land, and that innocence is disappearing."

Herb Tam, curator of the Museum of Chinese in America in New York, has worked closely with Zhang.

"I've always admired how O is constantly trying something new and is never afraid to confront sensitive subject matter," he says. "Suspicion and curiosity are key traits to make compelling work, and O has both."

In 2006, Zhang photographed Caucasian fathers with their adopted Chinese daughters in a series called Daddy & I. Even though the girls in the photos had adoptive mothers, she chose to photograph them with their fathers because she wanted the girls to symbolize China, and for the fathers to symbolize Western established power, she says.

"I like the idea of a growing and changing relationship," she says. "The girls in the photographs are so little, but they're growing and the fathers are getting older. To me, it's like the relationship between Asia and the established powers of the past. When the girl grows up, the family will naturally be afraid that the girl will leave the family. And as China is growing up and bigger, the West is worried about whether it will be an ally or an enemy. I wanted to capture this changing relationship, both in families and in political structures."

The relationship between China and the US is particularly interesting to her, she says.

"As a Chinese person living in the US, I feel that of course China should grow and become more powerful. But I also understand the fear of America, the question of, 'Should we trust China?' I wanted to capture the ambiguity of the shift in power changes. We all feel it, but it's hard to articulate, and to me that's fascinating."

The economic rise of China is directly linked to the ascent of the Chinese art scene, but Zhang believes that in some ways, the rapid growth has been a double-edged sword for Chinese artists.

"I think that the popularity of the Chinese art scene may apply a bad influence on the quality of Chinese art," she says. "I think it's especially bad for young Chinese artists. When I go to China now, I feel suffocated sometimes because everything is about money. It's hard to breathe and grow when financial success is such a focus."

But Zhang believes that the Chinese art scene will continue to grow regardless of China's economic success.

She is currently working on a series about the economic recession in the US, she says. Although she still primarily defines herself as a Chinese artist, she has come to also think of herself as a "global artist".

"I'm inspired by artists who are so into their work that it doesn't matter what happens in the outside world. Living in this society, you are inevitably influenced by the outside world, the Internet ... It's very easy to get lost, maybe more so than at any other time in history. I admire people who can find it and sustain it, and exist on their own artistic vision, uninterrupted by the influences of the world."

Contact the writer at kdawson@chinadailyusa.com