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Activism is art in China

The currator of an exhibition exploring feminism and sexuality in China argues LGBT activism is art
Image from Guangzhou dancer and artist Er Gao's film My Little One

An exhibition exploring feminism and sexuality in China was a big hit in Shanghai last year and is now showing in San Francisco.

Gay Star News talks to Abby Chen, the currator of WOMEN我們 (the Chinese characters mean 'we' or 'us', pronounced 'wo men') featuring 13 artists, about activism as art, sexual harrasment on the subway and feminism in China's LGBT movement.

Why did you decide to put on this exhibition now?

I did this exhibition last December in Shanghai for the first time. To my surprise it was overwhelmingly successful and we didn't really get harrassed [by the police] in anyway, probably becase we were off the radar.

And the project continued to evolve and the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco saw the response and saw the content and asked me if I wanted to bring the show to San Francisco.

Which artists do you have representing the LGBTQ side in the exhibition? How are they doing it?

When I was in the conceptualizing stage for Women我們 we were invited by a feminist conference to Shanghai. They invited me to curate a show in conjunction with the conference.

After I accepted the invitation I decided that it had to be more than just about feminism itself. I wanted to use that as an entry point to expand the topic to the LGBTQ community. They're really not so visible in China, even though in recent years it has got better.

So I was very adament about not only including the visual culture that comes from this community but more importantly the advocacy groups, the NGOs, that are behind the visibility of LGBTQ people in China. I feel like their existence is almost like an artist. They have to be very creative to survive.

So the NGO groups were presented as part of this exhibition, there are a few artists who talk about sexuality and gender ambiguity,  there are artists who are openly gay and artists who are ambigious about their sexual orientation.

The key issue is how do we make the culture visible in China and how do we bring this expression to the public. The three themes that make up the foundation of my exhibition are capabilty, authority and possibility. The artwork in the exhibition needs to be able to convey that.

Which artists specifically representing LGBTQ life?

One of the artists is Eagle Ho, he has three names. He's also known as Er Gao and his real name is He Qi Wo. So just the name already shows about this multi-faceted individual. And he's openly gay and a contemporary dancer.

I first got to know him in Guangzhou [where he's from] when I was doing the gender identity symposium there. As a young dancer he insisted on doing independent projects so he'd have the freedom to do the kind of dance he is interested in and most of his dance is about sexuality and identity.

I really love his work but I was struggling with how I could present his work in an exhibition. They I found out that he made a documentary film called Little One [scroll down to watch a preview] which has his own dancing as well as the living conditions of the LGBT community in Guangzhou.

Another artist Mu Xi does not identify any sort of sexual orientation. But one of the key things when I was doing the show is I wanted to talk about the idea of feminism and the idea of LGBTQ, so the sexual orientation or the gender itself of the artists participating is not the most important part.

Where is feminism at in China?

For us living in San Francisco it's hard to come across a man who will say he's not a feminist. In China, so many women are even afraid of the label feminist, let alone men.

It's a very demonized idea in China, for lots of people. For example one of the participanting artists Elaine Ho, she was born in Florida but is Chinese-American, said she never considered herself a feminist until she was being referred to so many times as a feminist when I was in China. She said I guess that says a lot about feminism itself in China.

But definitely as I have been doing the exhibition and talks in China I started to realize how demonized the word feminism is. I started to realize that people viewed me differently when I associated myself with the label.

Moving away from the terminology, how are women's rights in China generally?

After 1949 the Chinese Communists seemed on the surface to bring more equality for women, including equal pay. So immediately after 1949 women seemed to feel that they got equal status. But they needed to get a job otherwise they couldn't survive.

But we've seen that equality has gone backwards in recent decades, which is frightening. For example, it didn't dawn on me and my mum until she hit 55 and she had to retire five years earlier than the men. Even though a lot of studies show that women live longer than men, but that's not the point. The point is that women don't have equal working opportunity as the men.

One piece that is in the exhibition is a humor piece called Touch Me. It's a metal bra made by female artist Gao Ling that she wore on the subway. This was in response to the Shanghai subway official Weibo [Chinese Twitter] issuing advice to women that said wear less provactive clothes to avoid sexual harrassment.

The protest was really successful. It was reported in the national press and TV, but Shanghai local press were prohibited from covering the story. In the current exhibition in San Francisco we have the whole video of what happened.

So the retirement issue, and the sexual harrassment is coming more and more severe. And in Wuhan right now they have subway carriages only for women which is going back to segregation. It's disappointing.

How to feminsim and the moverment for LGBT rights intersect in China?

With the LGBTQ movement we see that gay men who have taken leadership don't really see femisim as an issue. We're starting to see a nuanced shift that could be troublesome in the future.

At the same time there are more and more issues, like the subway annoucement, that are pushing the issue forward, which is encouraging. For example the Shanghai Nu Ai, the lesbian group, the leader of that group Xiang Qi told me that they can't have a lesbian group without advocating for femism and vice versa.

How was the exhibition recieved in Shanghai and San Francsico?

We had a screening in Shanghai Rockbund Art Museum and it was packed - people could not even come in - lots of people were standing watching the film. And the same thing for the actual exhibition. It was in a remote location because all the gallerys were charging rental money, so the venue was really far away from the center on the subway. But it was super-packed on the opening night. Shanghai Nu Ai were performing The Vagina Monolgues that night.

And then when we got to San Francisco, then it was a new audience at the Chinese Culture Center that we haven't seen there before. The center is located in Chinatown where the community is actually very conservative. I find as a currator I'm expected to deliver something really traditional. But through this exhibition we were able to break that mould and connect to different people.

WOMEN我們 is at the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco until 30 November.

Watch a preview of Er Gao's film Little One here: 

Watch a preview of Moth by Mu Xi here:

Comment on a news story


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