Always Start From Zero - Women art Since 1990s
MAN Ching-ying Phoebe 2004
Starting from the 90s, one or two exhibitions are held each year centering the theme 'women art'. These include one that was held to celebrate the March 8th Women's Festival. Some are organized annually by female artist associations or individual female artists. In recent years, some exhibitions have shown a clearer theme or direction. In May 2002, the Hong Kong Heritage Museum organized a full-year Women Festival, included six theme exhibitions. This March, it was Para/Site's fifth time to put together an exhibition related to gender issues. Has the discussion on women art reached its peak in Hong Kong? Are we having a more in-depth discussion concerning the related topics?
Most women art exhibitions in Hong Kong aim to encourage creativity, but involve little reflection on the notion of women art. These exhibitions, such as the ones organized by the Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1994, were open to all female artists. As stated by the chairman, Van Lau, in the exhibition catalogue of 1990, the exhibition was held in celebration of the March 8th Women's Festival. He said the industrial, commercial and political sectors had already had "strong women" and expected it was not difficult for the cultural sector to have "strong-women liked" talents.
The exhibition catalogue of "Works by Hong Kong Young Women Artists" in 1989 praised the women for playing an important role in forming the modern art of Hong Kong. Hopes were high for the participating artists to achieve further success in future. The exhibition showed its goodwill, but its aim was not solid. According to those participated, the exhibition was actually organized by Van Lau's wife, Kwok Kim-ming. There was no prior discussion among the artists. Despite of that, the exhibition itself was a great motivation to the artists.
Most of Hong Kong's early art activities were promoted by artist associations such as the Hong Kong Female Contemporary Art Association and the International Women Artists (Hong Kong) Association, both founded in 1993. Although their regular exhibitions are more like socializing activities without promotion of any art theories, they do provide the necessary support for members to continue their creativity work.
about the sexes
Boosting local creations
Ten years later (in 2001), Ribbie Chung and Yau Ching, former organizers of 'Women Whirl', put together 'Girl Play - Women's Theatre Festival' as a sequel. This time it was more than a place to share. In view of the limited number of female artists, creators of other media were invited to discuss creative women art. As Chung put it, the programs aimed to look at the role of modern women and topics they care about from different angles before considering their creative motivation. In 2003, 'Girl Play' was held for the second time, to usher in more female artists and to inspire local art in different aspects such as content, form and beauty. Organizers Chung, together this time with Emily Cheng and Vivian Leong said they would not reject the male as creators of female-related artworks. But at the beginning stage, the focus was to be placed on the female creators.
'Women' on promotion
The exhibition of 'Images of Women' was held for the eighth time last year by Schoeni Art Gallery. In 1994, when the first exhibition took place, I wrote in a news column about the female images portrayed by fourteen different painters from Hong Kong and mainland China. They were all monotonous and mundane. Seen from the eye of the male, they were either looking down, shy, vulnerable, or seducing, in perfect shape, posing but doing nothing particular. This still holds true for the latest exhibition, where most of the works on display were sad imperial concubines, half naked chicks, or women in a state of insanity. I did not seem to notice any gender issue-related works as mentioned in the press release of 2003. Afterall, gender issues is just a promotional gimmick. Women and scenery are what really sell.
Exploring new markets with new media
Hanart TZ Gallery organized a women art exhibition in 1994 under the name 'Voices From the Edge - 10 Chinese Women Artists'. Exhibited works included drawings, installations and videos. Those installations and videos were means for studying the female's creative environment as well as for market expansion. Valerie C. Doran, the curator, learned from the China art critic, Liao Wen, that the mainland China art community is dominated by the male. She then put together a forum open for female artists in the Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to share their experience. The forum was attended by Hong Kong female artists only, with the conclusion being that in Hong Kong, exhibition opportunities are abundant. They were not particularly interested in gender issues.
Confronting the taboos
Gathering a group of uninterested artists seemed to be fruitless. Most of them wanted more room for the interpretation of their works. Only in 1997, as Tsang Tak-Ping stated, when the exhibition 'P-read: Jam Version' was held at Para/Site Art Space by Anthony Leung and me, 'female', 'feminism' and 'gender' became hot topics in the local cultural sector. My artwork then was related to menstruation and unexpectedly received a lot of attention. The discussion was mostly on social level, such as whether menstruation is a taboo, in what way this taboo should be challenged, and what more crucial issues women are facing nowadays. There were also discussions about gender and art. Actually my work was just some kind of reflection on my personal experiences. It somehow fell under the topic of feminism. Lily Lau's comic stimulated discussion of a even broader perspective. Her comic 'Mom's Drawer at the Bottom' published in 1989, explicitly related itself to 'sex', 'gender' and 'sexual politics'. It was an open diary of a Hong Kong-made feminist calling for sexual independency. She was invited by newspapers to do comic strips and by galleries to hold her own exhibitions, reaching out far and wide.
March 1999, Para/Site organizer Irene Ngan invited her to present her
works in the 'Women who dare: women & the art of multimedia'. The
exhibited works of featured artists Lily Lau, May Fung and Lo Yin-shan
were primarily to discuss how women feel their surroundings and seek artistic
and cultural breakthroughs based on the differences of the sexes.
A month before Ngan's exhibition, four artists organised an exhibition "Reach-in-g-out" which obviously has feminist conscious. Jannie Sze, Frieda Sze, Fongi Chan and Lo Yuen-yi liked examining their own situations through their creations and favored the idea of active sharing. For two years, they had been constantly sending their works, letters and faxes to one another. They even arranged community exhibitions and workshops on their own initiative. The exhibition process was an artwork itself, when the artists looked back at their own positions while sharing with others.
In October of the same year, Tsang Tak-ping specifically defined female issues and sensations at his exhibition 'Ma'am's Box: A metaphor for the feeling of Love'. To him, 'females issues' were miscellaneous personal experiences, relationships and emotions of daily life; 'female sensations' are 'fine observations'. Focusing on these unconventional ideas, the exhibition had broadened the road for local art development. Lai Mei-lin commented that the above should not uniquely belong to the females, and that it was an outdated act to link the discussion of modern art with either the male or the female. Tsang insisted that art could be categorized as male or female. He was aware of problem of essentialization, but claimed that by highlighting the difference between the sexes, it might give rise to a third gender. Another art critic Tiny West said that he was yet to see the gender identification in art, because sexual politics were about the conflict between 'genderization' and non-genderization'; but existing concepts only included 'art' and 'female art', but not 'male art'; in our language, the word 'male' does not refer to a gender.
Discussion on 'male'
Basically I agree with Tiny West. Male art exhibition is indeed rare in Hong Kong. In 1993, we had 'AHmen', and only 10 years later, we had 'Man Made'. 'AHmen' was a program that expressed the male traits through text, installation and drama. Organizer Sydney Pun pointed out the restriction on men-related discussion in Hong Kong, a city that was liberal on the outside but conservative on the inside. He wanted to re-examine the male's role and position in the society with those activities, and to stimulate imaginations about this gender.
When interpreting So Yan-kei's works, Tsang Tak-Ping again took the female's angle. He organized an individual exhibition for So Yan-kei at Para/Site in September 2000. He pointed out in his article ("The Installation Works Inscribed in White Ink by So Yan-kei") how women art was isolated and placed in a secondary position as a 'second gender' to complement the 'normal group (the male)'. He disapproved the act of selecting only one or two pieces of works of female artists to be placed at a women art show, which disconnected the artworks from their creating process and background. He agreed with the feminists who were calling for 'the exploration of special traits of individual females' and refuse 'generalization and essentialization'.
He said we had to 'trace the development of an artist and her art, then justify the visual effects and messages of a series of her artworks by identifying the characteristics of the media, form and exhibition strategy from a series of artworks. This way, 'women art would be treated fairly' thoroughly. This is how he analyzed So Yan-kei's works. The artworks were examined as an individual piece, also as part of the local culture.
Putting gender concerns in the big picture
Eva Man's research on local women art also started from the individuals. She has published her interviews with ten female artists of the 90s and held an exhibition of these artists. 'Their growing up process reflects the gender and social cultures of Hong Kong and how one's creative career is affected'. Her books were filled with compassion and showed more interest toward humans than theories. When looking at Hong Kong artists' gender concerns from a big picture, she found that Hong Kong artists were 'being affected by the different roles they play socially, politically and culturally.' Few Hong Kong artists study the genders as an independent topic. Instead, it is often a complementary topic, or some kind of reference. Her research explored the possibilities of how female artists can enrich local art, such as by increased communication among themselves. She also attempted to interpret artworks with 'female senses' while taking into account the social, political and personal elements and the trend of art. Some problems concerning women art were tackled as well, such as whether visual artists should be specified as female. She did not think that it was necessary to hide one's interest in the genders. The book entitled The Free Tribe was to show the fact that female artists are alike in certain ways but different from one another at the same time. She favored the idea of separating the two genders, because 'politics without an identity is powerless. The female identity should never be given up, even though it is only an ordinary one.'
After that, exhibitions with more emphasis on craftsmanship were held, such as 'Girls' Thing: Female Artists Exhibition' in June 2001 curated by Bing Bing, and "The Quilt Project"in April 2003 taking place at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum curated by Evelyna Liang. After long discussions, Para/Site grouped a group of artists interested in women art co-exhibited in November 2001 at the 'Wo Man: Feminine Art' Exhibition'. Male artists were invited for the first time to create women art. This showed that the presentation of art did not have to be in line with one's gender. This also prevented women art from being marginalized.
'Women Festival' was held in 2003 at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum with an attempt to review and foresee the women's history and the roles they played. There was a series of theme exhibitions and educational activities. The scope of activities was not limited to art. There were also researches on history and humanity. Among the six exhibitions, only one was for art, and one for design. A multi-angle approach was taken to study the topic. But since the exhibitions were independent from one another without any interacting dialogue, it was more like a giant combo and had not given rise to any new thinking.
The organizer of the art section, the exhibition ["Woman"Wanted] had put aside the questions of women art in the preface to prevent the topic from being essentialized or labeled. It was left to the seven female artists to express their own views on 'female'. For the design section 'Super Women', six male artists from "Poster League"worked together with six female designers to create posters together. The renowned male artists did not show much unique ideas in their work. One of them had the Chinese character 'female' transformed into some graphic objects. Two of them had the female body dissembled, even accompanied with weapons to demonstrate the female's dilemma between love and hatred. Actually this kind of expressions had been found in the era of surrealism, and widely spread by the media nowadays. It is hard to understand why the preface referred it as a 'criticism to our traditional values'.
Centered around feminism, 'Man Made' was organized by Anthony Leung and held this March. All participating artists were men. Their works were very interesting and left a lot of room for discussion. But there was no standpoints made (which is not mandatory of course). Actually it was the job of the organizer to make a conclusion, but Leung didn't. Even during a hot discussion in a seminar, Leung was only busy serving tea for everyone. She decided to step aside to raise questions but not to answer them. The artworks were to be freely interpreted, but a focal point or in-depth discussion was missing. In the end, it was roughly concluded that there was no fine lines between male and female art.
It has been hard to write this article with limited materials on hand. I hope this is just a start and look forward to comments and inputs from others. The cultural memory of Hong Kong is short, probably because of the limited opportunities to voice oneself out, and the lack of materials, researches and motivation for discussions. The discussions on women art in Hong Kong often have to start from zero. Historical heritages refer to only the accumulated experience of a few creators or critics after a series of activities have been held. When there was nobody to organize or re-organize activities, everything goes back to square one. We have seen Ribble Chung and Yau Ching starting from 'Women Whirl' toĦ@'Girl Play', Jannie Sze being a participant of 'Women Whirl' to being the organizer of 'Reach-in-g-out'. Tsang Tak-Ping was a curator, then started organizing exhibitions with the standpoint of the female and eventually started to create his own works for female art. Eva Man's theory writings have also transformed into theory-based art criticism.
Female art exhibitions are abundant in Hong Kong (including those of female artists and female photographers). Sometimes, women art is only a label or promotion strategy. Some are for social service (such as those related to breast cancer or the suffering of the Asian women). Most of the time the artist has to take up the job of an organizer. As an amateur organizer, the artist finds it hard to push for any discussion. Many exhibitions are interpreted with traditional values. There are questions raised but no answers are provided (such as 'AHmen', 'Women Festival' and 'Man Made'). In recent years, more practical attempts have been made, such as to promote women art ('Girls' Thing', 'The Quilt Project'), to break free from existing boundaries ('Women who dare'), and to put women art critiques into action.
An open approach is adopted in most exhibitions to let artists exercise their creativity. Without labeling or putting restrictions onto their works, the uniqueness and completeness of art are preserved. The angle of the female is taken only when interpreting those works.
Opinions are divided as to where women art is standing at. It is seen by some as an underdog ('Girl Play') Some think that female art is yet to be defined and more research and experimentation should be done. On the other hand, some is saying that a viewpoint does exist and we should avoid going to the extreme by applying the same critique approach to men's art and art of the minority groups.
is funny that there was only two exhibitions held so far for male art,
while those for female art are numerous. It could be due to the increasing
interest in gender study, or a special favor given to the subordinate
group of the society. Or it is the women who are standing up for themselves
and arranging their own exhibitions. Or it is the power that comes from
the bonding between women. This kind of friendship-based mutual support
has been a major source of fuel to power the development of local art.
(translated by Phyllis Fok)