HAPA: Wenrui Zhao on Oral Histories and Making a Documentary on Chinese Female artists

In this HAPA project, HAPA recipients, Wenrui Zhao and Yuanxie Shi from Anthropology Department wanted

to understand the experience of female artists who had come to the United States over the

past 30 years by conducting oral history interviews and making a short documentary film based

on the interview footage.


Read their notes below:


We have conducted interviews of eight artists: Yan Lin, Xin Song, Fei Cui, O Zhang, Annysa Ng,

Cici Wu, Bing Han and Pixy Liao. This is not a particularly large sample – there are fewer female

artists overall in China, and those who emigrated and are currently living in New York are even

rarer. However, their stories are more diverse and intriguing than we could have ever imagined.

They are across three generations: from those who came to the States in the early 1980s and

are now in their 50s, to those who came after the millennium, and the emerging artists who

have recently graduated from art schools. They also carried diverse background with them,

from growing in an artist family whose parents and grandparents were all well-respected

artists, to coming to age when Hong Kong was undergoing the transition between Britain and

China; from receiving their art training in the elite yet conservative art academies in China to

largely self-taught.

We had thought to seek out a certain degree of similarities among them before we officially

started the project, but then we realized such diversity is probably the beauty of this group of

people and the meaning underlying this project. Even the notion of “woman” means different

things to different of them and when they were in different stages of their life. Many relatively

older artists never felt a strong identity as a woman. The era in the 1970s and 1980s in China

when everyone, no matter male or female wore similar types of clothes; when both husband

and wife had to work to sustain a family certainly left its own mark on what meant to be a

woman to them. Yet more and more artists also felt the politics of gender in current art world,

some trying to take advantage of it, some trying to reject it.

Motherhood and Wifehood also acquired new significance with regard to this group of Chinese

American women artists. We were struck by a story Xin Song told about her work “Lust,

Caution”, a piece trying to tackle the role and symbolism of pornography. She started to

become interested in the material after her first child was born. She then became aware of the

easy availability of adult magazines and popularity of those advertisements where large area of

bodies was exposed. These things didn’t exist when she was growing up in China, and made her

at a loss about the sex education of her child, and concerned about what should be the

appropriate amount of information a child should be exposed to. She then found all sorts of

adult magazines back to the 1960s, attempting to understand their messages and see the

changes of the portray of bodies. Her work resulted from this experience.

Whether “Chinese American” or “women artists” seem to have relative fixed stereotypes and

connotations, in terms of class and identity. But our project shows that this is not the case. The

understanding of these terms probably should not lie in abstract concepts, but from real stories

of real people.

We have archived these oral history materials at the Museum of Chinese American. We are

planning a screening on this short doc and a talk on Chinese female artists in Spring 2017. The

Museum of Chinese American has also expressed interest in an exhibition featuring works of

Chinese female artists, but we are still discussing that as too many factors need to be


Neither me or Yuanxie had any oral history or video-making experience before this project.

However, we were deeply interested in oral interviews and video representation as alternative

forms of historical narratives. We self-taught ourselves many skills required for this project, like

those self-taught artists, as well as learned from experienced professionals. It was a steep

learning curve, yet we found the whole experience extremely rewarding. Moreover, we went to

their studios, saw them working, and talked to them. The combination of seeing, listening and

thinking makes it an unusual history project unlike any other we have done only in library.

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