Interview with Huang Jing Yuan: a Social Art Practitioner from China

In 2019, the Netherlands will mark 100 years of women’s right to vote. It is an important moment for us to celebrate the improvement for women’s condition in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. While the urgent agenda for Dutch feminists is to close the 15% salary gap between the two genders, as well as setting up women role models in various fields, women from other parts of the world who have different skin colours or who are from different social and economical classes are facing very different situations.

On June 5 2018, fellow student Kleopatra Vorria and Museum Arnhem curator Mirjam Westen and I conducted an interview with Huang Jing Yuan within the framework of her lecture for ArtEZ Studium Generale, in which the Chinese artist highlighted several examples of feminist movements in China, offering a first-hand glimpse into the challenges and struggles women are facing in that country. During the interview, Huang also shared how she defines her artistic practice as a “social practice”, seeing this term as a way to navigate through difficult questions of intersectionality.

Huang Jing Yuan is an artist based in Beijing, whose work has focused on both the contradictions within Chinese society and disconnections between China and the world. Having studied and lived both abroad and in China, Huang possesses a more diversified perspective on the topic of feminism that keeps different positions in dialogue.

On one hand, she explains that Western feminism is sometimes perceived in China as foreign or impure and often evokes reactions such as “feminism is a Western thing, we should avoid it”. In Huang’s opinion, these reactions are tied to nationalist sentiments and identity politics that stem from strong feelings of resentment of China’s history of subjugation to Western imperial structures. On the other hand, she also speaks with reservations about forms of bourgeois feminism at play in China, which intersect with class and the belief that feminist attitudes are dependent on levels of education. There is a condescending attitude of a group of well-educated/intellectual feminists towards working/rural class women, in which it is assumed that the problems lower-class women face are due to their lack of education. According to Huang, this coupling represents a failure to understand that the feminist struggle in China is not solely about gender, but rather is dependent on more encompassing structures of inequality. This blindspot reveals the agenda of upper-class oriented feminists to be rather insincere and naive. The presumption that some women are not intelligent enough to be feminists is highly problematic for Huang.

One recent example she mentioned is a crowdfunding case for a three-year old girl named Wang Fengya who was diagnosed with eye cancer. Her family, which was from a rural town, was unable to afford the huge medical expenses and therefore sought assistance from an online fundraising platform and volunteer organization. Though she was at an early stage of a cancer with the highest curing rate, Wang Fengya passed away. At that point, the family had raised more than 30,000 yuan for medical costs to cure their daughter. The incident widely spread in Chinese social media, sparking heated public debates and doubts on the choice of treatment methods and the use of the raised funds. Some feminists immediately began to point fingers, claiming that this case exemplified the rooted discrimination against girls that has a prevalent history in rural China. They suspected the family of having used the raised funds to cure the son in the family, who suffered from a cleft lip. Although this accusation turned out to be untrue because the treatment for the boy was funded by another medical aid organization, harsh public opinions quickly formed and spread without further understanding of the family’s situation. Accusative statements like “it is a misery to be born a girl in the countryside”, or “why do girls always have to be sacrificed?” are widespread amongst a group of feminist who think of themselves as radical.

Huang became quite emotional speaking of this. She clarifies that she is not defending this family as excusable, but rather that a real solution or betterment has to come from true understanding of the complex situation first. How many of those feminists understand what it means to be a mother of two children with serious diseases while earning less than 2000 yuan a month? How is it  to not have an equal position in decision-making as the husband or the grandfather in a family context?

For this reason, Huang cannot bring herself to comply with the feminist agenda in China that generally validates the perspectives, struggles, and benefits of middle- and upper-class women.

“I do not believe in any feminism that does not care about the subaltern voice, ” she declares.

Embedded in this attitude, Huang Jing Yuan initiated a communal project “Writing • Mother” which deals with the complex issue of intersectionality in feminism by choosing a topic that everyone from every class or ethnic background can relate to from their own position: writing about their mothers, and the specific struggles of their mothers. In her own words, “it aims to discover the potential of a feminist critique through the lens of family life”.

“I want to make sure the people who I work with in the project, benefit from it, and are not to be harmed by it,” Huang says humbly, as she elaborates more on her project which has drawn participation from over a hundred people, ranging from PhD candidates and university professors to people who did not have the chance to finish middle school.

Very important topics have been shared among the participants like how to relate and treat your body after abortion, which is a highly sensitive issue given the country’s strict policy on birth control. What’s interesting and highly strategic is how the artist and  her mother community came up with the idea to hide the messages in Chinese traditional calligraphy in order to exhibit the project without being censored.  Because the medium of calligraphy has a long tradition and is a widely respected medium, it is less suspect to the Chinese authorities. Huang states about this project and its participants, “I hope in the process, me and the people I work with are both engaged, and that both have grown through it”.

Indeed, when asked about being able to speak to a wide range of audiences in terms of intersectional relevance, Huang answers, “though I think about my audience, I do not submit myself to the audience,” and she emphasized that she does not create work in any way specific for a Western audience. What is of importance to her is that her work does something for her audience, which is for her, first and foremost a Chinese/women audience.

Moreover, creating work that is accessible to her audience, for Huang, is not about dumbing it down, but rather keeping the complexity of issues that reflect reality alive in the work. For her, the job of an artist is to understand the complexity and to transform it into many layers that allow for various points of entry  into these issues. For her, having an artistic approach essentially should be about making structural differences, to invent imaginative ways of bringing together people in this increasingly segregated world. In this way, no matter what class or ethnic background you are from, the work should give access to, and speak to, these positions.

“The project was born with zero budget and it is designed to be able to live even in the worst situation: under severe censorship and with no financial support,” she says.  Making a profit is clearly not her priority, and Huang admits she has to live in a very modest way, and even sometimes finds it difficult to support herself. “It is hard bargain indeed,” says Huang, who prefers to call herself a “social art practitioner” from China.

Interviewed on 5 June 2018 after Huang Jing Yuan gave a presentation ‘The Map Against the World’ at auditorium OK26 invited by Museum Arnhem, BEAR, and ArtEZ Studium Generale.

Huang Jing Yuan

Huang Jing Yuan was born in 1979, of Zhuang minority descent. She received a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in 2005 and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008. Since her return to China in 2010, her work has focused on the contradictions within Chinese society, and disconnections between China and the world. Two major series were produced during this period: the “Confucius City Project” and “I Am Your Agency. Since 2014, concerned over the diminution of a civil society under the Xi administration, Huang has worked with the idea of socialist realism, attempting to subvert the key mechanics of this historically complex genre. Notable projects from this period of work include “Civility Trilogy,” “Invitation of Models,” and “Mao’s Love Letter.” Since 2017, her exhibitions and residencies have focused on exploring the conflicted inner strength of people in the provincial setting. Her first film “Solutions” is made during this period.

She is a participant of “Theater 44” and “OnPractice”, as well as the initiator of “Writing • Mother”, an on-going communal writing project with the ambition of discovering the potential of a feminist critique through the lens of family life.

Yuchen Li

Yuchen Li is currently enrolled in Bachelor Fine Arts program in ArtEZ Arnhem. Formerly the Corporate Account Manager in Magazines International Thailand headquarter in charge of premium marketing products of the world’s top publications such as TIME, FORTUNE, Forbes for the elite clientele in South East Asia, Yuchen brings her extensive experience in business development together with her passion in contemporary art.