Sun, Jan 05, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Sisters are doing it for themselves

An exhibition of women artists seeks to debunk the Asian preconception that female artists are mere dabblers

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Hamletmachine, a video installation by Nalini Malani.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TFAM

In 1993, Singaporean artist Binghui Huangfu was at the opening of the Mao Goes Pop -- Chinese Contemporary Art after 1989 exhibition in Beijing when she heard a question posed.

"Why is it that among the nearly 200 artists in the show, is there only one female artist?"

The curator replied: "The work of female artists is too sentimental. Their work lacks philosophical meaning and are not mature enough to be included."

At these words, Huangfu questioned whether female artists in China, or anywhere else, might really be the unthinking amateurs so described. In the following years, Huangfu traveled around Asia to get to know female artists in this part of the world where female artists are often viewed as no more than dabblers.

Her findings ran contrary to that description. Text and Subtext -- Contemporary Asian Women Artists, currently on show at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, showcases Huangfu's research. The exhibition, featuring the work of 22 female artists from nine Asian countries, has been touring Australia, Sweden and Norway over the past two years.

"It's a manifesto stating that there are plenty of sophisticated works by female Asian artists and that their concerns are universal," said Huangfu, who is curatoring the exhibition.

Singaporean Suzann Victor's installation Dusted by Rich Manouevre looks back over Singapore's colonial past. South Korean artist ium's video, Highway, reflects on the consequences of ever-faster urban development. Varsha Nair's installation Point 33 -- Ether explores human reaction to separate spaces. Berlin-based Chinese artist Qin Yufen's Silent Wind explores the effects of different contexts on consumer products.

Huangfu broadened her selection of artists to include not just artists working in Asia but also artists of Asian ancestry. Comparing the works of Chinese American Hung Liu and Chinese Zhang Xin or Vietnamese Australian My Le Thi and Vietnamese Nguyer Thi Chau Giang, viewers can speculate about the effects of a Western environment on Asian women artists.

"In South Korea, 83 percent of college art majors are girls. Only 10 percent of them continued to pursue a career in art. Art institutes are viewed as finishing schools through which girls become better wives," said Huangfu, giving an example of the oppressive environments Asian women live in.

During her research, Huangfu discovered some touching stories.

In the early 1980s, Indonesian Arahmaiani wrapped blood-smeared bandages around electricity poles to highlight frequently occurring street accidents. The act quickly landed her in a mental hospital. Although she achieved worldwide renown, Arahmaiani was not recognized at home until 1999.

Vietnamese oil painter Hguyer Thi Chau Giang shows much innovation in her works. However, in Vietnamese art circles, she is treated in the traditional way. Huangfu once asked her why male artists like her to hang out with them. "So that I can cook for them," Huangfu quoted her as saying.

Viewers will not find loud feminist statements in this cross-section of work. However, they are decidedly feminist in the way they try to express their cultures and surroundings, and are as creative as their male counterparts.

WHAT: Text and Subtext -- Contemporary Asian WomenArtists

WHERE: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 181, Chungshan N. Rd., Sec. 3, Taipei

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