AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Lily van Baaren

The Personal is Political: Female Identities In A Post-Revolution Era

The destruction of gender convention and deconstruction of society’s stylescape proves a hot topic with more than one Chinese artist. Female photographer and mixed media artist, O Zhang (b. 1976), hails from the city of Guangzhou, China where she would soon evacuate due to pressures of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Currently, she has been photographing and traveling between New York and Beijing. Oil Painter, Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970), photographer and performance artist, began painting at a young age in northern China. She eventually became a member of the group called Sirens, where she, and three other female artists exhibited work in their small apartment – as women were hardly welcome in public spaces in the 90’s.Chengyao He (b. 1964), was born in the Sichuan province in China. During her childhood, the Cultural Revolution gained momentum and her family suffered. Much of her art has challenged feminism, body politics, nationalist and transnational issues as well as, photographer Pixy Liao (b. 1979), born in Shanghai who began her artistic adventures at the University of Memphis.

The Personal is Political: Female Identities In A Post-Revolution Era will explore the identities of women and children; specifically, how the cultural revolution (1966-76) and Chinese politics have affected the way in which these identities have been altered. This exhibition will feature four series of works which act to examine the personal female experience. Xiuwen’s One Day in 2004 (2005) and Zhang’s Horizon (2006), capture the relationship between society and the female body whilst incorporating memories of their own childhood. Artist’s Liao and He, “deconstruct China’s resolute definitions of gender and power” (van Peridon, 2020). Furthermore, testing Mao Zedong’s China (1946-1976): a discipline which molded the “individual body and mind, shaping a collective” consciousness and socialist entity (Cui, 2015). Aware of the profound changes in post-Mao Chinese society, these artists are an emblematic figure of a new generation of female artists whose presence is strongly asserted in the international art scene.


Cui, Shuqin. Gendered Bodies: Toward a Women’s Visual Art in Contemporary China. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2015.

van Paridon, Elsbeth. “Bloody Pixy Liao: Reappointing Society’s Gender Roles.bloody Bad*Ss.” The China Temper, February 16, 2020. https://chinatemper.com/the-photographers/pixy-liao.

Number 19, Daddy and I (2005)

In O Zhang’s Daddy and I, photograph number 19, a 40 by 40 inch digital type c print, taken in 2005 is one of many studio-style portraits shot in idyllic outdoor environments, depicting modern multicultural family units in a prejudicial society (The Guardian, 2011). Number 19 exhibits a father/daughter portrait to which Zhang has placed the daughter in intimate proximity to her adopted father. Both subjects are huddled close together, staring straight at the camera. The image’s garden landscape is well cultivated, and staged which makes the artwork seem unreal. Number 19 questions the complex relationship between a young, adopted Chinese girl and her American father. It works to question the affection between the two, and how the nature of their relationship might be impacted by their different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, Zhang hopes to examine the female condition through image number 19. The father and daughter create an implausibly intriguing couple in the photograph. At first glance the photographs seem almost inappropriate to viewers who are conditioned by the media to be suspect about middle-aged men and young children. For one doesn’t immediately read these as photographs of fathers and daughters (Battista). The racial incongruity of the couple highlights our own assumptions about what constitutes traditional familial and gender roles (Battista). Additionally, photograph number 19 draws reference to Chinese history. This work exemplifies Zhang’s interest and interpretation of how the West saw the rapid development of contemporary China. The teenage girl in this photograph symbolizes the future potential of China. Like the girls adapting to their new situation, in 2006, China was learning from the West in order to grow its economy (Zhang, 2006). The relationship exhibited in the photograph exemplifies an emergence of feminine power (the daughter) contrasted with her father’s maturity, for Zhang, this is a metaphor for the two often divided cultures: East and West.

Found on www.ozhang.com.
(Number 19, Daddy and I, 40x40in, digital c type print, 2006)


theguardian.com. “Amnesty International’s Imagine a World Exhibition.” Guardian Unlimited, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/arts/pictures/image/0,8543,-10705343665,00.html.

Battista, Kathy. “Female Artists and O Zhang’s Art.” Art and Architecture Journal. Accessed April 19, 2022. http://www.ozhang.com/Site/O_Zhang,_article-2.html.

Zhang, O. “O Zhang Index.” www.ozhang.com. Accessed April 20, 2022. http://www.ozhang.com/Site/O_Zhang_index.html.

About: O Zhang

Female photographer and mixed media artist, O Zhang, most famously known for her series of photographs: Daddy and I. She is trained in Photography and film, and also has experience in installation. Zhang was born in the city of Guangzhou, China on November 23, 1976. Forced to leave their home due to pressures of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Zhang and her family fled to the edge of Jishou, located in the Hunan Province. “In the countryside Zhang was exposed to and learned the language of ethnic minority groups like the Miao and the Tujia, and demonstrated her ability to adapt to situations where she was an “outsider”” (Karetzky, pg. 18). Zhang remembers her rural childhood as a peaceful and colorful one. These aesthetics are present in many of her works, but specifically her exhibition, Horizon, where she captures the innocence of female children in remote central China. Zhang is a graduate of Royal College of Art in London and Central Academy of Art in Beijing, since then she has been working and traveling between New York and Beijing.

O Zhang. “My Name is Zhang O.” Who Am I. Ed. Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky. New York: Chinese-American Arts Council, Inc., 2004. 18-19-20.

Lily van Baaren

Hi there! My name is Lily. I am A first year at Union studying Visual Arts and Psychology. I live in the Pioneer Valley, (Massachusetts) which doesn’t have a lot going on, so often, I find myself traveling and exploring new places in neighboring states.

I haven’t yet taken an Art History course, so I am super excited as this will be my first experience with the subject, and Chinese art material. I am really looking forward to exploring the works of O Zhang and other modern Chinese artists, as well as traditional mid century artists too. My aunt grew up in Shanghai and studied/produced art after the cultural revolution; I am curious if this class can help me understand her art a little better.

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