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Her, Me, and Us: Women Arts Festival, Yunnan, 2022

28 February 2023

In this conversation, Hongwei Bao from Queer Lens interviews Banying (In Light of Shadows) founder and curator Jiete Li about the Women Arts Festival, 2022 Yunnan Edition.

Banying 半影 (In Light of Shadows) is an organization dedicated to connecting and empowering women in China through the arts. With creativity as its keystone, Banying is not restricted to one medium but works with professionals in the fields of visual art, film, literature, performing arts, and more. It currently focuses on three main areas of work: the organization of an annual Women Arts Festival; art therapy for women who suffer from post-sexual abuse and domestic violence trauma; and the podcast series banying fm.

Jiete Li 李洁特 is the founder and director of Banying 半影 (In Light of Shadows). From 2017-2020, she worked as a Carpenter Foundation Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and then as a curatorial researcher at the National Portrait Gallery. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Smith College and the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, respectively.

Art gallery tour led by the curator Jiete Li

Could you briefly tell us who you are and what work Banying does?

Jiete: I studied art history in the United States and have been attracted to women’s art. My master’s thesis was on the 16th-century courtesan’ art in China—how women played a role in the male-dominated ink painting tradition. After I started working in museums, I got many chances to collaborate with stellar women artists, such as Michelle Obama’s portraitist Amy Sherald and famed Asian American artists Hung Liu and Maya Lin.

In the current Western art world, there is a supportive and encouraging environment to talk about women’s art. However, after I got back to China in 2020, I found that even art professionals were quite illiterate to this topic. At the same time, pandemic lockdowns caused more domestic violence cases; many news reports of women being abused physically or emotionally came out at the time. What can I do, as a curator specializing in women’s art, to make some positive changes? What can art do to empower and inspire more women in China? With these questions, I founded Banying with friends in summer 2020.

Figure 1. One of the theater performances in the inaugural Women Arts Festival: Me and Twenty-Two Hers, 9 March, 2021, Beijing, China (credit: Jiete Li)

Besides salon talks, art therapy workshops, and a podcast series, the most impactful program Banying has ever organized is the annual Women Arts Festival. The first edition was in Beijing 2021. We transformed the city into a fluid museum of art by women, spreading various events—an exhibition, film screenings, dance workshops, theater performances (Figure 1), etc.—in different public spaces across the metropolis. In the end, we attracted thousands of visitors on site and accumulated millions of views online. More information of the inaugural Women Arts Festival can be found in the book Contemporary Queer Chinese Art (Bloomsbury, forthcoming in June, 2023).

Why did the second edition of Women Arts Festival travel to Yunnan?

Jiete: China is a huge country. Issues that many people care about in Beijing may not be relevant to people in other provinces, so I came up with the idea of organizing a Women Arts Festival in a different province every year. Ideally in 31 years (as China has 31 provinces), we will be able to finish touring the whole country.

In 2022, I picked Yunnan Province as our second stop. With the help of a local art professional Xinyi Wang, I curated a group exhibition called Her, Me, Us which showcased around 50 pieces of art—paintings, sculpture, woodblock prints, photography, animation, performance art, and textiles—by 47 artists or artist groups. Most artists grew up or are based in Yunnan, and a small percentage of them are ethnic minorities (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. First day of opening the exhibition Her, Me, Us, 30 August 2022, Kunming, Yunnan, China (credit: Jiete Li)

Yunnan is located in Southwest China, famous for its beautiful landscapes, abundant natural resources, and diverse plant life. In the past, I knew that Yunnan has a rich tradition of craftsmanship and folk art, mostly made by ethnic minorities, such as tie-dye, embroidery, and silverware, and their makers are mostly women. By curating this exhibition, I discovered the vibrant contemporary art scene and a close-knit community of women artists in Yunnan. Though these women artists did not learn about feminist theories at school, they have been learning from each other and curating exhibitions together for many years.

Figure 3. A piece of Sun Guojuan’s self-portrait photography was shown in the 2022 Women Arts Festival. The work is entitled Sweetness is Gone, date of creation: 2008 (credit: Sun Guojuan)

The leader of the small community of women artists in Yunnan is Sun Guojuan (or Son Kukgyon in Korean) (Figure 3). She has a North Korean nationality but was born and grew up in Kunming – the capital of Yunnan. Her life is quite legendary: Sun Guojuan’s father was the mechanic and co-pilot of Chiang Kai-shek’s private jet; after the People’s Republic of China was founded, he was assigned to work at the Kunming Wujiaba Airport and brought his family there. This is why Sun Guojuan, a North Korean, ended up growing up in Kunming.

Figure 4. A piece of Su Yabi’s iron wire sculpture was shown in the 2022 Women Arts Festival (credit: Su Yabi)

Sun Guojuan was born in 1959 and has been practicing contemporary art for 40-plus years, which makes her the eldest and most experienced person in the community of women artists. She has been actively organizing workshops and curating exhibitions for women artists in Yunnan. Many of her students were included in the 2022 Women Arts Festival. Interestingly, though these artists studied under Sun Guojuan, they specialize in very different artistic media: Sun Guojuan is good at painting and mixed-media installation, while her student Su Yabi is good at iron wire sculpture (Figure 4); Bai Xuejuan is good at artist books (Figure 5); and Wang Yuqing is good at textiles and embroidery (Figure 7). The exhibition showcased their most iconic works.

Figure 5. A piece of Bai Xuejuan’s artist book was shown in the 2022 Women Arts Festival. The work is entitled My 2020; it is  watercolor on paper, date of creation: 2020 (credit: Bai Xuejuan)

Why is the exhibition called Her, Me, Us?

Jiete: The exhibition was divided into three sections: Her, Me, and Us, which signifies the shift of identity along the path of feminist awakening. “Her” means the subject under the male gaze. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.” In a patriarchal society, not only men objectify women. Women internalize this objectification as well, and identify themselves as the other or “her.” “Me” stands for an awakening of self-identity – the independent and expressive self breaking through patriarchal norms. The last section “Us” is about female solidarity – how a community of women speak up for women’s rights collectively.

This exhibition includes 47 artists or artist groups: The eldest ones were born in the 1950s, while the youngest ones are Generation Z. “Her” section was mostly women artists born in the 1950s and 1960s; “Me” section was mostly women artists born from the 1970s to early 1990s; and “Us” section was mostly Generation Z who like to work in groups. From this generational shift in Yunnan, we can see how feminist thoughts evolved among Chinese women artists in the past 40-plus years.

Figure 6. Lü Min’s woodblock print Summer was included in the “Her” section. The work was made in 2019 (credit: Lü Min)

Lü Min’s (b. 1962) was a representative in the “Her” section. She likes to paint female subjects. The women in her works are often supple and gentle, lounging in beautiful natural landscapes, which is a rather traditional way of portraying the feminine beauty (Figure 6).

Figure 7. Wang Yuqing, I Who Went Through the Pandemic, 2020, embroidered organza silk (credit: Wang Yuqing)

A major theme of the “Me” section is écriture féminine, or “women’s writing” – a uniquely feminist style of writing or image creation which deviates from the traditional masculine styles. For example, artist Wang Yuqing sewed her diaries written during the pandemic onto organza silk (Figure 7). By displaying her work in a museum setting, her private writings entered the public sphere and made the audience think: Who has the right to write history? How can more individuals’ voices be heard? In the past, history was mostly written by men with power; women’s voices were almost invisible. However, women artists in the “Me” section use various ways to display their inner worlds and challenge the monolithic historical narrative written by authorities.

Figure 8. The animation film Eyes by artist group Degu was included in the “Us” section. It is a two-dimentional animation video, made in 2022 by 7 female poets and 23 female illustrators collaboratively (credit: Degu)

The “Us” section is about collaborative art projects and communities of women artists. For example, the artist group Degu invited 7 female poets and 23 female illustrators to create an animation film together (Figure 8). The atmosphere of this section is young, fun, and festival, as artists in this section are mostly Generation Z. They like to use colorful and light-hearted ways to discuss heavy feminist topics, such as period shame (Figure 9) and women’s mental health.

Figure 9. Generation Z artists Jiemo and Li Xuanyuan in the process of installing their collaborative work Net which uses women’s underwear as the main material and discusses period shame (credit: Jiete Li)

What are your reflections on the Women Arts Festival in Yunnan

Jiete: In December 2021, I attended a business school class in Kunming where I met curator Xinyi Wang and artist Jing Qiang. I spoke to them about my idea on the Women Arts Festival touring around China. They loved the idea and decided to help me organize a festival in Yunnan. They did not hesitate at all, even though at the time we did not have any funding or sufficient local resources.

Fundraising was the most difficult part during the organization of the Yunnan Women Arts Festival, partly due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic lockdowns in China. In early 2022, we reached an agreement with a cosmetic company who was willing to fund the program. Very soon after, Omicron hit Shanghai, and the Chinese government responded to the COVID-19 outbreak with a strict lockdown of the city for almost 5 months. The 5-month lockdown pushed many enterprises to bankruptcy, including the cosmetic company who was planning to fund us. Moreover, economic downturn triggered collective anxiety and depression; art became something seemingly useless and irrelevant to the daily difficulties people were going through during the lockdowns.

For a long time, I doubted if Yunnan needed a Women Arts Festival and even if women’s art is valuable to our society. But my collaborators Xinyi Wang and Jing Qiang never questioned; they kept giving me faith and strength to keep going. Without them, the Yunnan Women Arts Festival would not have happened. So I am most thankful to them; I am thankful to the power of our sisterhood (Figure 10).

Figure 10. The three main organizers of the Yunnan Women Arts Festival: Xinyi Wang, Jing Qiang, Jiete Li (from left to right), 29 August 2022, Kunming, Yunnan (credit: Jiete Li)

What other programs did Banying do in 2022?

Jiete: Another project I am proud of is that Banying was invited by the United Nations to curate a women’s rights art exhibition. The exhibition opened on 25 November, 2022,  the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls, and the exhibition theme is activism against gender-based violence. We displayed artworks by seven groups of artists from three countries, and the artistic media included installation, sculpture, photography, ink painting, and theater performance.

I was able to collaborate with artist Li Xinmo in this UN exhibition. One of Li Xinmo’s works shown in the show is called The Story of Beijing (Figure 11). It is a film based on a real social event: On 19 October, 2009, a 26-year-old woman called Dong Shanshan was beaten to death by her husband. Before this tragedy happened, Dong Shanshan had already tried to seek help from the police and requested for divorce at the local court, but none of her efforts had worked. News can often be quickly forgotten, but art can give social events a longer life. Every time when Li Xinmo’s work is displayed in an exhibition, the audience are reminded of what Dong Shanshan and women like her went through. The Story of Beijing also questions the current legal system in China – how laws and legal institutions can protect women more effectively.

Figure 11. Li Xinmo, The Story of Beijing, film poster, 2015 (credit: Li Xinmo)

If you are interested in learning more about Jiete Li or Banying’s work, please follow Banying’s Public WeChat Account: inlightofshadows and YouTube channel or contact: