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I Stood Up from the Ruins: How I Became a Feminist Artist

By Zhen Guo

Missing, 2011 | Ink acrylic on rice paper | 38”x38”

A friend recently asked me, how did you become a feminist artist? I have given many lectures about my feminist art and thoughts, each time I show the transformation of my work. I gradually became a feminist through a process of self-reflection, but from what?

In the summer of 1987, my husband (now my ex-husband) and I were invited to be visiting scholars at the School of Fine Arts at York University, in Toronto. We met in 1980 and were married in August 1985. A year later, I went to California to study, while he was still in China. In July 1987, we met in Los Angeles and went to Toronto together for York University. In our year apart, we went through some changes. Sometimes, because of differences in thinking, in life there are some disputes.

One day, in Toronto, I woke up groaning, lying on the floor. I looked up and saw him sitting there, puffing on a cigarette and blowing smoke above me. I looked at myself. Why was I lying on the kitchen floor? One arm was pinned strangely behind my back like a chicken tied up for roasting. I looked at him again, quizzically, trying to remember. What happened?

He picked me up and said that he was a little scared and originally wanted to call 911, but then heard me snort a few times and knew I wasn't dead, so he didn't call. Hearing this, I suddenly remembered: we had another quarrel. Why? I can't remember the details, only that he twisted my arm, pinned my arm behind my back, like when the Red Guards caught capitalist sympathizers in the Cultural Revolution. As I tried to break away, he threw me against the wall and I fell unconscious.

Bruce Parsons of York University, Bruce’s wife Mary asked me what was wrong when she saw my bruised face and arm. I had deliberately covered the marks with my long hair to avoid embarrassment, but it was nevertheless discovered. I didn't have time to answer, my tears poured out first. By the time I could speak she had pulled Bruce to me and said, "Look what the Chinese artist you invited did!" I didn’t understand. How did she know where the bruises came from? Later she told me a local saying that "women usually get bruises from men.”

Untitled, 2000 | Ink acrylic on rice paper | 40”x30”

Bruce asked me some questions with concern. I can't remember what they were but I memorized the word "domestic abuse." This was the first time I had heard this word and I was a bit surprised because I did not fully understand what it had to do with me. In my childhood and in the tradition in which I was raised, we understood that the man is in charge. Women usually do everything for the family. Family disputes are often seen as the fault of women, although actually it is mostly men. In China, women are beaten and shamed all the time but no one ever called it “domestic violence.”

Bruce also told me “You can sue, and if you do, we can send him back to China.” When I heard this, I was startled and asked: “Is it that serious?” The shock to me at that time was huge, but the inertia of life, and my preconceptions, rooted in the traditional ideas, still drove me to live as before.

I needed to go back to the United States first to satisfy a visa requirement, and Bruce drove with my husband together to the airport to see me off. At the airport, I still held my husband in my arms and cried. It was then that I saw Bruce's eyes. They were difficult to describe in words. Regretful? Confused? Disdainful? Merciful? This made me feel ashamed and embarrassed. That feeling, I later realized, was a sign of the instability of my female mind in its infancy, a state of confusion and ambiguity about what was happening to me. This was confirmed in a later meeting with Bruce in New York, where he said he knew well what some men in Chinese families did. For many years afterwards, I lived with the shackles of traditional Chinese family feudalism.

During the years we lived together in the United States, I initially did three things every day. I left home at seven in the morning to go to school, which was necessary to stay a legal student. In the afternoon, I went to work as a waitress at a small Taiwanese restaurant called “Coffee Shop.” I was off work at 6:00 PM and was home by 7:00. We were living in the house of a wealthy American merchant who was paying rent in exchange for labor, so I had to clean their room every day. After dinner I had to do my school work, and I didn't go to bed until midnight or later. I was exhausted every day, and on weekends I did different odd jobs to help earn money for my family. My husband did only one thing: attend school every day to learn English. In this way, I silently bore all the burdens of my family, with the hope that my labors would be temporary, and that my efforts would help him to establish himself in America as soon as possible, so that we would rise together.

Why, 2010 | Ink acrylic on rice paper | 38”x38”

In San Francisco, I found gallery agents to sell my work. Life became a little easier. But because New York is the center of the art world, my husband went there in a rush, leaving me behind. I sent him money, helped him rent a house and paid his tuition. Everything seemed so natural, reasonable. Six months later, to save money, I took an F2 Visa status so I didn't have to go to school, and I followed him to New York.

On a typical day there, I would paint at home and he went to an English language school. There seems to be some order and calm in our lives, but the pictures that I drew were of a commercial nature and not the true art that I wanted to make. Still, I endured and told myself I could not give up my responsibility.

There were a few American friends who admired my ability to support my family by painting, because in America, it is often difficult for artists to earn enough money to live professionally, and most often they must have a regular profession to sustain their pursuit of art. They thought I was lucky, but when I told them that the paintings I could sell were not what I liked to paint, and that I really desired to do experimental art, they did not understand. They thought that there are many ways to make a living and that the responsibility of a family is to share the effort. They said you can both do a bit of supporting the family, share the responsibility, and then everyone can do something they want to do.

Hearing this, I also felt that I carried too much, and my heart felt a bit sour. But at the same time, I considered this to be the virtue of Chinese women: “Westerners don't understand us: we Asian women are willing to work hard for the family, and to sacrifice.”

Thousands of years of traditional Chinese thought and ethics flow in my body, just like blood, from my heart to every fiber. The traditional, generational continuity of feminine thinking silently ate at my heart with a sour sense of grievance.

For the first few years of my life in the United States, I was like a rickshaw porter with my family and all my support and dreams loaded behind me. If you were to ask me: What is the value of your life? I will answer you without thinking: give. To give my body, my ideals, my youth, my career, in exchange for a coveted position to watch someone else in the spotlight.

Women’s Function, 2012 | Ink acrylic on rice paper | 120”x80”

How humble and shameful it seems now! How can we evaluate a woman’s contribution to the family? It has always been a social equation that patriarchal society refuses to answer. In the end, women's efforts are like a cleaning cloth, which will be thrown into the trash after it is used.

This is how my previous marriage ended. Ten years of marriage left me with chicken feathers and ruin. I couldn't believe it happened to me because I really gave it my all. I didn't understand what I had done wrong. I asked myself: Why is your luck so bad? Too much remorse made me slide into a deep depression and my desire to live wavered.

Why is that?

Women’s Function, 2011 | Ink acrylic on rice paper | 40”x40”

I went to fetch water from the well when I was 10 years old and carried it home at two or three in the morning. Then, I woke up and went to the compound to sweep the leaves blown about by the wind and rain, and then carried home firewood for cooking. When the neighbor's children came to my door and called us the sons and daughters of the capitalists, I would raise my fists and come to blows. I could not bear it. Later, no child dared to bother me.

When I was 14, I traveled alone to a distant relative in the countryside to learn how to make clothes. When I was 16, I went to a garment factory to live and work. All the money I earned every month, I gave to my mother. Until she passed away, my mother remembered this and praised me for it.

That's how I tried to be a good child. After the Cultural Revolution, I entered the Department of Traditional Chinese Painting of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, which is the oldest academy of fine arts in China and has had a profound influence on traditional arts. I cherished this opportunity and tried my best to create a positive mood every morning for a day of learning. After graduation, I stayed on campus to teach with high praise and excellent results. This was a milestone in the Department of Traditional Chinese Painting, as I was the first female teacher of the Chinese Painting Department after the reform and opening-up, and only the second female teacher since the founding of the People's Republic. In this role and at school, I became a leader and I met the challenges of my new life with confidence. In the years after, I participated in almost all the national art and awards, and everything seemed to be moving forward for me with ease.

But everything changed the moment I started to fall in love.

Love Cross, 2000 | Ink and acrylic on rice paper | 40”x40”

I remember a quote from the philosopher and poet L.M. Montgomery: “Despair is a kind of freedom, but hope is a slave.” The expectation of love is part of the existence of every person. In our time, people worship loyal, romantic love just as they worship life. What we think of love, how we face love, will determine the life we will lead. The moment I entered the vortex of love, I lost myself, my female identity set in place as a slave devotee, and it doomed my marriage to an unequal end.

My awakening to my own self-sufficient womanhood began entirely from questioning my personal experience. At first, I was unwilling to admit that it was my own lack of consciousness or self-awareness. A good friend suggested that I use painting to explore my deep thoughts and display my inner entanglements, to display my pain and sorrow as truly as possible, and so to find the answer. During this time, I experienced an emotional suffocation, the primitive ecology of my feminine emotional life strangled by the secular idea of male power.

Since ancient times, a woman's life has been described as thinner than paper and more bitter than medicine. In patriarchal society, guided by Confucianism, the concepts of male dominance vs. female submission, male superiority vs. female inferiority seriously restricted women's human rights and social progress. Women's social responsibility is only limited to the scope of the family. Feudal society praises the husband, and the life of women is buried.

Looking inward, I watched all the cells in my body, saturated with the genes and social progress of this thought, even though I grew up in post-liberation China, where women were told they could be half the sky. But when the family was put before me, I was pushed as if by an invisible hand into the position of an ant, a woman's humble role from ancient times to the present.

In the process of this reflection, I painted a number of painful self-portrait works. I wanted to deeply embed anger and hatred, resentment and submission in my art, as well as love and sorrow felt to the bone.

Nietzsche wrote “Extreme pain is the last liberator of the spirit. Only this pain compels us to understand.”

The appreciation of life is a gift to those who learn from pain. Pain makes me grow and comes with growth. I examined the events that happened to me, and the ones that happen to women in many different ways, times and places, and throughout, the source ideology and the root of social formation are the same.

Suffocation, 2011 | Ink acrylic on rice paper | 40”x40”

I have also seen this kind of objectification and discrimination against women from different faiths, by different races, and in different cultures all over the world. The ravages and destruction of women can be described as extreme and horrific. Humans play up female ethical and moral hexenbiest, leading to thousands of years of cruel and merciless persecution of women. As French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote:

“Women are not born, but rather gradually formed. That is to say, women are artificially, consciously, systematically changed into the unequal second sex, which is the patriarchal society for its consolidation of self-power set up to imprison women shackles.”

I am not the only victim. What happened to me wasn't something I did wrong or how lucky I was. Remember Xiao Hong said: “My life's greatest pain and misfortune are because I am a woman.” Because we are women, we are abandoned from birth, locked in a dark room of our consciousness, where we are dirty, filthy, we have no right to visit and develop outside, and our sphere of activity is controlled.

Indeed, it reminds me of The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood.1985)In this story, after the Second American Civil War, women were objectified as mere tools of human procreation. It's fiction, but it portrays what patriarchal thinking can do to women in practice. While at time hyperbole, the basis for this re-imagination of American society is very much rooted in exactly what is happening right now, particularly with respect to reproductive rights.

Women are deprived rights as human beings by the patriarchal society, and for us to fight for the right to be human, we must eradicate this rule of thousands of years which pollutes people's hearts with unfair moral law.

I realized the importance of women's self-improvement and self-reliance, the rationality of equality, equal rights and equal respect for women, and the necessity of fighting, resisting and opposing patriarchy. I learned that feminism is the only system of thought that can save women. Unfortunately, many women still don't understand feminism well enough to question and deny the system that saved them and the pioneers who died for it. Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex of “How unfortunate it is to be a woman! However, the worst misfortune of being a woman is, after all, not knowing it.”

Punching Bags installation | 2013-2018

The rise of women requires self-awakening, women's equality; it is a call for women to fight for it; women’s autonomy, freedom, self-reliance needs women's action to fight back.

I do feminist art works. I curate international feminist art exhibitions, for the spread of feminism, to help those women understand their own value as women and to achieve women's social equality.

I have always believed that the progress of human civilization is made possible by the participation of selfless, dedicated and humane philosophers, humanists, sociologists, psychologists and every one of us. In short, my life experiences have educated me and forced me grow as a feminist: my thinking and observation have deepened me, making me a feminist; my hope and kindness made me a feminist artist.

In Zhen Guo’s studio

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