In September of 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in the Beijing suburb of Huairou, one of the landmark events of China’s 1990s. In addition to the official schedule, a large number of related activities were held by officials and members of the arts and cultural communities, including the Ministry of Culture and the China Women’s Federation’s organization of the “Chinese Women Artists Exhibition.” Liu Wen presided over the “The Way of the Woman in Chinese Contemporary Art,” with female painters participating from the Mainland, as well as from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan in the “1995 Chinese Women Artists Invitational Exhibition.” The exhibition featured a number of unusual exhibition names and activities, such as the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum’s “Husband Nomination Exhibition,” and the Chinese Academy of Arts’ “Cultural Arts Society for Women” at the “Female Scholars of Empress Wu” seminar. The magazines Art and Literature and Jiangsu Pictorial publications, among others, put together the “Collection of Chinese Female Artists” and “Collection of Female Art.” But among the many activities surrounding the conference, “Women Here” was particularly unique, all the more so for having been organized by three male artists who are still major voices on the Chinese art scene.
In 1994, Zhan Wang, Sui Jianguo, and Yu Fan established the “Three Man United Studio.” In the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where they all taught, the artists joined with students and young artists to engage in enthusiastic discussions. The studio became the major place for exchanges of this kind. In the mid-nineties, the hot topic of conversation was none other than how art should engage with society, which ultimately became the major issue addressed by the “Three Man United Studio.” One of their early exhibitions focused on the problem of relocation, just as CAFA’s longtime home in Wangfujing was being torn down and the school moved to the city’s northern fringes. With the arrival of the U.N.-organzied women’s conference, and an official audience for the activities, they decided to organize an exhibition on the final day of the conference to address a related theme, “Women Here.” As Zhan Wang remarked, “At the time, we were thinking about how to make interventions in society, and given the events taking the place in society at the time, this seemed like a place to act.”
Women hold a special place in the official propaganda of the PRC, albeit a very specific one. The image of the heroine or the female model worker was long a subject of celebration in the March 8th Women’s Day celebrations. Sui Jianguo, Yu Fan, and Zhan Wang however decided to turn their attention to ordinary women, selecting those with whom they were most familiar— their mothers and wives—as the subjects for this exhibition.
“Women Here” was held at the short-lived Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art in Long Fu Temple, where the exhibition hall was divided into two separate spaces. One room was equipped with a television broadcasting CCTV’s coverage of the World Women’s Conference; the other contained the works of the three artists, namely exhibition panels covered with photos and personal information on their personal heroines, including Sui Jianguo’s mother and wife, Zhan Wang’s mother and ex-wife, and the yet-unmarried Yu Fan’s mother. They took ordinary women and gave them the full-dress biographical treatment typically reserved for literary and historical figures, deadpanning the visual style of documentary displays in historical residences and revolutionary monuments throughout China.
After confirming how the exhibition would be configured, the three artists made decisions based on the given circumstance, determining ways to explore how distinct historical eras informed the lives of these women prior to 1995. Sui Jianguo’s mother’s life was divided into three themes: “Family and Childhood,” “The Red Era,” and “Life, Work, Children.” Because of his mother’s long-term battle with illness, one of the exhibition panels was densely covered with medical charts. Zhan Wang discovered and mounted a pre-Liberation picture of his mother reading a book in Jinan, a diary from the Cultural Revolution years, and his mother’s collection of crafts, toys, trinkets, and postcards, which were all compiled to form a “Private Collection.” The panels for Yu Fan’s mother were adorned with a variety of awards and certificates.
“Three Man United Studio” did not exist for very long, as the three artists later found their own creative directions to explore. However, the notion of public engagement they pioneered over the course of a few exhibitions—and particularly in this one Women’s Conference intervention—stand as a distinctly intelligent response to the circumstances of a moment that now feels much longer than fifteen years post.