Kalamazoo Institute of Art Hung Liu Women Warriors Exhibition features a selection of Liu’s finest works based on women she encountered during the Cultural Revolution and from Chinese photographic history.
Hung Liu is now considered one of the most important contemporary artists in the United States, but her path was not an easy one. Liu was born to a captain in the Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai-shek in Changchun, China, in 1948. Her father was captured by Communist forces, and subsequently imprisoned in a labor camp. When Hung Liu was eleven, she and her mother fled to Beijing, where she managed to survive Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the mass famine it induced.
After they fled, Liu’s mother destroyed all their family photographs featuring the father, in order to protect themselves from the Mao regime. Photographs, subsequently, took on a special meaning for Hung Liu. She searched for her own family in the photographs she found, and in doing so, she found her extended family in humankind. Because Liu looked so closely for meaning, she saw the struggle in each photographed face, and she chose to dedicate the entire practice of her art to memorializing the inherent beauty of each human spirit.
As part of her re-education during the Cultural Revolution, Hung Liu was sent to work in Chinese country fields. She toiled 364 days per year, for four years. When she embarked on her tenure in the fields, a close woman friend gave Liu a camera. Liu photographed the people she encountered, and the resulting works are the remarkable duotone photographs of her “Village Portraits” series, featured in this exhibition. “Painting Landscape” portrays Liu herself, during one of her daily secret painting sojourns. It is clear that from an early age, Liu looked to women for strength (“Old Auntie”); she also saw courage in the younger girls she met in the countryside (“Ninth Daughter,” “Four Golden Phoenixes.”). Liu acknowledges the resilience of the girls and women PLA soldiers in her “Women Warriors II,” “Portrait 10,” “Thousand Years of Blessing,” and “Female PLA Soldiers”.
After her years spent working in the countryside, Hung Liu was allowed to return and attend art school at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. She applied for the art program at U.C. San Diego, where she was accepted, though the Chinese government would not grant Liu a passport for several years. Undeterred, Hung Liu waited out the years until the Chinese government finally granted her passport in 1984. She travelled to the United States with twenty dollars and two suitcases, leaving her young son and mother (temporarily) behind in China, to pursue her art career. Within a few years after her arrival in the U.S., Liu’s paintings were recognized by the American art world, with numerous museum collections and publications seeking to feature them.
When Liu returned to China a few years later, she found a box of photographs of Chinese concubines. She was struck by how young these girls were, and how difficult their lives must have been. She saw them as heroes, just for surviving, in the same manner she regarded the village women she had labored within the fields. Liu espouses the Chinese custom of “calling a spirit home” a few days after a person’s death. She gives these female heroes a “home” in her paintings, more beautiful than the difficult lives they led on earth. In “Red Flowers,” she places the woman on a gold background, using the visual language of icon painting to emphasize the sanctity of her spirit. In “Calendar Girl Turquoise,” “Summer with Cynical Fish,” “Shui – Water,” “On the Grass I,” “She: Amethyst,” “Equus II,” “Fantasy Study,” “Remote Portrait VII,” “Sublimation,” “Lady Lotus,” and “Bygone Time II,” Liu portrays the concubines almost as royalty, surrounding them with symbols of good fortune and the greatness of Chinese culture. Liu adds her personal iconography of circles and drips, representing infinite memory in spite of history’s blur over time.
Liu regards the women she paints, who persevered to survive difficult odds, as warriors. As an artist who went from fleeing her home in China and working in the fields under Mao, to having her paintings included in American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and SFMOMA, Hung Liu is certainly a Woman Warrior, herself, as well. Thus, the title of this exhibition at Kalamazoo Institute of Art is quite fitting.
Tonya Turner Carroll
Turner Carroll Gallery
Santa Fe, New Mexico