Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Gallery of Chinese women artists reveals unsung wonders

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-06-28 10:42

As director of the Asian Cultural Council's branch office in Hong Kong for 25 years, Michelle Vosper was in a unique position to get to know the top tier of Chinese artists. After all, what the Rockefeller-backed council does is give grants to the top individuals in all of the visual and performing arts.

"Usually it's people who are going to be famous," she said. "If they've already gotten there, they don't need it. But there's a stage when an artist knows it, they need to make some kind of a breakthrough. They just know."

Her territory covered the Chinese mainland, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan (until they got their own office). But when she retired in 2012, she felt like she wasn't done. "I had the privilege of knowing all these incredible people - they're the best in their field - but they're still not known in the States."

And she thought Americans deserved to know about them.

Gallery of Chinese women artists reveals unsung wonders

The result is her book - Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan - four years in the making and just launched in the US.

With advice from colleagues, she selected 16 ACC grant recipients and interviewed each one in great detail, letting them start from the day they were born, who their parents were, what they did, and then letting them go on.

"They'd remember things they had forgotten, or remembered for the first time," Vosper said. "It's very unusual for someone to listen to your whole story. It was like they would enter another dimension."

She meticulously wrote out the transcripts then sat down to write a chapter on each.

Four months into the project, she hadn't finished the first - a profile of writer Nieh Hualing, author of more than two dozen books of fiction, essays and translations and, along with her husband, Paul Engle, co-founder of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

Gallery of Chinese women artists reveals unsung wonders

"I thought what am I going to do, I'll be dead?" she said. She knew she couldn't finish it. So she started reaching out to friends who had expertise in the fields and assembled a stable of contributing writers. She meted out her notes, they did Skype-call, follow-ups. Vosper helped with translations when needed (she's fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese).

The portrait gallery of artists includes award-winning Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong, installation artist Yin Xiuzhen, Beijing-based documentarian Yang Lina, Macao-born composer Bun-Ching Lam, virtuoso on the 3,000-year-old stringed guqin Wu Na, and dancer Yang Meiqi, who has been called the "Mother of Modern Dance in China."

The book is inscribed with a quote from American painter Georgia O'Keeffe: "I feel there is something unexplained about women that only a woman can explain."

Vosper initially set out to write about both men and women artists, but she found that there had already been so much written about the men and virtually nothing about the women.

When she decided to narrow it down to just women, she worried at first they might balk and say, "I don't want to be in a book just about women, because I'm not just a woman artist!"

But when she started to interview the women, "They were so passionate about it," Vosper said. "And I think it's about women, women with women. They just would tell you anything. The sense of solidarity was really something special."

Ten of the artists came to the book launch in Hong Kong on March 8, Vosper said. "There was just such a natural sense of camaraderie," she said. "There were certain things about them I think that are the same, maybe that would be the same with all women artists around the world. It's been tougher for them. It's been much tougher for them. And interestingly they don't talk about it too much."

Vosper said she got the impression that because of the traditional social structure, Chinese women tend to be more accommodating and "to talk about women is kind of a small issue compared to the bigger issues".

"But then you hear the stories and you learn more," she said. "I think they're special in that they're the kind of long-suffering people who don't give up. And there's something there that affects your character."

Women have also learned to "hear what people don't say."

"I hate all these stereotypes about women being so nurturing," she said, but "that's what I saw."

It's time to see and hear more of these wonderful creators. The book is a great start.

Contact the writer at

(China Daily USA 06/28/2017 page2)

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