Women’s Art Power Surges in Asia

 Wassan Al-Khudairi, Sunjung Kim, Mami Kataoka, Alia Swastika, Carol Yinghua Lu and Nancy Adajania , Joint Artistic Directors of the 9th Gwangju Biennale 2012.


Asia is not the first place that leaps to mind when one thinks of female liberation and the widespread opening of professional roles for women. But in the continent’s far-flung art scene, if not yet in its old-boy corporate boardrooms, a new wave seems to be rising. Women are now confidently claiming high-level positions as artists, curators and cultural impresarios.

In Korea this fall, the Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale will be held for the fifth time [Oct. 1–30], while the Gwangju Biennale Foundation begins preparing its 2012 exhibition under the shared command of six artistic directors-all of them Asian or Middle Eastern women.

The Incheon event started modestly in 2004 as an area roundup organized by the Incheon Women Artists’ Association. Taken over by the city government in 2006, it quickly morphed into the Pre-International Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale, a regional halfway station to two global shows, featuring hundreds of artists each, held in 2007 and 2009. This year, the worldwide survey is headed by Jane Farver, director of the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, and includes a book project based on personal stories by or about Asian women, regardless of their place of residence. Readers wishing to contribute may submit 300–800 words to  iwab2011@gmail.com by Sept. 15.

The Gwangju Biennale, founded in 1995, claims (with some justice) to be not only the oldest but the most distinguished biennial in Asia. Many past installments have drawn on international curatorial stars to oversee all or part of the event, including Harald Szeemann (1997), Hou Hanru (2002), Wu Hung (2006), Okwui Enwezor (2008) and Massimiliano Gioni (2010). In 2006, the artistic director was a woman: Kim Hong-hee, an art history professor at Hongik University and director of the nonprofit Ssamzie Space, both in Seoul.

But the massing of female cultural power to oversee the 2012 Gwangju Biennale is unique, as is the broad geographic scope of the team, which encompasses Qatar, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, China and India.

Wassan Al-Khudhairi, who has worked in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. (including stints at the High Museum in Atlanta and the Brooklyn Museum in New York), is currently director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar.

Sunjung Kim, a professor at the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, was formerly chief curator at the Artsonje Center and commissioner for the Korean pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale.

Mami Kataoka, previously international curator at the Hayward Gallery, London, is now chief curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

Alia Swasticka, artistic manager of the Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, from 2004 to 2009, will serve as a curator for the Jogya Biennale XI [Nov. 25, 2011–Jan. 8, 2012].

Carol Yinghua Lu, based in Beijing, is a contributing editor for Frieze and cofounder of Contemporary Art & Investment magazine.

Nancy Adajania, an independent curator and critic based in Bombay, was formerly editor-in-chief of Art India magazine.

A cynic might say that having these women share the Gwangju Biennale directorship is a tactic to get them all out of the way at once, rather than spread their influence over six separate events. But such a view flies in face of mounting facts. Each year, as a result of Asia’s burgeoning equal-education policies and its loosening of traditional social strictures, more and more women are coming into art-world prominence.

At the Venice Biennale in recent years, women represented China in 2007 (Cao Fei, Kan Xuan, Shen Yuan and Yin Xiuzhen), Korea in 2009 (Haegue Yang), Japan in 2009 (Miwa Yanagi) and 2011 (Tambaimo), and Saudi Arabia in 2011 (Raja and Shadia Alem).

Female artists such as Lin Tianmiao, Cao Fei and Yin Xiuzhen hold places in the upper echelons of the Chinese scene, while curatorial agendas have for decades been largely set by Weng Ling (now director of the Beijing Center for the Arts) and Victoria Lu (until recently artistic director of Shanghai MOCA). Pan Qing, who holds a PhD from Columbia University, recently became deputy director of curatorial affairs at the National Museum of China. Contemporary art scholarship is abetted by Claire Hsu, director of the information-gathering Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, and substantial art-project support comes from patrons Annie Wong (Hong Kong), Pearl Lam (Shanghai) and Linda Wong Davies (Beijing).

In Japan, Yuko Hasegawa, at present chief curator of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, has long been the go-to person for international appointments, serving as artistic director of the Istanbul Biennial (2001), co-curator of the Shanghai Biennale (2002) and commissioner of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2003).

Sunhee Kim, born in Korea, has had a multinational career as chief curator of the Gwangju City Museum, senior curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and artistic director of both the Zendai Himalayas Center and the Bund 18 Creative Center in Shanghai.

Despite these standout examples, the battle is far from over, of course. Women in Asia, even within the educated urban elite, still face tremendous pressure to marry young, provide a male heir, defer to the authority of a mother-in-law, center daily life around children, give extravagant start-up gifts to newly adult offspring, guarantee security to aging patents, and remain unwaveringly faithful to a husband who treats philandering as a male birthright and part of the bonding rituals of business. Women’s work outside the home, from farm field to sweatshop to gleaming office tower, frequently remains supplemental to the collective family income. A woman’s aspiration to fill the number-two slot in an enterprise is seen as admirably ambitious; driving to become number one invites disparagement as a dragon lady.

The long and difficult emergence of Asian women has been a theme of numerous shows, in Asia and abroad. At present [through Nov. 6], “Inner Voices,” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, features 11 women artists who address changing social mores in non-Western cultures, especially shifts in traditional gender roles and female propriety. Participants include the Indian interactive video-maker Shilpa Gupta and Japanese installation artist Chiharu Shiota.

Later this month, Drexel University in Philadelphia will present “Half the Sky: Women in the New Art of China” [Sept. 23–Nov. 12], a selection of 60 works by 22 contemporary Chinese women artists—among them such well-known figures as Cao Fei, Chen Qiulin, Xiao Lu and Xing Danwen. The show, co-organized with the National Art Museum of China, examines the Maoist precept that women “hold up half the sky” and are thus co-equal with men.