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An Unlikely Center for Chinese Women’s Contemporary Art in U.K.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – Nestled within the record stores and alternative cocktail bars of Manchester’s Northern Quarter sits an impressive piece in the world of the Chinese contemporary art scene. The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) has hosted an intriguing array of exhibitions over the years, with recent shows like “NOW: A Dialogue on Female Chinese Artists” (which ran until April), that aimed to reinvigorate discussion around the role of female Chinese artists based in Britain and China.

The institution will play host to an  array of future exhibitions that tackle the topic of gender, such as Shen Xin’s “Sliced Units”, which splices three short films together to create fictionalized spaces where discussion on complex political issues play out and Faye Wei Wei’s large scale figurative artwork that brings together mystery and mythology. She-files contributor Eleanor Forrest spoke with curator Tiffany Leung, who’s previous experience involves curatorial research and operational roles in museums and galleries in London and Hong Kong. She spoke about CFCCA’s exhibitions, the meaning of feminism and also the appearance of Chinese culture in a British narrative. EXCERPTS:

FORREST: Why was the CFCCA created?

The CFCCA was first initiated in 1986 by Hong Kong-born artist Amy Lai; she was based in Manchester and she conceived it as a Chinese Culture Festival. At the time there was an influx of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and she wanted to bridge the gap between the Chinese and British community. It wasn’t until 1997, in the year of the handover of Hong Kong, the Chinese center moved to the Northern Quarter where we are today. It has to do with breaking away from the traditional Chinese culture that Chinatown depicts. In the 1990s there was a boom in the Chinese art market and consequently marked a shift in our focus from us just working with British Chinese artists to broadening the scope and working with artists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Starting this spring there are going to be a number of female-focused events. Why now? 

The way we organize our exhibitions and events is based on a period of six months. For the first six months we’ve focused on gender, exploring how Chinese female artists navigate the complex influence of gender, its categorization, and the relationship of that within the creative process.
In terms of NOW specifically, its a collaboration with the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing (CAFA), informed by the discussion around gender in China nowadays, and NOW is explores that role in the wake of the past feminist movements.

How did you decide which artist you wanted to feature in the show?

One of the CFCCA’s focuses is to showcase emerging artists that have never displayed work in the U.K. before, so this is the first time for many of the artists in our show. We wanted to showcase a diverse range of different practices and styles, as many artists work in different ways. Many of these artists are young and they grew up during the social and economic reform of the 1980’s and 1990’s, which is something that we’ve also touched on in the exhibition.

How are Chinese female artists viewed in Chinese society?

It was a struggle for female artists. Initially it wasn’t easy for them to establish a career for themselves on the same footing for their male counterparts. In recent years there has been more of a global aspect to Chinese contemporary art and as a result there has been more discussion of gender in the arts. That partly gave the opportunity for Chinese female artists to gain attention in both China and abroad; hopefully this will continue.

What does feminism mean to you?

First and foremost it is about reflecting and rejecting socially constructed ideas and boundaries of gender. In terms of the exhibition “NOW” it’s also important to understand that feminism means very different things in different cultural contexts and its crucial to avoid the homogenization of it as a definition and understand that it can exist differently within different social and political contexts.

How have your experiences in the art world influenced you?

I spent many years in Hong Kong and then the U.S. and now I’m based in the U.K. and I think living in these very different places have exposed me to different cultures and different identity politics. I’ve experienced that different hybridity of “Chineseness” in different countries and that inevitably shapes how I think and work as a curator. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly, but it’s certainly shaped how I perceive things.

In the British narrative, Chinatowns and, to some extent, China is all framed in one way or brand different from the reality, Why do you think this is the case?

In the U.K., Chinatown is a very specific idea of what Chinese culture is like and often we’re fed different information by the mainstream media from the reality, so it is a very limited and a very narrow perception of what makes Chinese culture and China. That is partly why we moved out of [Manchester’s] Chinatown as it limited what people perceived of the culture and the type of Art. As the only place in the U.K. that showcases Chinese contemporary art specifically, I think that’s why its quite important for us to be able to showcase Chinese culture from a different perspective and narrative than what is normally illustrated.

How could you see the CFCCA developing in the future?

I would like to see us showcasing artists not just from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan but beyond so we can see different dialogues and perceptions of Chinese art. Its important to realize that this can be from a local, global, Chinese and non-Chinese perspective. We hope to continue shaping as a site for research and provide an intellectual discourse around Chinese contemporary art because that China is such an interesting and ever-changing country that its good to see the changing social, political context that this art is created in.


Eleanor Forrest grew up in the U.K. and studied history at the University of Manchester. She continues to live in Manchester, pursuing her career as a journalist and writer. 


Photos: 1) Photos from exhibition, courtesy Ms. Forrest; 2) Photo of Ms. Leung, courtesy Ms. Leung

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