An exploration of Louise Zhang Healing
her cultural identity through ART

Written by Sabrina Petrucco

Louise Zhang is a Chinese-Australian multidisciplinary visual artist, whose practice explores the complexities of cross-cultural expression through art. This discussion paper will delve into her practice by examining a selection of her artworks. It will investigate how art can be used as a vehicle to overcome struggles with identity, traditions and histories. The Sydney-based contemporary artists’ practice includes sculpture, installations, and paintings which explore a range of themes which I will only be able to speak from observation instead of personal experience as a young European Australian female from a high socio-economic class background. Firstly, Zhang’s upbringing in a religious conservative household clashed with influences of Western Subculture which contributed to a resentment towards her Chinese heritage (Prugger 2020). However, eventually she embraced this internal conflict within her art style to communicate provocative ideas and strengthening her self-expression. This is depicted in her personalised style of grotesque horror symbols inspired by the Western horror movie scene and Chinese mythology. This is seen in her artworks including You are forgiven (2020), In Devils Lion (2019), Scholar Mould #3 (2019) and Zhang’s Temple Digital World (2020). Finally, Zhang’s approach towards art can be considered a healing practice for childhood psychological struggles. After gaining taction within the art community, her work was displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as part of an exhibition collaborating with Mecca, which provided a larger platform for exposure for those going through similar struggles.

Zhang’s art practice began as an escape from her struggles with conservative Chinese family pressures and an exploration of identity influenced by Western subculture. She has experienced emotional turmoil with being a ‘third culture kid’ struggling with her Chinese traditions conflicting with Western subculture. Her family is from a small island in the Zhejiang providence of China called Qidu, which is heavily driven by the Christian faith (Zhang 2020). However, when her family moved to Australia, she began to resent her family’s conservative values. She reflects “at home we were Chinese and being Chinese wasn’t part of my school life” (Zhang 2021). She expressed “I felt a pressure to fit in. I wanted to be a regular Australian, not Asian or even Chinese Australian” (Zhang 2021). Already this conflict impacted her attitude towards her heritage but was further affected when she was encouraged to steer away from aspects of her culture within her art. She found herself drawn to ideas around the supernatural, however, this could not celebrated or taught to her because to Christian eyes, it was seen as folky and idol-worshipping to believe in it (Zhang 2021; Hart 2021). Despite her parents’ bringing a pastor from their church to counsel her, she pursed her interests creating a lot of family tension (Guest 2021). Thus, her art to some extent can be viewed as a claim to power and a vehicle for exploring her heritage. However, Zhang still struggled to embrace her culture at times within her art practice stating, “I have up until recently felt a pressure to not directly bring my personal experiences into my work as I didn’t want to become another second-generation artist dealing with identity” (Zhang 2018). She explains that she felt choosing her Chinese heritage to not define her work meant avoiding being potentially attacked by racism, prejudice, and ignorance (Rose, 2018). This was further impacted by her feelings that being “Chinese as a kid wasn’t something to be proud of and being from a lower-class family fairly new to Australia didn’t help either” (Rose, 2018). Evidently, there have been many contributing factors including family, societal and religious pressures which have caused a disconnect towards her Chinese culture.

Zhang’s art practice later developed into a fascination for her culture and traditions and allowed her to embrace her heritage. She reflected that her art practice allowed her to “move beyond the person-of colour tale” and instead “bring [her] culture to the forefront” (Zhang, 2021). As an “emo teenager” she experienced a lot of anxiety and depression in her teenage years from battling expectations of her Chinese-Christian community (Zhang, 2021; Zhang, 2022). Thus, it allowed her to explore the dynamics of aesthetics, contrasting the attractive and repulsive to navigate senses of fear and anxiety (Zhang, 2022). She researched and integrated these into her work as an attempt to construct and deconstruct her personal and cultural identity (Zhang, 2022). Thus, her art interweaves related issues of culture and histories and reflect her new outlook and perspective towards discussing these concepts. Further, Zhang’s unique art style allows the audience to find confrontational ideas of sinister biblical messages, anxious reflections, and subtext visceral horror, palatable (Guest, 2021). Despite the subject matters being provocative ideas of horror interweaved with religion, culture and history, the artworks do not emit a dark nature. This is due to the playful and colourful “Kawaii” illustrations which seem to be conjured from the mind of a child making them less intimidating (Rose, 2018).

To some extent, Zhang using her art practice to discuss her struggles with her Chinese identity within Australian Western society can be considered to have had an impact on her mental health. There have been many studies conducted which suggest that visual art as a form of therapy has healing benefits although to what extent is somewhat unknown. However, there is evidence that engagement with visual art has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression and thus may have subconsciously been used by Zhang (Fabian, 2017; Cherry 2021). This can be seen in one of her works Zhang’s Digital Temple World 2020 which will be later discussed, which was a way for her rationalise and reason with her family’s religions and growing cultural divide (Zhang, 2020). This can further be seen in another interview where reflects that it took her a long time to embrace her cultural in both her family life and art (Rose, 2018). She says “I feel as though I have wasted many years making excuses, being horrible to my family rather than learning and celebrating it and realising how privileged I am” (Rose; 2018; Zhang, 2018).

Zhang has explored subject matter from Chinese history such as the notion of hell to explore her own fears. The painting In Devils Lion (2019) is an example of Zhang using her art as a device to adapt her own concept of hell which expresses her concerns and anxieties. Chinese culture and Western culture have differing understandings of hell, which Zhang found herself torn by which to follow and what is the truth within history. During her residence in China, Bejing and Congqing she was introduced to the Chinese realm of the dead or ‘hell’ known as Diyu. Diyu is often represented as an intricate maze with chambers and levels which souls pass through after death to atone for sins committed in life (Pettifer 2021). In Chinese culture it is a belief that everyone ends up in hell, but the time spent there depends on how good you are (Rose 2018). While in Western culture those who are good during life go to heaven while those who are bad go to hell (Rose 2018). In particular, she found herself fearful of Chinese hell as it is so deeply embedded into a culture that she felt she struggled to understand (Rose 2018). Her painting Devils Lion 2019 references a bible verse depicting a devil prowling looking for someone to eat (Prugger 2020). The reference 1 peter 5:8 from the Bible ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ haunted her as a child (Pettifer 2021). Therefore, she has adapted her art to disarm her fear with whimsical sherbet pink and lavender colours which help pad and digest the darkness (Zhang 2021). This artwork is one of the three featured at the NGV exhibition. Similarly, her works We’re all gonna burn in hell for a little bit (2016) and Hungry ghosts (2018) follow these themes.

Through the symbolism of a lotus flower, Zhang manipulates an image with connotations to Chinese culture to explore notions of sin. Her painting You are Forgiven (2020) which was also exhibited at the NGV, explores her struggles with the concept of sin. Growing up and going against her parents’ expectations she felt an immense amount of guilt which can translate into sin. To communicate these feelings, she has paired the text ‘I forgive you/you are forgiven’ with the lotus flower. The flower which is colloquially referred to as waterlilies is associated with purity, rebirth, and enlightenment in many Eastern religions as they emerge from the mud ‘unblemished’ (Prugger 2020). The lotus is seen within classical written and oral literature in any Asian cultures (China Museum 2016). This includes the famous poetic essay “On the Love of the Lotus” by Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) which quotes how the emerging flower is pure and unscathed from the mud (China Museum 2016). Further this work was inspired by the goddess Guanyin who provides protection, care and compassion and is often depicted sitting atop a lotus throne (Prugger 2020). Similarly, her work The Pure Land explores these themes of deities and symbolism.

The sculptural work Scholar Mound Study #3 (2019) is the final of the NGV acquisitions. Displayed is a playful interrogation and contemporary feminist critique of the Gongshi or Scholars Rock (Prugger 2020; Pettifer 2021). To some extent this piece is both disturbing and luring as she contrasts between grotesque forms with cultural relevance. The Gongshi rocks are limestone formations sculpted by natural processes of erosion via exposure to the elements. Chinese scholars who were primarily male have been fascinated by the rocks shaped by wind and water for over a Millenia as they capture the creative energy force (qi) of nature (Prugger 2020; Pettifer 2021). In contrast, Zhang subverts the sombre aesthetics of the scholarly men to undermine the masculine philosophical tradition that the object references (Pettifer 2021). Inspired by pop culture she has instead created a form with sugary colours, drippy form, and glittery surface to create a perceived feminine aesthetic. Zhang work can therefore be considered a feminist critique of history and culture as she combines the bodily and the abject (Pettifer 2021).

Further Zhang has reimagined traditional aspect of her history into accessible mediums of art for others to embrace her culture. The immersive VR digital series Zhang’s Temple Digital World 2020 is comprised of pieces of animation which accumulate into an imagined digital world of her family temple. To bring this idea to life she collaborated with Dr Josh Harle, Director at Tactical Space Lab. It features two temples, “No worries” and “Zhang Temple” which is a place for confessions. Additionally, her other works including banners and moulds have been rendered in. This idea is inspired by the Zhang family temple that she was not allowed to visit in case it offended her Christian family members (Zhang, 2020). This digital place is not dictated by a single narrative “but of multitudes of acceptable” creating a “worry free temple where anyone is welcome” (Zhang 2020). She has reflected that this place allows the audience to express their worries, fears and sins and “is a way for me to rationalise and reason with my family’s religions and growing cultural divide” (Zhang, 2020).

Louise Zhang’s art practice exemplifies the methodology of researching cultural symbols, written texts and motifs to explore her personal anxieties and experiences as a ‘third culture kid’ (NGV, 2021). Through a feminist lens the contemporary artist has created many works that allow others to find the confrontational ideas palatable through her unique art style. This is seen in her paintings In Devils Lion 2019 which use a bible verse about a lion to symbolise Chinese hell and You Are Forgiven 2020 uses the symbol of the lotus to highlight sin. Further this is seen in her sculptural work Scholar Mound study #3 2019 exploring the Gongshi rock and male philosophers in a playful feminist form. Finally, this is seen in Zhang’s Temple Digital World 2020 which allows herself and others to atone for their guilt, sins and confessions as a way to heal cultural and family conflict. Despite the disconnect she felt towards her Chinese heritage growing up, she has embraced this over time in her practice and finally feels proud and privileged to be a Chinese-Australian (Rose, 2018).

Figure 1: You are forgiven, 2020, by Louise Zhang and Photographed by Zan Wimberley <>

Figure 2:  Scholar Mound study #3, 2019, by Louise Zhang and Photographed by Zan Wimberley.<>

Cherry, K, 2021, ‘What is art therapy’, Viewed on 15 August 2022, <>

China Museum, 2016, ‘Lotus Flowers in Paintings’, Viewed 21 September 2022, <>

Fabian, R, 2017, ‘How art therapy can heal PTSD’, Viewed on 16 August 2022, <>

MECCA, 2020, ‘Meet Louise Zhang: the artist behind our 2022 holiday packaging’, Viewed on 15 August 2022, <>

NGV, 2021, Louise Zhang, Viewed on 20 August 2022, <>

Pettifer, D, 2021, ‘Louise Zhang’, Artist profile, Viewed 21 September 2022, <>

Prugger, K, 2020, NGV Essays, ‘NGV x MECCA: Louise Zhang’, Viewed 18 August 2022, <>

Zhang, L, 2021, interview with Luise Guest, CoBO Social, Viewed 18 August 2022, <>

Zhang, L, 2022, Personal statements, Viewed 20 August 2022, <>

Zhang, L, 2018, interview with Andrew Frost, The Art Life, Viewed 16 August 2022, <>

Zhang, L, 2018, Interview with Mercedes Rose, Metal Magazine, Viewed on 15 August 2022, <>

Zhang, L, 2020, biography, Artspace, Viewed on 16 August 2022, <>

Zhang, L, 2021, interview with Sheridan Hart, Art Guide Australia, Viewed 16 August 2022, <>