Domestic Practices in Contemporary Taiwanese Art

Written by Taylah Kolotsos

Domestic practices refer to the chores and tasks that are often assigned to the women of a household, and are enforced by social, cultural, and religious constructs. These can include cooking, cleaning, sewing, knitting, and embroidery. Dr Yu Fang Chi, an Australian-based Taiwanese artist, uses these mundane tasks as the basis of her practice in order to study the female body and gender roles in Taiwan. This paper aims to examine feminine crafts and practices as an art form within contemporary art spaces by first delving into how history affected the gender politics of modern Taiwanese culture. Furthermore, through Chi’s Inner Crease (2018) brooch series I will demonstrate the use of feminine crafts in East Asian art and its role in feminist conversations within contemporary art space. As a final point, I will then compare and contrast the views of various galleries on domestic art practices by analysing Chi’s Veiled Memories II installation. Before presenting my findings, I would like to acknowledge that, as a young White Australian person, I do not have authority to make claims or statements on behalf of the Taiwanese community around the world. The decision of this specific topic was made due to my recent interest in the cultural differences between women’s roles in the West and Asia, spurred by learning of Yu Fang Chi’s practice. I aim to use this discussion paper to collate necessary data to broaden the discussion on women’s crafts as a medium in the contemporary Asian art scene.

There have been various definitions of the term ‘patriarchy’ throughout history, but the most applicable meaning in the scope of modern society is, as Sylvia Walby, a British sociologist with a focus on gender politics and its influence in the modern world, (1989:214) posits, “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women”. Patriarchalism is deeply rooted in almost all aspects of modern culture, including social, political, and religious cultures throughout the globe. During the 5th century, Chinese philosopher Confucius created a belief system based on social and ethical values, holding the beliefs that all people have the capacity for moral self-cultivation and that this development is of upmost importance in order to live a peaceful life (Goldin 2015). Though many of the values upheld in Confucianism focus on self-improvement, there is also a gender-centric hierarchy that “limits women’s freedom and educates them to accept this ideology” (Chen 2006:2). Through a chain of colonisation and land occupation, Confucianism spread to other areas of Asia.

Figure 1: Chi Yu F (2018) Inner Crease [copper, silver, metallic car paint, thread, steel wire], Intro by Galerie Marzee website, accessed 16 August 2022. Fang-chi/

Figure 2: Chi Yu F (2017) Veiled Memory II [fishing line, mechanical parts], Yu Fang Chi website, accessed 16 August 2022.

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Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a Japanese colony after the Qing government lost control of the island along with losing the Sino-Japanese war (Taiwan Government n.d.). In these 50 years, the most popular artists within Taiwan were solely men, with the only admired female artist being Chen Jin (Lin 2019). She was able to become the “most accomplished painters trained during the Japanese colonial period in nihonga (traditional Japanese-style painting)” (Lin 2019). By 1945, after the end of World War II the Republic of China “restored all legal territory, people, administration, political, economic, and cultural facilities and assets of Taiwan” from Japan, reinstating China’s control over the country (Taiwan Government n.d.). During this transitional period, painters from mainland China felt that her nihonga-style paintings were “too Japanese and thus inappropriate to represent Chinese national painting” (Lin 2019).

Chi discusses the relationship between her art, curatorial practices, and her Taiwanese upbringing (Chi 2022). She described the daily life of many Taiwanese women, who would work in factories, creating clothing patterns and assembling minor electronic devices. At the end of a workday, Chi’s mother, as well as many other women, would return home with smaller tasks to be completed, on top of her domestic duties, with the assistance of her children. These tasks can include assembling lightbulbs and sewing. Growing up with this routine, Chi became accustomed to such detailed tasks, which quickly informed her art practice. She utilises techniques such as sewing, silversmithing, and wire sculpting. The incorporation of her heritage and cultural contexts not only through meanings and symbolism, but also the materiality adds much more depth to each piece’s significance.

The inclusion of domestic practices as a subject in contemporary art is fairly uncommon and is deeply rooted in themes of feminism and cultural history, and its acceptance is vital to the development of women’s spaces in the art community. To punctuate this point, Chi (2022) recounts the prominence of such “female duties” in the daily lives of Taiwanese women, as well as her shock with the lack of these activities in Western culture after having moved to Australia. Chi’s brooch series Inner Crease (2018) explores concepts of the femininity and the female body, as well as touching on her experiences of being a young girl in Taiwan. Inner Crease is a series of twisted abstract brooches made from the metal sink strainers used in Taiwan to collect food scraps, which would be cleaned out regularly by the women of the household. When displayed in Napier gallery during the exhibition of the same name (2015), each brooch in the series, as well at the other jewellery in the exhibit, was pinned to stretched and flowing sheer curtains around the naturally lit gallery space. The connecting theme throughout the exhibit was fine art jewellery pieces that spoke to the feminine body and the audience was encouraged to touch and try on the different pieces before pinning them back on to the curtain. The interactive element of moving the jewellery about adds to the idea of the human body, with pinning the organic forms to oneself it almost becomes one with you.

Why is the inclusion of these domestic practices in a fine art space so important? To maintain a holistic view of the female artists’ space in the contemporary art world, all factors – including, race, culture, sexuality, and upbringing – need to be considered and acknowledged in their own way. Disregarding the reclamation of enforced gender roles as a valid art form completely disparages an entire group of people’s experiences and ideas, lending more power to the social hierarchy that already holds them in such low esteem. We cannot afford to discourage artists from exploring the various aspects of their identities and histories while there is such a disparity in representation in institutions.

Throughout history, women have not been entirely welcomed into federal fine art spaces. It was preferred they stay within the canvas rather than behind it. In reference to the art world’s views on the predominant issues voiced in contemporary art, Lise Vogel, an influential Marxist-feminist theoretician whose research centres on intersectionality in art history, (1974) suggests that “…it ordinarily assumes that a single human norm exists…in fact it is quite clearly male, upper-class, and white.” Fine art is yet another field that favours profiting from women over helping women gain profits from their labour. In The Countess Report (2019), an Australian annual statistical report focussing on the gender representation, it was found that “[in] State galleries and museums, the representation of women decreased from 36.9% to 33.9% from 2016 to today [2019].” The Art Market Report (2019) – an annual report on the global art market – stated that “…Asian galleries showed the lowest representation of female artists, six percentage points lower than the global average…” It was also found that “[commercial galleries] with turnover up to $1 million had a share of 38% female artists on average, …and 28% for those over $10 million.” This further illustrates the notion that institutions emphasise profit over making a difference and representing talented artists. Women do not thrive in contemporary art spaces and until institutions make the necessary changes to the current systems and inherent prejudice held, they will continue to be underfunded and left to support themselves.

Though federal and commercial galleries around the world have their reservations around supporting female Asian artists, many community and artist-run spaces appear to have more of a focus on supporting a wide variety of artists and practices, some even exist for the sole purpose of uplifting such artists. White Rabbit Gallery – a non-profit community gallery in Sydney, Australia – acts as a space for Chinese artists globally to showcase their artworks (Neilson n.d.).  Since its opening in 2009, White Rabbit “includes more than 2000 works by almost 700 artists” (Neilson n.d.). Comparably, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art – a non-profit artist-run organisation also located in Sydney – “champions the practices of Asian artists and elevates cross-cultural dialogues between Australia and Asia” since its founding in 1996. 4A strive to support Asian artists based in Australia and around the world, and since their first gallery opening in 1997, they have supported countless artists from across the Asian continent.

Yu Fang Chi has displayed her artworks in various community galleries around Melbourne, including both city council galleries and RMIT galleries – her alma mater. For instance, her 2017 installation Veiled Memory II was exhibited in Counihan Gallery, Merri-bek. Veiled Memories II is an installation consisting of a 3x3 metre triangular mesh made from fishing line suspended between two walls with a deconstructed sewing machine sitting on a shelf behind it. The mesh was made by a combination of hand-sewing and machine sewing onto water-soluble fabric, which was then soaked in water until only the interlocked sewed portion remained. The sewing machine used to create the mesh was also presented behind the webbing. During her former years in Taiwan, alongside six other Taiwanese female artists, a gallery space was created enabling other Taiwanese women to exhibit their artworks to the public. Chi (2022) states, “if you can’t find a space for your art, make one.”

Ultimately, by representing uncommon practices  and subjects – such as the use of domestic practices and materials depicted in the works of Yu Fang Chi – and underrepresented artists in contemporary art spaces, more variety in exhibitions and opportunities for similar artists are created. Before making decisions about an art form, one must understand the history of the materials, practice, and space they are looking to enter, as well as their own personal accounts and experiences. Likewise, Yu Fang Chi considers her own upbringing, her family’s experiences, as well as her own individual beliefs and ideas when deciding to focus primarily on domestic practices as a medium. The reflection also spans outside of the artist themselves, with institutional prejudices affecting an artist’s opportunities. Despite this, there have been several positive moves spurred by the community to create dedicated spaces for artists from underrepresented fields – be it art form, race, or gender.  As Andy Butler, an artist, writer and curator who uses his practices to explore institutional discourse and structural racism, (2016) asserted, “If we want to overcome and decentre Whiteness in these spaces, given that it functions as a set of values, power structures, a whole framework for making sense of experience, and a way of determining what’s good art – as well as being invested in skin colour – then we’ll need more than a body count.” Indeed, if we want to progress the art world to a place of true equality and diversity, we need to stop policing and defining what art is and is not, and let people create what they want, incorporating their own personal experiences and influences.