Content Notification:
This paper contains descriptions of blood, body altering, pain and plastic surgery,
as well as brief discussion of paedophilia in beauty standards.

Feminism and Intersectionalism in Chinese-Australian Art

Written by Eddie Corney

Su Yang and Meng-Yu Yan are two artists who display themes of feminism and cultural identity in their works. This discussion paper will review feminism in contemporary society with regards to Asian identities, as well as intersectionalism between feminism and queer experiences. Su Yang (b. 1986) is a Chinese artist who works between Melbourne and Beijing. She is predominantly an oil painter and describes the focus of her work as “Reframing the representation of the female form”. Meng-Yu Yan (b. 1992) is a Sydney born Chinese-Australian photographic artist. Their work conveys the theme of intersectionality between race, sexuality and gender identity, and is diaristic in nature. 

Su Yang’s portrait series Invisible/Visible hands 2020 portrays the female form in multiple ways, each referencing specific insecurities or ‘undesirable’ qualities. She comments on the way women are forced into boxes and told to conform to the beauty standard of thin, white bodies.  The works show forms pinching and squishing their skin and fat as if in disgust. The red, dark palette creates this emotion in the viewer as well, connecting them to the struggles of these figures in bold, strong anger. This series paints this anger as directed at the beauty standard and those who uphold it in our society. Yang talks about the beauty industry “propelling women to pursue beauty at any cost” (Yang 2019). The heavy red tones and strong brushstrokes aid Yang in portraying this anger. The red almost reads as blood, commenting on the mutilation of women’s bodies to fit into these “boxes”. The arbitrary and often paedophilic, Eurocentric ideals of ‘beauty’ cultivate new insecurities in a vicious cycle of ‘never good enough’. The frustration depicted in these works is clear and palpable.

Plastic surgeries in the name of beauty have risen significantly over the last five years, with China being a leading example. Even compared to the numbers in the USA, which is regarded as one of the leading nations in the industry, China’s plastic surgery industry was worth over a billion dollars more in 2018, at 17.7 billion USD. Additionally, the ages of patients booking and receiving aesthetic-based surgeries was 80% under 30 years old (Yang, S 2019).

Chinese young people, predominantly women, are changing their appearances surgically at an all-time high, with no suggestion that this will slow. Su Yang’s portraits show the mutilation that occurs both physically and mentally when undergoing these procedures in an attempt to open the conversation to how unnecessary it is. In the NüVoices article (Yang, S 2019) discussing gender inequality in China, Yang states that as a society we “still have unfinished business”. Yang is advocating for self-acceptance and body positivity in the face of a world that capitalises from women hating themselves.

The specific body insecurities that Yang paints are rooted in fatphobia and White supremacy. Gender equality takes steps back due to these ideas that fat equates with bad and ‘white power’ is real. In her works beyond the invisible/visible hands series, Yang discusses Eurocentric beauty ideals as well. The most common plastic surgery processes that we think of are nose and breast augmentation and liposuction to remove fat. Yang depicts nose surgeries and bandages, gruesome and bloody, to show how detrimental these surgeries are to mental and physical health. Many of these processes are considered desirable because they increase the proximity of physical features to Whiteness. This is therefore an intersecting issue with feminism and race.

Asian women historically are either fetishized for their Asian traits or told to conform to white ideals of beauty, neither of which leaving room for authenticity. Journalist Neha Kale (2017) comments on this, saying that “people from different ethnic backgrounds are seeking plastic surgery that ostensibly ‘de-racialises’ their features.” The societal need for women to be sexually desirable to be valued illustrates the need for feminism.

The works that Su Yang creates depict this need, showing plastic surgery and the way these women are being forced to conform or ‘fit in’ and be more desirable to have value in the world. Women are seen merely as objects, sexual or not, and never as human beings. Popular culture is also a factor in this hierarchy of beauty, as Neha Kale describes in an article about race-based plastic surgery: “It’s telling that the models we most want to emulate still (mostly) reflect Western ideals” (Kale 2017).

Intersectionality between feminism, race and queerness is a theme that Meng-Yu Yan employs in their work as well. Their work is diaristic and portrays their queer and non-binary identity. Yan is a photography-based artist, and their “Talking Mirror” series of photographs employs this identity practice. These works are self-reflective and depict Yan seeing themself through mirrors. Some images depict Yan cradling themself, and range to looking through the mirrors as if trying to deeply analyse and deconstruct who they are. The photographs are greyscale in colouring; this choice contributes to the melancholic struggle of wrestling with identity.

Non-binary and transgender identities, especially in people of colour, are severely underrepresented in media. This leads to the harmful spreading of misinformation and bigotry. The artist discussed, in an interview with ANTIDOTE, the way that they felt they lived a sort of “double life”, hiding the “aspects (of themself) that society deems monstrous, ‘unnatural’ or shameful” (Yan 2016).  The artist comments on a “yearning to be recognised by people, culture and society” (Yan 2019). This idea represents the lack of representation there is for queer people, particularly transgender individuals. Lack of represented stories means that queerness is barely recognised in society, let alone normalised. Yan’s photographs show this sombre yearning in a real and distinct way. The facial expressions they have used in the modelling show sorrow and pensive thought.

The idea of reflection as told through the mirror is an effective way of portraying the identity struggle, and comments on internalised queerphobia; the societal values instilled within us that make self-acceptance extremely difficult. Shinsuke Eguchi (2020) comments on queerness as being “an intellectual and political identity that is "truly liberating, transformative, and inclusive”. Queer identities are beautiful, authentic, and worth exploring and accepting. The queerphobia in the world is everywhere, and becomes an internalised battle for many, if not all, queer people. Meng-Yu’s work is about this struggle, but also a narrative is told through their photographs of liberation; of queer celebration and self-love. Accepting their identity and celebrating it, even when it is hard.

The artist’s works also tell a cultural story of the roles and traditions in Asian families. Yan speaks about their family’s superstition growing up surrounding mirrors, and specific memories they have of being a child and seeing “culturally embedded” habits and beliefs all around them; and how this has stuck with them throughout life and artmaking. This familial concept is very important to their works and shows the cultural context of being an Asian-Australian artist, who didn’t always feel accepted by the world or the people around them.

Figure 1: Yang S (2020) Invisible/Visible Hands- 1-3 [Oil on Canvas], Image courtesy of the Artist. Su Yang Visual Website, accessed 20th August 2022.

Figure 2: Yan M (2016) Talking Mirror [Photographic self-portraits], Image courtesy of the Artist. Men-Yu Yan Website, accessed 20th August 2022.

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Figure 1: Yang S (2020) Invisible/Visible Hands- 1-3 [Oil on Canvas], Image courtesy of the Artist. Figure 1: Yang S (2020) Invisible/Visible Hands- 1-3 [Oil on Canvas], Image courtesy of the Artist. 

Intersectionality in feminism includes race and queerness, both clearly illustrated by Su Yang and Meng-Yu Yan. Su Yang’s oil painted portrait series “Invisible/Visible Hands” depicts the female form in a trapped sense of hatred for the patriarchal confines of modern society. The deep red and bold brushstrokes elicit the same sense of anger and confinement in the audience. Yang’s attempt to begin conversations about societal thinking is clearly draining; fighting for change in a world that doesn’t want to listen. She is reframing the way we consider the female form and what we think of as “imperfect”. Plastic surgeries to alter physical appearances are at all-time highs, with specific involvement in ‘race shifting’ to distance oneself from ethnicity and conform to whiteness. The artist comments on the physical and emotional toll this takes on individuals; struggling with anger, fear, pain and physical mutilation for the chance to be viewed as desirable.

Figure 2: Yan M (2016) Talking Mirror [Photographic self-portraits], Image courtesy of the Artist. Figure 2: Yan M (2016) Talking Mirror [Photographic self-portraits], Image courtesy of the Artist. 

Meng-Yu Yan’s photographic self-portrait series “Talking Mirror” is a diaristic look into the artist’s identity, with reference to their queerness and Asian heritage. The greyscale and melancholy emotive body language and facial expressions in these pieces portray these themes.

Internalised queerphobia leads to hiding and concealing aspects of a person’s identity, and Yan has depicted this through their works, and discussed the ways in which they felt like an outsider for a great portion of their life. Queer people of colour being underrepresented severely in media, both fictional and non-fictional, has led to these subjects being taboo and not discussed.

Feminism’s baseline goal is equality for all, and this intersects with queer, specifically transgender, rights and people of colour. Intersectional equality is the true sense of the movement. Being marginalised leads to internalised struggles and hiding, which both Su Yang and Meng-Yu Yan have commented on in their artmaking practices. Being Asian-Australian and depicting their struggles as people of colour, and the way that these identities cross and overlap, bears a striking resemblance to their works deeper than the surface level.