China Underground > Contemporary art in China: Exploring China's Flourishing Art Scene > A Canvas of Ideas Flowing with Stella Zhang on Identity, Society, and Art

A Canvas of Ideas Flowing with Stella Zhang on Identity, Society, and Art

Stella Zhang Weaves Stories of Strength Through Painting, Installations and Sculpture.

Stella Zhang is a contemporary artist who works with multiple mediums and currently lives in San Francisco. She received her BFA in Chinese Brush Painting from the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts and she studied Japanese Painting at Tama Fine Art University and Tokyo Art University, where she earned her MFA. She is renowned for her powerful feminist approach to art-making. Her work is described as “a statement for women’s power and identity” By choosing various materials including fabric, associated with women’s work, she balances the viewer’s experience between the visual and the tactile, addressing contexts of power, society, relationships, and more. Her painting, sculpture, and installation are exhibited worldwide and collected by public institutions such as the National Art Museum of China, Beijing, Copelouzos Family Art Museum, Athens; and Tan Shin Fine Arts Museum, Tokyo. She is a guest lecturer at Stanford University and also teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Stella Zhang’s Instagram & Facebook

Growing up and being wrapped up in an art family from an early age, has influenced your relationship with art? What are your best childhood memories related to art?

My father was the first person to introduce me to the world of art. His gentle demeanor and meticulous organization, especially of his painting supplies, left a profound impression on me. He didn’t speak much but often let me sit beside him as he painted, which had a profound influence on my young mind. Even today, I find myself emulating many of his habits. My mother, on the other hand, was a strong woman dedicated to our family, and her resilience shaped my understanding of female strength. These childhood experiences, coupled with societal constraints, deeply influenced my artistic journey, providing a wellspring of inspiration and reflection.

What have been the greatest challenges at the beginning of your career?

Initially, artistic training in China primarily focused on technical skills rather than conceptual understanding. After graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989, I pursued further studies in Japan and later immigrated to the United States. Each cultural transition presented its own set of challenges, but also opportunities for growth. As a female artist, navigating societal expectations and exploring personal identity has been an ongoing journey, influenced by cultural nuances and gender dynamics.

Stella learned to paint from her father, Ping Zhang, a famous brush painter and professor at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA)

Stella-Zhang-interview

What were the greatest satisfactions? What do you love most about being an artist?

The ability to express myself freely and authentically is one of the greatest joys of being an artist. Despite life’s challenges, the pursuit of artistic creation provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment. I cherish the moments of connection with my audience, where my artwork sparks conversations and introspection. Being an artist allows me to explore the complexities of life and human experience, transcending cultural and societal boundaries.

You received a BFA in Chinese brush painting in Beijing and earned an MFA in Japanese painting in Tokyo. How has creating your own art and balancing these techniques helped you overcome challenges and strengthen your abilities? 

Studying traditional Chinese and Japanese painting techniques provided a solid foundation for my artistic journey. While the mediums and styles have evolved over time, the underlying principles of expression and interpretation remain constant. These diverse influences enriched my creative process, allowing me to synthesize various cultural perspectives into my artwork. Whether exploring the delicate ink washes of Chinese brush painting or the bold strokes of Japanese Sumi-e, each technique offers unique insights into artistic expression and cultural identity.

What are your sources of inspiration, and what is the creative process behind it? Does feminism play a role in your artwork?

My inspiration stems from personal experiences, societal observations, and cultural reflections. As a female artist, feminism naturally intersects with my artwork prompting introspection on gender roles, societal expectations, and personal identity. Through my creative process, I strive to challenge stereotypes and provoke thought on issues of equality and empowerment. Whether overt or subtle, feminism permeates my artwork, serving as a catalyst for dialogue and social commentary.

In your artwork, you use various materials. Can you tell us about your relationship with the materials you select for your artwork?

My choice of materials is unrestricted, guided by the need to effectively convey my artistic vision. I am drawn to versatile and tactile materials, such as soft fabrics, which resonate with the human experience. Through cutting, sewing, and layering, l use these materials with energy and vitality, transforming ordinary objects into evocative works of art. The creative process involves a dialogue between artist and medium, each informing the other to produce a harmonious expression of emotion and concept.

Stella Zhang has exhibited her work in many group and solo exhibitions at arts organizations, museums, and galleries

You manage different art mediums, which one better focuses on your personality?

Materials imbued with human essence often evoke a deeper connection to my artistic impulse. For example, old clothing can invoke a narrative of the past suggesting a personal and social journey.

Do you have any of your artwork to which you feel a strong personal connection? Can you share with us the story behind it?

Many of my artworks reflect personal memories and societal narratives, intertwining individual stories with broader cultural contexts. One series, titled “Tea Stories,” was inspired by conversations with my mother during her stay in the United States from 2021 to 2023. Using tea water and mixed media, I created a piece titled “Nushu” representing intimate moments shared between my mother and me, bridging generational and cultural divides. Through art, I seek to preserve and explore the significance of personal memories in an increasingly uncertain world.

You relocated to the United States in 2003, what did it mean for your artist’s path? Does living in a different country influence your way of creating and seeing life?

Moving to California in 2003 marked the beginning of a new chapter in my artistic journey. The cultural diversity and relaxed lifestyle of California provided fresh perspectives and artistic inspiration. As I adapted to life in a new country, my artwork underwent a transformation, reflecting the nuances of my surroundings and the fluidity of cultural identity. Living abroad has broadened my worldview and enriched my creative process, fostering a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of art, culture, and life.

You were recently in China. How much has China changed compared to when you started your artistic career?

Historical regression and repetition are incredible. The difference is that the update of technical means makes a once familiar one a little strange.

Seven monographs featuring her work have been published by the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco, Si Chuan Art Press, EDGE Gallery, JKD Gallery, and Galerie du Monde

What does it mean to be a female artist today? Does gender still matter? Do social media have a part in the gradual evolution of women’s roles in the arts?

Being a female artist today entails navigating a complex landscape of societal expectations and personal identity. While gender dynamics continue to shape artistic discourse, the advent of social media has democratized artistic expression, providing a platform for diverse voices to be heard. However, gender disparities persist within the art world, highlighting the need for continued advocacy and representation. Female artists play a vital role in challenging stereotypes and reshaping cultural narratives, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable artistic landscape. When we discuss women, femininity, and feminism, social context is a crucial factor. In my personal experience, regardless of China, Japan, or the United States, issues of rights are intertwined with gender issues and influence my judgment of things. The current social situation leaves everyone in a state of uncertain chaos. We live in a burdensome era. For an artist, it’s especially important to think away from the noise. For me, the process of creating art is about organizing my thoughts. I want to express physical and psychological struggles and accept the complexity, vulnerability, and imperfection of humanity through my work. 

By offering possibilities for association through my art, I aim to soothe and heal various anxieties. Within specific frameworks of thought, stereotypical impressions of feminism are as easily conceptualized as aesthetic judgments of femininity. In real life, the survival status and differences of women can be said to be varied, and no single feminist art can encompass this vast reality. We can feel the gender differences in discourse permeating every level of society in local cultures, while racial issues in the United States are intertwined with gender equality movements.

There should be diverse interpretations of feminism. Gender binaries can easily lead to simplistic labeling, limiting, and undermining deeper considerations of issues beyond gender, such as race, class, and power dynamics. Setting aside gender itself, viewing feminist art in a more concrete and vivid way is essential. This might be a concrete and vivid way that is essential. This might be a unique narrative approach that avoids becoming overly symbolic without specific theoretical frameworks.

Local feminist art, regardless of the creators or the content they express, should not be limited to gender boundaries. Misinterpretations and superficial understandings of feminism have led to many awkward situations in feminist art due to cultural contexts. Equality aims to rectify unfairness, so artistic expression should be specific, avoiding conceptual clichés. Even clarifying ambiguities can be meaningful. In my view, maintaining a relatively independent space for personal thought is essential for artistic inspiration. In a cognitive system, expressing inspiration. In a cognitive system, expressing connectedness through dotted lines is crucial.

Everyone has unique circumstances and knows what they care about. As an Asian woman, facing the circumstances brought about by gender, race, and culture in different social contexts is like having a fluid identity, a very unstable factor that subtly causes psychological entanglements and political differences. This is the reality I have been facing, and it’s why I gradually and continuously focus on this issue. Transitioning from one tradition to another culture has led me to focus on the awakening of self-awareness in women’s lives, the “gaze” on the body, and questioning power structures. As traditional values are reexamined, thoughts on gender rights and the many issues thoughts on gender rights and the many issues brought about by identity naturally become a focus on life, individuals, and society. The emphasis on roles, experiences, and rights in feminist art, coupled with the close connection between body and mind, makes this expression an internal drive. I hope my work raises questions through the messages it conveys. Whether expressed directly or subtly, regardless of the medium or mode of expression, my work becomes a narrative that peels away layers, responding to and documenting reality. Art is a process of introspection, and artists must first become independent individuals. Ignoring the complexity and essence of humanity while solely focusing on predetermined gender identities requires careful consideration. This doesn’t mean abandoning that perspective but rather elevating it to another level for art itself. Female artists also face academic growth.

Photo courtesy of Stella Zhang

Last Updated on 2024/03/14

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