Secret Love: Sexual Diversity in China

Exhibition poster. Photo by Yang Guowei. 

I've been to see Secret Love, a very interesting contemporary art exhibition at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam (on show until 13 September 2015). Through 45 works by 10 renowned Chinese artists such as Ma Liuming, Gao Brothers, Li Xiaofeng and Chi Peng, the exhibition explores subjects such as sexuality, desire and taboo, emphasising in particular the artists’ commitment to creating change. The focus of the exhibition is especially about taboos surrounding lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgender (LGBTs) identities in China. 

Originally curated by the National Museums of World Culture in Sweden, Secret Love asks "How do positive changes towards sexual diversity in China affect LGBTs?"

We have done extensive research in preparation for this exhibition. This is something that nobody has done before. You could say that this exhibition is a new chapter in Chinese artistic history.
— Si Han, Exhibition Curator

Photography by Chi Peng

The introduction to the exhibition explains that Chinese society has been experiencing rapid changes, resulting in shifting views on sexuality and identity. This change has been particularly evident when it comes to LGBTQ people. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997 and is since 2001 no longer regarded as a mental illness. But (as in many other societies, including in the Western world, I have to add) many taboos remain. The internet and a more open society have brought greater awareness of individual rights.

The stories of the artists presented in Secret Love are very moving and offer a deep perspective on the many emotional levels and complexities of LGBTQ people in China. 

Left: video by Cheng Juanzi & Song Jianing. Right: video by Fan Popo

I have particularly been moved by Xiyadie's paper cuttings, an artist from a small village in the northern Shaanxi province, living and working in Bejing. Xiyadie learnt cutting from his mother. During his years in the village, he felt great mental pressure and had no one to unburden his heart to; for him, paper cutting became a way of expressing his pain and his joy.

I knew I liked men from an early age, but in the country, it’s completely unthinkable to come out as gay, it’s even seen as criminal.
— Xiyadie

Like so many other gay Chinese of his age (Xiyadie was born in 1963), he is married. He has two children in their 20s. His oldest son has been disabled since birth and cannot manage on his own. According to sociological studies, some 90% of all gay men in China are married. In Confucian tradition, there are three types of lack of filial respect, and the worst is not to provide for the family line's continuation. It is a strong social pressure.

Xiyadie's paper cuttings

A divorce is out of the question; my wife and children live in the village and a divorce would hit them hard. Tradition is harsher than the winds in Siberia. But I’ve heard that there is a type of butterfly there that can survive in the cold. I wish I had the wings of a Siberian butterfly so that I could fly away from all the difficulty. I like cutting out butterflies very much; I long for freedom.
— Xiyadie

Xiyadie is a pseudonym, meaning "Siberian butterfly". He uses it to protect his identity. He recently came out to his wife, who became very tearful but now seems to have come to terms with the situation. The two children still do not know. 

Xiyadie never dared show these cuttings to anyone. One day two film directors, a married couple, arrived in the village to make a documentary about the paper cutting tradition. They had heard of his skill and wanted to talk to him. As they saw some of these cuttings, they started asking him prudently about them. Xiyadie finally told them his story, which resulted in the couple helping him to get to Beijing where he works as a doorman, cook and cleaner and sends the greater part of his earnings to his family back in Shanxii every month. 

Xiyadie's paper cuttings (on the left: Prison 2)

His pieces have deeply touched me, because I love paper and paper cutting, but also because of their colours (black, red but also colourful pieces including pink, white and yellow) and their somehow innocent yet painful, romantic yet erotic depictions of homosexuality.   

In Prison 2 (pictured above), Xiyadie wants to take control of his urges, so in this piece, he sews his penis together using a needle and thread, but his eyes can't let go of the picture of his boyfriend (in the left corner), so he sits uncomfortably, as if on the edge of a sword. To live as if in a cage, wishing to fly away but unable to do so. This piece has a strong violence within it and yet bears so much love.

Visa to the USA by Ma Liuming

...we judge a person by their clothes and other cultural markers, and not by who that person is. The attitude with which one encounters outward appearance often dictates how one encounters the inner personality.
— Ma Liuming

Artist Ma Liuming (1969)'s work Visa to the USA is also fascinating and explores well how gender is judged according to visual experience. In the image above you see three enlarged copies of his USA visa: one describing his sex as F, the second one with F stamped "cancelled without prejudice" and the third one with M. In 1998, Ma Liuming applied for a visa to the USA to travel to New York for his exhibition PS1. When he received the visa, he discovered that he had been registered as "female" rather than "male".

They just looked at my photo and didn’t feel they needed to check what it said in my application.

He went back to the US embassy in Beijing to get his visa was stamped with an "M".

Fen Ma Liuming Series No. 1 (1993)

The other exhibited artists' works are also very interesting and the whole exhibition, although small, is very well curated. An afterword also acknowledges that the exhibition does not cover the many feature films with gay, lesbian and transsexual themes or roles produced in China since 1996, and explains apologetically that it has been difficult to identify more female artists for the exhibition (only three out of the twelve on show in Amsterdam). This acknowledgement is much appreciated, especially in view of the theme. I usually am very sensitive about gender balance in public events but here, I must say, I didn't even think about it. Maybe it is because the themes around gender and sexuality are already central to the exhibition, and that I have delved deeply into these questions through the art. Nevertheless, these are powerful images I saw today and the exploration of themes around gender and sexuality through art is necessary across nations and cultures. I hope to see more of such stories and deep creative expressions.  

For more details about the artists and their work, visit the exhibition's webpage.

City in Translation

Vesterbro in Copenhagen. Photo by Erinç Salor. 

Vesterbro in Copenhagen. Photo by Erinç Salor. 

I am so happy to announce that following up on my residency in Copenhagen, I have now launched a new website: City in Translation

It is very exciting to be able to show one's work to the world. You put all your heart and energy into something, do your very best to make it look good and accessible to as many people as possible, and then, you feel vulnerable because after all, you've put some part of yourself out there. That's a bit what City in Translation does to me. It is an exploratory project, based on research, but the interpretation of the city through its languages is totally personal and subjective. Which is why I like doing it so much, and also why I feel a bit naked when sharing this city of my imagination with you. 

So, to help you navigate through the stories, I have also separated fictions and resources, these two sections go hand in hand to provide complimentary perspectives. Fictions features creative writing and other expressions by myself, Resources provides a collection of material from within and outside academia aiming to contextualise the work of this project and aid in future research.

City in Translation starts in Copenhagen, but I do wish to expand to further cities in the coming months and years. I would also like to develop other activities around the theme of exploring languages in urban spaces, in the forms of workshops and other events. This is a starting point of a journey, which I hope you will join. 

Spectacular Translation Machine comes to Europalia

Spectacular Translation Machine in London. Photo ©Carole Mendy

Spectacular Translation Machine in London. Photo ©Carole Mendy

When I was Translator in Residence at the Free Word Centre in London, I had the opportunity to work on a fantastic event entitled the Spectacular Translation Machine, an initiative from the British Centre for Literary Translation first hosted at the Southbank Centre. I wrote about my experience on Phoenix Yard Book's blog about the "Line of Fire" book, which was the work we focused on in London. 

If you're curious about the Spectacular Translation Machine, the wonderful Sarah Ardizzone is running another one at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 29 August

I got so inspired by the experience that I have since then dreamed of bringing the project into one of my projects outside of the UK (I am still dreaming of doing this in Turkey... if anyone wants to join forces). Being the Literature Curator of Europalia Festival for the Turkey edition has given me that opportunity. I am very happy to say that as part of the arts programme of this international festival focusing on Turkey in 2015-16, we are bringing the Spectacular Translation Machine to Brussels. Save the following dates in your agenda if you're in town:

  • 28 & 31 October 2015 @ Muntpunt, Brussels 
  • 05 December 2015 @ Librairie Le Wolf, Brussels 
  • 16 January 2016 @ PointCulture, Brussels

During these days, we will be working on a Turkish illustrated book by Feridun Oral, in collaboration with YAPI KREDI PUBLISHING in Turkey. 

I love Feridun Oral's works. His illustrations are beautiful, and the stories are truly moving. His early creative influence come from the tales told by his grandmother. Here's an excerpt of a presentation from A Journal of Internation Literature:

Animals are the subjects of much of Oral’s art and stories. He believes that children have an innate love of animals and that this love must be fostered and developed to teach children to love each other and themselves, and to appreciate nature. His characters are always well considered and strike a balance between realism and surrealism. The animals he draws are notable for their expressive features and actions. These expressions help children to identify with the animal characters in his books.


Europalia is currently looking for volunteers who know Turkish and can help the general audience during these days to translate the work into French, Dutch and English (you don't need to master all three, just Turkish to one language is enough!). See this Facebook post for further details about the call for volunteers. 

And below is a teaser of the whole festival, which will last from 6 October 2015 until 31 January 2016. I hope you can join the festivities and discover the many cultures of Turkey. 

Podcast: Art for your Ear by the Jealous Curator

I love podcasts and I listen to a lot of them, about tech, comics, art, productivity... mostly in English and in French (these ones are radio programmes I listen to once they are available to podcast). I will start sharing my favorite ones on a more regular basis on the blog.

I want to start with a podcast I have recently started listening to: the Jealous Curator's Art for your Ear. Danielle Krysa (aka the Jealous Curator) has been blogging daily about art and showcasing artists for about six years. And now, with this weekly podcast, she interviews artists in a very original way to get the best stories. It works really well because she knows these artists, most are people she has worked with on her projects or her books (like her Creative Block book with an array of artists advising on how to get over creative block is really inspiring) . I especially like the Art for your Ear podcast because it is funny and light while being full of enriching stories. Danielle achieves that balance very well and in about half an hour, you learn about an artist's life and work. 

The first episode sets the tone, Danielle talks to Martha Rich and the episode is entitled "meat and cake and lobsters and wigs", and her most recent interview is with Lisa Congdon, an artist I admire a lot.

So have a listen and enjoy!