Female strength in the face of persecution is the thread running through 20 mixed-media, painted, and photographic works by Hung Liu, whose imagery shows the power and perseverance of Chinese women throughout history–from imperial concubines to warriors of the Red Army and survivors of the Cultural Revolution–like herself.
Photography holds a very personal significance for the artist. When her father was imprisoned by the Mao regime, her mother destroyed all family photographs showing him in order to protect the family from Communist forces. Hung Liu was sent into the countryside at age 20 for ‘reeducation’ as a farm laborer, working every day for four years in the fields. It was there that she began secretly taking photographs with a friend’s camera. Eventually, Liu came to the U.S., where she taught at Mills College and continued to build her career as an internationally respected artist.
Hung s work often makes use of anonymous Chinese historical photographs, particularly those of women, children, refugees, and soldiers. Many are based on photographs of Chinese concubines and prostitutes she discovered in an old shop when she returned to China in 1990. Hung says “the majority of girls were sold by poor families. Girls were not as precious as boys; they could not carry on the family name.”
In her paintings, Hung gives these girls the rich life they never had in reality, pointing out the irony that photography in China, originally used by the royal court, commodified these oppressed concubines but also gave them a place in history alongside the highest strata of society. She strives to give these anonymous women a new life of beauty, often starting paintings with gold or silver leaf as the base, adding symbols of rebirth, immortality, wisdom, and good fortune between layers of resin. The resulting images are amalgamations of beauty, history, and transformation.
Viewers may wonder about the meaning of the circles and drips in Hung Liu’s paintings. The circle has several meanings, including referencing immortality and infinity. A circle also functions as the period at the end of a Chinese sentence “rather than a dot. And in school in China, Hung’s instructor would circle his favorite part of her work. She the drips as the blurring of memory, reinforcing our responsibility to remember the past clearly; every day is Memorial Day, every day is Thanksgiving.