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If You Can't Discuss Gender Advocacy Verbally, Do So Through Art! WU Mali, LAN Pei-chih, and Weiwuying

If You Can't Discuss Gender Advocacy Verbally, Do So Through Art! WU Mali, LAN Pei-chih, and Weiwuying

Written by Arya.S.H 

On a scorching August afternoon, a conversation on women's rights and gender awareness took place. Well-reputed Taiwanese artist WU Mali and theater worker LAN Pei-chih boldly spoke and shared with Weiwuying representative Cynthia CHIANG about what they have observed regarding women's rights in Taiwan. They also related their experiences of active interaction with people through the medium of art over the past few decades. It was the perfect warm-up for the WOW Kaohsiung 2021—Women of the World Festival in November.

WU and LAN are of different generations and work in different fields of art. WU experienced life during martial law and has been fearless in the face of traditional views. Courageously engaging in conflict and challenging others to promote equal gender rights, she has always been part of the effort of relieving Taiwan of its traditional androcentric structure. LAN grew up in an environment that esteemed men over women, but her traditional concepts were dissolved when she came across Western culture, and through the process, gained self-confidence. Though their lives have been different, they are carrying on the legacy of advocating women's rights, making their voices heard in their own artistic ways and injecting spirit into the development of gender awareness in Taiwan.

上傳圖片(©WU Mali)

Gender Issues Affect EVERYONE

"Most people think feminism is overly serious and academically biased, so they feel a certain distance from it. In fact, gender issues are everywhere. Regardless of age, identity, and background, everyone has experienced and resonated with it to some extent," CHIANG said, based on her experiences, at the previous Women of the World Festival in the UK.

LAN fervently agreed: "Imagine that you are involved in a physical theater performance but your body has been divided into two parts: the top is female and the bottom is male. How would you perform?" This question had been posed (and triggered a heated discussion) by one of her instructors while she was studying theater and gender issues in the US. The students began to become conscious of the fact that they would perform stereotypically established movements: gentle movements for the female aspect and crude ones for the male. They then considered further whether their understanding of things was undermined by a rigid understanding of gender, whether they had been taught how to be a man or woman, and how they would be viewed and what they would do if their physical gender suddenly changed but everything else about them remained the same. In response to this, LAN said, "A lot of times, people live bound by the expectations of society."


Feminism, a Tool for Critical Thinking

Having been taught from childhood that girls should look and behave in a certain way yet feeling conflict within and curiosity about feminism, LAN delved into Western culture to explore and, while studying the connection between gender and theater, found an inspirational force. She saw The Vagina Monologues on Broadway, in which four performers played numerous roles, giving boldly expressive interpretations of things women do, such as menstruation, giving birth, using tampons, and climaxing.

These experiences later prompted LAN to bring overseas programs to Taiwan, producing a connection with the issues of sex slaves and migrant workers from Southeast Asia in Taiwan. For her, feminism became a tool for critical thinking, allowing for more open-minded reasoning. She deeply believes that gender issues exist within the life experiences of everyone, and everyone has experienced curiosity, confusion, conflict, and paradoxes related to these issues.

WU said, "We can view the discussion on gender awareness as a circle, and if we view it in the bigger picture, it is even part of social justice, connecting with such issues as ethnicity, people's relation to the environment, and the urban-rural gap, as they all deal with oppression. A lot of the value of the women's movement lies in how one can start from one's microcosmos, broaden his/her perspective, and become empathetic to all kinds of unfairness. This is what I've learned through my participation."

She first encountered feminism in university. There were a lot of social movements in 1980s Taiwan (martial law ended in 1987), at which time she met many gender equality advocates. Women were disadvantaged and had little assurance in many aspects, such as bodily autonomy, employment, social welfare, and the law. Many things motivated feminist pioneers to stand up and fight for their rights, advocating through a massive amount of performances, books, forums, and resistance movements, causing ideas on women’s rights to sweep across Taiwan. Besides participating in the feminist movement and focusing on the visual arts, she worked with publishers in bringing such books as Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays to Taiwan, establishing an important foundation for the connection between Taiwan's visual arts and its feminist movement, which greatly inspired, among many other people, LAN.

WU was at one time invited to show work in Women Make Waves, Taiwan's first film festival dedicated to women, organized by director Huang Yu-shan. (Since few women were involved in film at that time, visual artists were invited to take part.) WU said that compared with the reservation in visual arts, film allows for a much more direct presentation of gender issues. For example, women could speak directly to the camera about menstruation, being sexually assaulted, medical care, and wartime experiences. She said, "The list of films included a lot of incisive aspects of gender issues. Not everyone is willing to talk about these bodily experiences, but through narratives and documentaries, the different aspects of problems can be stated directly, so they were especially touching and more persuasive."


Empathy for Different Life Experiences and Support Through the Power of Art

While continuing to promote feminism, social activists, artists, and private organizations started thinking about how to instill gender awareness into each level of the social hierarchy. In 1999, LAN graduated from university and returned to Taiwan with a strong foundation in Western feminism. Meanwhile, WU initiated collaboration with the Taipei Awakening Association, inviting people from the general public to create related art and designing workshop events in which mothers in the community were encouraged to tell their stories through the use of cloth.

WU recalls that all the participants were homemakers, the grand majority of whom had never done anything artistic. Upon talking about their lives, they would always start out by saying there was nothing special to talk about, but after participating in the events, they would become closer and talk with each other about their relationships with their husbands, conflicts with their mothers-in-law, and parenting. Through such sharing, they expanded their horizons, hearing and empathizing with women who had different life experiences. This helped them boost their confidence, gain a sense of autonomy, and establish a social support system. It greatly encouraged women at a time that custom required them to just support their husbands, rear their children, and sacrifice themselves for the sake of the family. More importantly, the channels of communication were built on understanding.


As part of the event, WU had participants outline the ups and downs of their lives using a piece of string. Some people produced a smooth arc, and some produced one that looked more like an electrocardiogram. One person even produced a whole series of squares like a Monopoly game board, and upon returning home, went a surprising step further and developed an interactive bedtime story with her kids, bringing her closer to them.

"Art is a non-verbal form of expression. Everyone can talk, but not everyone is able to verbally organize their life experiences. Through the many vocabularies of art, whether it be writing, music, theater, or visual symbols, life experiences can naturally gain expression. This is the power of art," said WU.


CHIANG affirmed this. At the March think-ins for the Women of the World Festival this year, some participants were small farmers, some were professional artists, some were environmental activists, and some were only seven years old! Each shared their expectations for the event. CHIANG said, "Creating a friendly platform in which everyone can readily invest themselves, share their gender experiences, generate new ideas and understanding through exchanges, and create social connections is Weiwuying's aim."


(© Andreas Meyer)

Each Generation Needs Women's Art Festivals

Having witnessed the evolution of women's rights in Taiwan, LAN stated that, in the past, the focus was on resistance to androcentrism and the promotion of gender equality, but now the law and public agencies have comprehensively endowed women with basic rights via such mechanisms as employment quotas, the Act of Gender Equality in Employment, and the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act. Women are no longer oppressed as they once were, and they have the same opportunities as men to be themselves. As a result, gender issues have recently shifted from focusing on women to including research on men, the LGBTQ+ movement, BDSM, etc., and differences in viewpoint are gradually growing in a healthy way.

"Compared with the complete lack of online discussion ten years ago in the wake of a theater performance on lesbianism, we can see now that the degree of discussion and acceptance among people has greatly increased and that the gender debate is gradually opening up and gaining attention among the public," LAN said. The Seoul International Women's Film Festival has started to include films on women's rights directed by men, and the Taiwan International Queer Film Festival, established in 2014, presents the discussion on the multiplicity of gender. LAN continued, "If even physical gender can be changed, gender awareness should also be able to change with the times."

In the visual arts recently, WU has seen male artists starting to talk about and express their homosexual and transgender desires. Even though it is only a minority who deal with these issues personally, the general public no longer believes it a problem to discuss them, which means society is more friendly in such aspect. Unfortunately, some LGBTQ+ people still have a lot of difficulties with acceptance and understanding in their families, which is why every generation needs these art festivals as a platform where people engage in dialogue and exchange to promote mutual understanding.

CHIANG has also noticed fragmentation in art and the discussion of gender issues, but what is good is that, compared with the past, people of different social groups now have a variety of opportunities to find their own paths. Even though women’s art festivals are no longer novel, she believes they will open up new frontiers in each generation and mark the beginnings of new eras. As a national-level art and culture venue, Weiwuying is opening the door for participation by different groups of the public in the discussion of gender issues. CHIANG earnestly hopes that the festival this year will allow gender awareness to penetrate all areas of Taiwan's society and that more and more organizations will become involved in promoting greater understanding and friendliness regarding gender issues so that no one will feel alone anymore and so everyone will be able to shine with their inherent brilliance.


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