From 2009 to 2012, I spent three years working on one project – Poverty Alleviation by Art.
The real reason that drove me to conduct this project is that my family was not affluent when I was a child, and I was discriminated against and abused for a long period because of 2.50 RMB Yuan (approximately 40 cents). Therefore, economic independence was extremely important for me. Later on, I studied hard and was admitted by L’École Nationale Supérieure Louis Lumière. After I graduated, I returned to China and started to collaborate with galleries. I realized my dream of supporting myself with my work.
In 2009, I gave my work For Those Who are Alive for fundraising. I was surprised to realize that contemporary art has empowered me in such a way that I, who was once a poor child, could do something for other children living in poverty. To me, this is far more meaningful than being an artist whose work was collected by the Louvre. Introduced by a French NGO – Femmes du Ningxia, I was connected with the Hundred Flowers Embroidery Cooperative in Xihaigu, Ningxia. My project was a collaboration between me and several female embroiders from the Cooperative.
In 1972, Xihaigu region in Ningxia province was identified as “one of the least suitable areas for human habitation in the world” by the United Nations World Food Programme. The well-known program Water Cellar for Mothers was established to help this region. These cellars collect rainwater for drinking. I drank water collected in this way while I was there. It was salty and astringent, and often contained grass. Because of the severe shortage of water and inadequate access to transportation, both the local industry and agriculture are seriously disadvantaged. When it was a year of draught, the farmers would have nothing to harvest. Local families’ basic necessities depend on male members working as migrant workers. Local females have no independent income and a lower social status. Even though the female embroiderers of the Cooperative are good at less refined needlework, their work is not able to bring them development. The business of the Cooperative has not been promising.
Helene, the director of Femmes du Ningxia, told me that “the traditional embroidery made by the local women does not appeal to the current market. Is it possible to help them with the contemporary art you make?” I know this is the thing I would be glad to do, although a long-term donation of 100 percent of my work sale is not practical. I came up with a plan to collaborate with the women of the Cooperative – I provide ideas and they contribute the handwork. On top of paying for their labor, I take 50 percent out of my own income from exhibition sales and give it to them. This is my plan for Poverty Alleviation by Art.
The way I worked was: first, I lived in the region for a while, looking for local materials and seeking for inspiration; then I went back to Beijing to work on the ideas and arrange the transportation of the materials; after that, I returned to Ningxia for a few months and completed the work with the women; when this was done, I went back to Beijing again to organize the exhibition and sales. During the three years we collaborated on dozens of works and held three solo exhibitions – Textile Dreams, Paradise, and Thread Revolution. 50 percent of my sales income has been returned to the Cooperative and its members. With Dior’s sponsorship, the embroiderers of the Cooperative were invited to visit Beijing for free and participated in the exhibition openings as artists in the spring of 2011 and the summer of 2012 respectively.
While everyone regards the project as a success, I decided to close it. Because of my childhood experience, I thought material security was the most important thing. Yet, during the three years working on the project, I witnessed the strength of the mind of the poorest and the sordidness of the materially rich. It makes me reconsider the concepts of poverty and richness. It also makes me temporarily set aside my naive and arrogant plan to alleviate poverty by making art. I understand now that, regardless of what resources we could control and how much we think we have done for other people, the only one we could save is ourselves.
(I regard some of the material objects completed for this project as components of Poverty Alleviation by Art, but not the core of this work’s concept. Here is a list of the objects:)
The Second sex