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The Female Book by Wen Fang

Today we look at The Female Book by Wen Fang for Artwork in Focus. Join me Divvya Nirula as I explore and present my experience of the selected artwork.

Artwork in Focus

Title: The Female Book
Artist : Wen Fang
Year : 2011
Medium : Cowhide leather, Thread
Dimensions : 450cm×60cm×10cm

The Female Book, 2011, by Wen Fang
Image Courtesy :

Wen Fang and “The Female Book”

Red, the first part of the work that stands out to me is this vibrant looping of red thread. It is going through this almost sheer surface that is filled with holes, what is it? As the mind tries to decipher the technical aspects of whats lies before it, there is an intimate invitation to just be with the work. Trained traditionally as a photographer, Wen Fang is not satisfied with merely creating two-dimensional images. Her photographic art crawls onto bricks, knives, desks, and even hair. There is a rootedness in her work to a higher purpose, a calling even.

It seems as though the art and the artist wish to reach out and explore the lives of the viewer, us. And in that experience a quest to know more about the creators of The Female Book is born. Wen has for the majority of her career collaborated with non-profits and local craftsmen and women. The Female Book, is no different, it is a collaboration between herself and the Ningxia Hundred Flowers Cooperative.

Who are or What is the Ningxia Hundred Flowers Collective?

There is a small autonomous dessert region in north central China called Ningxia. It is on the list of the UN’s least habitable locations on Planet Earth, and yet the people here have a will to thrive. The humble farming community to which the Cooperative members belong is made up of women from this arid Loess Plateau. The Hundred Flowers Collective is the handicrafts extension of the French NGO Femmes du Ningxia. Established to alleviate poverty in that region through training and skill adaptation resources.

How and when did Wen Fan get involved?

Wen has had a history of wanting to create art that becomes a means of support and collaboration between herself and marginalised communities. Be it her photographic work Rain, or then her series ‘To Keep on Living’ was a seminal moment for realising this purpose. The work sold at a charity auction for 32,000 USD, in 2009. Wen donated the entire sum to the Children of Madaifu, an organisation that assists orphaned children across rural China, and from whom the work had been inspired. It is important to note that Wen is very much an active participant in the words and realities experienced by her collaborators. In 2010 began in earnest this collaboration between the Ningxia women and Wen, through her Art for Crafts’ Sake.

Many a time Wen has expressed that this transformative highlighted for her how her art could “provide life-sustaining support” for others, and that is her main inspiration to stay this course. Her beliefs and artistic practice push her to finding hope in hopelessness. This is a consistent metaphor in her works. Fang says :

”I am not a moralist, I focus a lot on the bottom of the society, not out of pity, but because through them, I see a strength of character very much alike new grass growing out of stone cracks. This strength helps me to stay alive.”

Back to the Artwork in Focus – The Female Book

Collaborating with the women of Ningxia Hundred Flowers Collective – “The Female Book” comes alive in this in-between space of touch and tradition. Even if as a viewer one is unaware of the history of the why and how the work has been made, we need to just look and breathe in the material. What do we see? The eyes first go to the cowhide leather and covered with Braille holes. Next, we are taken in by the red threads that are strung through the small holes. Vibrant, yet unseen – perhaps a lost vibrancy is being called out to be known in this work of Wen’s.

For some of us born and brought-up in Eastern spaces, cultures and tradition, we see the red as auspicious, fertile, as life sustaining and sacred. It perhaps is no coincidence that the women of Nigxia and Wen decided on this colour. It is powerful, the threads forming phantom hands that are reading a hidden history, a story we too want to be a part of, but perhaps shall be separated from forever. In the end The Female Book, ironically is seen but remains unread.

Other Details

Born in 1976 in Beijing, Wen Fang graduated from the Department of Photography at L’ENS Louis-Lumière, France. The hallmark of Wen’s work involves collaborating with ordinary people: migrant workers, women farmers, and children. Trained in photography, her works almost always include elements of installation, sculpture and performance.

Keenly interested in the disenfranchised in out society, social interventions form a major part of her works. Exhibited in France, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Korea, Japan, Shanghai, Beijing and in other parts of Asia.  LVMH, Renault Art Foundation, and Banque Neuflize OBC, among other agencies, have collected Wen Fang’s art.

Wen Fang graduated from college in 1996. This was the peak of China’s Internet boom, and the hyper commodification of contemporary art led her to question her space and place in this burgeoning market of transactions. Her personal Buddhist practice, I believe would have informed these introspections. Ultimately her time in France and her personal calling have led her to becoming a great influencer of real world change through her Art.

Want to read more of my views on artworks that hold my attention ? Visit the archive for Artwork in Focus.

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