MA QIUSHA, You Exchange No. 2, 2015, mixed media on paper, 150 × 150 cm. Courtesy the artist and Beijing Commune. 

Great Expectations

Ma Qiusha

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Before her seventh birthday, Chinese artist Ma Qiusha’s parents decided that she was going to be a musician. They bought her an accordion and enrolled her at the local music academy. When the accordion proved too heavy for the young Ma, however, music was abandoned and replaced with drawing classes. Strict and demanding, Ma’s mother would sit watching through the classroom window to ensure her daughter made good progress. Whenever she made a mistake, her mother would go in and pinch the inside of her legs.

Working hard was the lodestar governing Ma’s formative years. “My parents are always talking about the Cultural Revolution [1966–76]. They had to abandon any ideas of going to university and they tried so hard to give me the opportunities that they never had or missed out on. Our conversations were always about working hard. There were a lot of hopes resting on me,” Ma told me, with a touch of sadness in her voice. I was at the artist’s studio in Shunyi district, 30 kilometers northeast of central Beijing. A moderately sized warehouse, the space has a small, heavily curtained side room for viewing videos. With her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, the 34 year old watched as her studio assistants, who call her lao shi (“teacher” in Chinese), are bent over tables concentrating on the latest iteration of “You” (2012– ), an ongoing series of watercolor- and collage-on-paper works depicting architectonic cityscapes. To denote the windows of the structures, the artist applies sheets of gold and silver, the reflective quality of which forces viewers to confront their own thoughts.

Ma’s relationship with her mother, who had poured endless time, energy and resources into achieving “success” for her only child, has always been fractious. Fortunately for Ma—and her mother—her drawing teacher during those early days, and for many years after, was Song Dong, one of the most important Chinese contemporary artists of his generation. Ma would go on to graduate in 2005 from the nation’s top art school, Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art, where she studied digital media. She then spent two years at New York’s Alfred University and gained an MFA in electronic integrated art. Over the subsequent decade, the multimedia artist has become known for her video, performance and installation works that investigate complex relationships between people. In particular, the videos, mostly autobiographical, deal with memory, dislocation and how the post-1980s generation of artists has to come to terms with the contradictory pull of filial duties and personal freedoms.

In 2007, Ma made the eight-minute single-channel video From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili, in which she talks directly to the camera about her relationship with her mother, her background, her tortuous journey to maturity and of freeing herself from the overbearing parental pressure of having to succeed at any cost. Ma’s moment of emancipation comes in the video’s closing moments when she pulls from her mouth a hitherto unseen and now bloodied razor blade. “For a long time I didn’t show my mother [this work] because I knew she would be very sad,” Ma said.

Other videos that explore the social pressure that women experience in China quickly followed. In Must Be Beauty (2009), Ma lies on a bed while ingesting a smorgasbord of beauty products in an uncontrolled frenzy—a statement on the pressures to conform to a stereotypical standard of beauty. In the three-channel video We of the same year, Ma explores the social convention of being in a couple: she dresses three pairs of men and women in white fabric shrouds, then silently observes them as they tear themselves free of the binds that hold them together in what is a triumph of individualism over social convention. “Gender is a broad impediment for women. Women get married and have children, and like me [Ma had her own daughter in 2013] they drop out for one whole year and can’t do anything other than have ideas and make notes . . . Men do not have these kinds of problems. The majority of female artists in these circumstances just get on with something else,” she said.

For Ma, these videos serve as agents of emotional cleansing and offer confirmation of her having defined her own place in the world—light years away from the one inhabited by her parents through the Cultural Revolution. For Ma, the historical event existed only in books and, as a lingering shadow, is cast across her own life solely by her parents’ memories. While From No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili demonstrates Ma’s personal liberation from filial obligation, her 26-minute-long video made in 2011, All My Sharpness Comes from Your Hardness, allowed her to freely explore displaced memory. The footage shows only Ma’s legs and feet wearing ice skates as she is being dragged backward across a variety of road surfaces in Beijing. The skates go from blunt to razor sharp depending on the road surface. “Sometimes I had to stop and re-sharpen them and, at the end, sparks start flying from the skates. The road is from my grandmother’s to my home. When I was young I walked it many times. I know it well. These days everything has changed so much. Grandma is gone too,” she said. An allegory on the tortuous journey that Ma has traveled since those days of walking to her grandmother’s house, the video is an autobiography of sorts. 

In early 2015, the French luxury brand Dior selected Ma to be one of 17 international female artists invited to create works cogitating on how Dior relates to contemporary art. The only stipulation was to include a pair of Dior gloves in her video. The exhibition that followed opened at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in May.

The invitation from Dior allowed Ma to continue an investigation of fairy tales that first started with the 2009 video Snow White, in which the princess is seen trapped within a glass-enclosed musical box. For the Dior commission, Ma produced Sleeping Beauty (2015), a work that could have all too easily become a maudlin and saccharine take on luxury products, but instead is a meditative reflection on life, death and rebirth. In the video, Ma’s heroine is trapped beneath ice, which gradually melts, allowing rebirth among spring flowers. “But the adult world is not like this, really. It is an illusion,” she said, as the story takes a turn for the sinister. As the ice cracks and the season changes, Ma’s sleeping beauty is eventually wrapped in cellophane—like a package about to be delivered. While aesthetically sumptuous, the video is a lamentation of women’s enslavement to male perceptions of femininity: they remain objectified—even commodified—in a society that continues to be fiercely patriarchal.

As for the accordion, Ma still has it and it remains too heavy for her to play. These days, it serves instead as a reminder of the excesses of repressive parenting in China’s society where consequences of the country’s one-child policy are still being played out. Ma insisted, “I will not force my own daughter to paint or draw or play music. I will not become a tiger mother.”

Portrait of Ma Qiusha. Photo by and courtesy Michael Young.