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Terracotta Daughters: An Army to Battle Gender Imbalance in China

by Allison Meier on December 12, 2013

Prune Nourry, Terracotta Daughters, Magda Danysz Gallery, Shanghai, September 14th – October 26th 2013, photograph by Prune Nourry

Prune Nourry, “Terracotta Daughters” at Magda Danysz Gallery in Shanghai (photograph by Prune Nourry and used with permission)

There’s a growing gender imbalance in China, where the one-child policy aimed at reducing population growth has influenced selective abortions and abandonments of female babies, and a male population that is growing disproportionately. French artist Prune Nourry is exploring this issue of gender selection in China by riffing off of one of its most iconic heritage sites: the Terracotta Warriors.

Prune Nourry, Terracotta Daughter #7, 2013, terracotta, 150 cm, photograph by Zachary Bako 

Prune Nourry, “Terracotta Daughter #7″ (2013), terracotta, 150 cm (photograph by Zachary Bako and used with permission) (click to view full size)

Nourry’s Terracotta Daughters follow her Holy Daughters project in India, where she also examined gender imbalance, although through a mythical goddess figure she created that incorporated the revered image of a sacred cow. Some of these figures were shown in her Holy River exhibition last year at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn, where she’s also been an artist-in-residence. This exhibition included a 2011 project where she had a towering, 18-foot vision of the cow goddess built from mud like the other gods that are processed in the Durga festival in Kolkata, and it was tossed into the Ganges alongside the other “real” holy figures.

Similarly, in Holy Daughters Nourry has embraced the traditions of the country to bring a female perspective to where it has been lacking. Together, China and India made up 37 percent of the world’s population as of 2009, and Nourry sees the issues here not in isolation, but in a broader impact on the future of the world. In China, there were about 117.7 boys born for 100 girls in 2012, (a usual ratio is about 103-107 boys to a hundred girls) and 2011 census data in India showed there were 37 million more men than women.

Like her Holy Daughters, the Terracotta Daughters was a major project of research and immersion, including consulting with sociologists on gender imbalance at the University of Xi’an, which just so happens to be located near where the estimated 8,000 Terracotta Warriors were found in 1974 after being buried since around 210 BCE at the massive tomb site of emperor Qin Shi Huang. And remarkably, there are artisans creating versions of these 2,000-year-old figures formed from clay with the same ancient process at the Li Yuan Terracotta Factory, where Nourry went to collaborate on building not more warriors, but an army of school girls.

Prune Nourry, Terracotta Daughters, Xi'an, China, November 2012, photograph by Zachary Bako 

Prune Nourry creating “Terracotta Daughters” in Xi’an, China, November 2012 (photograph by Zachary Bako and used with permission)

Prune Nourry and the craftsman team from the Li Yuan Terracotta Factory for Terracotta Daughters, Xi'an, China, November 2012, photograph by Zachary Bako 

Prune Nourry and the craftsman team from the Li Yuan Terracotta Factory for “Terracotta Daughters,” Xi’an, China, November 2012 (photograph by Zachary Bako and used with permission)

The army of young girls all sporting Chinese school uniforms with scarves around their necks started with eight orphans Nourry met at the nonprofit Children of Madaifu organization. After she hand-sculpted their images in the style of the Terracotta Warriors, she created a table of 108 combinations of features for the artisans at the factory to mold. However, just like the Warriors, each one was given her distinct personality, with one of the artisans, Xian Feng, personalizing each of their faces.

Prune Nourry, Terracotta Daughters, Magda Danysz Gallery, Shanghai, September 14th – October 26th 2013, photograph by Prune Nourry

Prune Nourry, “Terracotta Daughters” at Magda Danysz Gallery in Shanghai (photograph by Prune Nourry and used with permission)

Prune Nourry, Terracotta Daughters, Magda Danysz Gallery, Shanghai, September 14th – October 26th 2013, photograph by Prune Nourry

Prune Nourry, “Terracotta Daughters” at Magda Danysz Gallery in Shanghai (photograph by Prune Nourry and used with permission)

The Terracotta Daughters had their debut this fall at Gallery Magda Danysz in Shanghai and will next year travel to Paris for a showing at the Centquartre Art Center and Magda Danysz’s France outpost, before a trip to Switzerland and North America.

After that they’ll voyage back to China, where, just like the thousands of Terracotta Warriors that still remained buried, they’ll be interred in 2015 at a “contemporary archaeological site” until 2030. In a way, they are an army of the missing, the girls who have vanished through gender selection in China, and the orphans left behind, set to resurrect as a reminder of this growing imbalance.

Here’s a preview of the feature-length documentary on Terracotta Daughters:

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  • Jana Baker Smith

    Wonderful art … impressive … and focusing on THAT which will bring about China’s downfall. China’s gender imbalance has been listed among the UN’s top World “Flash Points” for over 20 years. It’s a comen’

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