Tao Aimin’s feature in Look Magazine, Art Gallery of NSW


Poetic Washboard

The article ‘Poetic washboard’ by Yin Cao, AGNSW curator of Chinese art, is featured in Look magazine.


Poetic washboard

by Yin Cao


“…One girl serves two brothers,

I make tea for my brother-in-law.

You are the only one I can talk to.

I can imagine you will cry after reading my letter.”

– From Tao Aimin’s In an instant no. 9, 2011


Tao Aimin once described herself as ‘a rag and bone woman, going round with a notebook and a camera’. She has always been specific about what she picks up and collects, but she doesn’t sell her ‘treasures’. For Tao these treasures are washboards, and she has more than 1000 of them!

Tao used to collect wooden washboards from women living in rural areas of China. Unsurprisingly, she has often been asked why used washboards – such prosaic items in mundane life – are worth collecting. For Tao, each one is a vehicle to understanding women’s quotidian lives. She reads the flattened corrugations caused by repetitive rubbing as a special ‘language’ recording women’s life stories and revealing their virtues of kindness and resilience.

The very first washboard Tao collected was from a 93-year-old lady, Grandma Wang Shuqin. Born in 1911 Grandma Wang, who happened to be Tao’s landlady in an artist village near Beijing in the early 2000s, was part of the last generation of footbound women. Tao recorded Grandma Wang’s daily life in a video work entitled Lotus Fragments 2002–11, in which the hands of this fiercely-independent lady are shown scrubbing garments on her 30-year-old washboard. A similar video work titled Washing

in the river 2008, which entered the Art Gallery collection in 2023, shows four pairs of women’s hands conducting similar onerous chores. Tao explained: ‘This hard and repetitive work has its own musical sound, and yet the work is unseen. I recorded the hands from women at different ages. Young hands are replaced by old and gnarled hands. The river flows on.’

River of women 2005 was Tao’s most well-known work shown in an exhibition in Beijing to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. Although Andersen’s fairy tales are widely read to children all over the world, very few know that his mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, was an illiterate washerwoman. River of women is composed of 56 washboards, depicting portraits of women, each suspended in an orderly formation from floor to ceiling. Blue lights shone on white fabric underneath the washboards accompanied by background music of running water, evoking the feeling of standing next to a river, watching the women washing clothes, and gaining insight into their hardship. Jia Fangzhou, China’s leading art critic on female artists said, ‘Andersen would have been moved [by Tao’s work] if his spirit had seen it.’ In 2016, River of women was nominated as one of the ‘30 most influential installation works in 30 years’ of Chinese contemporary art.

Tao has created other artworks using the washboards that intuitively comment on women’s domestic labour – work which has often been silenced, trivialised and submerged beneath dominant patriarchal discourse. From 2007 she started to make paper rubbings of washboards and, a year later, inscribed them with a very special script called Nüshu (women’s writings). A set of four scrolls titled In an instant no. 9 2011, acquired by the Art Gallery in 2023, is one example of this technique. It first appears to follow the centuries- old tradition of Chinese scroll painting; however, through her re-interpretation, Tao has injected contemporaneity by addressing wider gender and labour issues.

In China, paper-based rubbing was likely invented in the late fifth or early sixth century, but by the Tang dynasty in the seventh century it had become quite common. The principal function of rubbings has been to reproduce intellectually, aesthetically or religiously valued calligraphies, or images that were carved, incised or cast on hard surfaces such as bronze or stone. Among artists and scholars

in China, the primary reason for seeking rubbing copies is due to an appreciation of fine calligraphy poems or essays, which are often presented in combination. Works by important artists and
scholars were copied by famous calligraphers, then carved onto stones from which rubbings were made. They were then bound and distributed among the educated elite. In modern times rubbings, while ubiquitous in China, are highly sought after by collectors and connoisseurs. The study of rubbings, bei xue, is considered a profound and recondite discipline.

Generating rubbings from the washboards, Tao elevates the objects to a spiritual level. For her, the marks made on the washboards are unique, recording the life of each owner and expressing the sentiments of every woman whose board she represents. In an interview she recalled: ‘One woman created a shape like a flower through her way of rubbing. I thought that she must be a really kind-hearted woman with a real Buddhist spirit to be able to create these lotus-like patterns.’

The discovery of Nüshu in 2008 added another visual language to her artistic practice and enhanced the depth of her works by revealing a secret world known only to women. Nüshu was created in the 19th century by the largely uneducated women of the Xiao River valley in today’s Hunan province of southern China, in order to communicate with each other. The slanted and hook-like script, which some believe was developed from embroidery stitches, was used among ‘sworn sisters’ to express the joys and sorrows of their lives.

After reading the research on Nüshu, Tao was excited to learn that it came from her hometown province. During the Spring Festival break
in 2008, while visiting her parents, she went to the Pumei village of Jiangyong County to visit an 83-year-old woman named Yi Youqi, one of very few who could still read and write the secret language. Grandma Yi uncovered her handkerchiefs and belts sewn with Nüshu characters while she explained the meaning of the poems they’re adorned with and, as Tao recalls, occasionally recited songs.

Inscribed on the surface of In an instant no. 9 are five poems and songs created by Jiangyong women who recount their lives in melancholy prose. One woman reluctantly had to marry her late husband’s brother; the other relays her lonely life with a young child because her blacksmith husband was too busy to come home; a third woman also tells of the loneliness she and her sister experienced without the companionship of their husbands.

The fourth woman’s husband died and she couldn’t return to her former home because her baby needed care and breastfeeding three times a day. The only woman who expressed slight cheerfulness, despite the harsh physical work she endured, was because one of her sons passed his exam at the age of 16, which brought some light to the family.

According to Tao, the Chinese title for In an instant, yi zhi jian 一指间, has a double meaning related to the concept of time. In Chinese, the
flick of a finger means a brief moment, while in this context also refers to women’s fingers and hands rubbing up and down the washboards. Tao’s process for In an instant no. 9 involved making ink rubbings directly on the face of the old washboards and using rice paper to record the mottled marks left behind. She also applied mineral pigments to the paper to add colour. The blending and overlapping of ink and colour suggests mountains and rivers, mists and valleys. As a final step, she inscribed Nüshu prose, following in the tradition of literati landscape paintings which bear poetry, complementing the beautiful and abstracted forms they depict. Tao even adopted the custom of using red seal marks, only her seals are carved with Nüshu.

For nearly two decades Tao has focused on highlighting the challenging lives of rural women in China through her multidisciplinary artistic practice, which she has shared with the international art world. Her works have been included in domestic and international group exhibitions of contemporary Chinese women artists, including the first survey of Chinese women artists in 25 years, Stepping Out! Female identities in Chinse Contemporary Art, which toured in Europe between 2022 and 2023. She was also in Asia Society’s exhibition: Summoning Memories: Art Beyond Chinese Traditions in Texas in 2023, which featured 32 artists including prominent Chinese contemporary artists Xu Bing, Liu Xiaodong, Sun Xun and Yang Yongliang.

Her ambition for the future is to explore new art forms that reveal the richness of Nüshu culture and to experiment with combining this unique language with digital and AI technology. She would like to find ways to reach out and engage with international audiences who are interested in Nüshu. As Maya Kóvskaya wrote for Tao’s
solo exhibition in INK Studio in Beijing: ‘Power comes from the sharing of quotidian truths; from bringing that which was submerged and suppressed back up to the surface and into the light … When our voices are all raised together, we find our own powers in ways unavailable to us in atomised, isolated silence, alone.’







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