Peng Ke’s “In Solitude, be a Multitude to Yourself” exhibit at Enclave Contemporary in Shenzen.

Artist Peng Ke Examines Chinese Culture in Stunning Photography

Her recent work, focusing on womanhood in China, will show at an L.A. gallery next year

Peng Ke’s “In Solitude, be a Multitude to Yourself” exhibit at Enclave Contemporary in Shenzen.

Courtesy of Peng Ke

The visual artist Peng Ke, who lives alternatively between Los Angeles and Shanghai, has never been afraid of the unknown. Growing up in Shenzhen, China, in the 1990s, a fear of change would mean surrender. The city was one of the country’s first to experiment with sweeping economic reforms—the post-Mao economic opening that set the stage for China’s eventual ascension to “the factory of the world”—that made every citizen a potential entrepreneur whose big break could come any minute. Growing up in Shenzhen made Peng feel like anything was possible, even if the process would almost certainly be difficult. 

As an artist, Peng primarily works with images and “has a strong interest in making sure all the icons and graphic systems work in harmony.” She thinks that personal desire comes from her hometown, which, unlike more inland cities, was not as subject to stringent societal structures and inherited expectations. Much of her work engages directly with Shenzhen, reflecting the cultural milieu of urban China.

Peng’s more recent work, which will culminate in a 2024 show at Make Room gallery in Los Angeles, considers the experience of womanhood in contemporary China—and the recent political and economic shifts that are upending it. Despite the widespread death and suffering it inflicted, China’s one child policy (1980-2015) in later years resulted in, according to Peng, “a lot of only children who were girls receiving all their family’s resources” when they previously might have had to forfeit opportunities like getting an education to their brothers.

“The Cross that Supports You” by Peng Ke, with Ivano

Courtesy of Peng Ke

Growing up, she heard a lot of stories about people who had more than one child while the policy was in place who had to hide their daughters, give them up, and pay punishing fines just to keep them. “I kept thinking about how for a girl to be born in China back then, she has already survived a very difficult journey—not being abandoned or aborted,” she says. 

In considering how to translate these thoughts, conversations, and experiences into her work, Peng began to frame the start of life as a success in itself: “being born as having survived.” She enters discussions on feminism, whether it’s with her American or Chinese peers, from this lens—that of a female newborn. Someone who started surviving before she started living.  

Now, facing a demographic crisis, China’s government has completely reversed course; couples are now not only allowed, but encouraged to have three children, even as the cost of raising a single child continues to go up. Peng is also thinking about feminism’s role in cultivating enhanced individual agency for women amid the consistently inconsistent socioeconomic conditions of contemporary China.

“Lover” by Peng Ke.

Courtesy of Peng Ke

Peng sees a growing interest in the feminist movement in China, especially as it relates to having children. “Some people decide to not be in relationships or have kids at all; some who are already married are looking at new ways of making it work for them, so they can feel free even in a traditional marriage or relationship; some people who maybe had been homophobic or sexist are now starting to learn that they were wrong,” she says. 

China at that time was changing rapidly in all ways, and Peng’s family were directly in the action. “I really smoothly adapted to the mindset of that time,” Peng says. “That as a Chinese citizen, it’s not about an inward circulation; it’s about going out and being a citizen of the world.” 

In a city where seemingly no one knew anyone, and everyone was facing outward, personal journeys loomed large. “I’m fascinated by the bravery and desire for survival that can be observed from ordinary individuals,” Peng says. 

“I really smoothly adapted to the mindset of that time. That as a Chinese citizen, it’s not about an inward circulation; it’s about going out and being a citizen of the world.” 

To Peng, growing up in Shenzhen cultivated a sense of possibility and anonymity. “I felt confident and optimistic about the future. I could see things changing and expanding, and I definitely felt free.” The environment influenced her approach to photography, which she had always been interested in and taught herself as a teenager. As a member of the post-reform generation and living through that era in its epicenter, Shenzhen, made her think critically about how urban entrepreneurial mindsets have the power to expand individual professional and personal trajectories. 

“Shenzhen is where you go to find your own community and start your own life. I love seeing patterns of different colors and aesthetics that somehow get into a harmonic rhythm,” she says. 

A photo included in Peng Ke’s book, “Salt Ponds.”

Courtesy of Peng Ke

Peng’s international outlook and adventurous nature eventually led her to go abroad. She had attended a public high school in Shenzhen known for its emphasis on foreign language instruction, so her English language skills were strong even when she was a teenager. She started college studying marketing in Jinan, China, before giving into her boredom and applying to transfer. 

She applied to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), among other prominent arts schools in the United States (her parents said she could only study art if she was accepted to one of the “best schools”). Most of her friends were going abroad; that part wasn’t controversial. Her parents thought her choice to study art, however, was risky.

“I’ve always been curious about different cultures and seeing how people live compared to me. It intrigues me and gives me a lot of hope.”

At RISD, Peng adjusted to life in America relatively easily. “I’ve always been curious about different cultures and seeing how people live compared to me. It intrigues me and gives me a lot of hope.” But after living in the United States, including Los Angeles, Peng wanted her work to turn back toward her hometown. In addition to the “contemporary texture” of Shenzhen, that includes the particular experience of growing up alongside strong female role models and elders, who gave her comfort and wisdom throughout her childhood. 

She views the outward modernity and sheen in her work depicting Shenzhen in contrast to her personal familial relationships. “There’s a juxtaposition between a more intimate and caring layer, and the emotional tug of the city and its shiny, metal surfaces,” she says. “They both show in my work.”

Peng sees similar juxtapositions in China today. While young people tend to be either supportive or agnostic toward women’s and LGBTQ rights, some people still resist acceptance for marginalized groups. To Peng, it all comes down to exposure.

“Young Pioneers” by Peng Ke

Courtesy of Peng Ke

“We’re at a point in China where almost everybody was born by a father figure and a mother figure in a heterosexual and at least technically monogamous family,” she says. That means few people have personal relationships with anyone who comes from a “nontraditional” background.

At a time of increasing nationalism and isolationism, she believes people are having a more and more difficult time understanding people that are different from them. This is especially striking for Peng, who grew up in a far less restrictive version of China than the one she sees today. “As someone who grew up in a very open environment, this attitude suffocates me a lot.”

Feminism has the capacity to expedite acceptance of different lifestyles, sexualities, and gender norms. But, Peng believes, it’s everyone’s job to educate the older generations. For now, she says, “we’re getting there.”

A photo in Peng Ke’s book, “Salt Ponds.”

Courtesy of Peng Ke

Published on April 19, 2023

Words by Johanna M. Costigan

Johanna M. Costigan is a writer and editor focused on Chinese politics, technology, and publics. She graduated from Bard College with degrees in east Asian studies and written arts. She has an MSc in contemporary Chinese studies from the University of Oxford. Previously, she lived and worked in Shanghai, China.