Artist Nina Kuo is planning to open a solo show, revealing her recent works for the first time in New York next year.

‘We Are All Tang Ladies’

Artist Nina Kuo weighs in on navigating the intricate balance between her American upbringing and her Chinese heritage through a multi-year series of 'Tang Ladies'

Artist Nina Kuo is planning to open a solo show, revealing her recent works for the first time in New York next year.

Xintian Tina Wang

Words by Xintian Wang

When the New York-born Chinese American artist Nina Kuo first came to Beijing, China in the 1980s, the then 27-year-old artist saw a country that was drastically different from the one her father had described.

It was a time of transition, with China emerging from the post-Mao era and undergoing significant societal changes. This period fell between President Nixon's historic “reopening” of China in 1972 and the tumultuous Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989. As the first person in her family to return to China since her father's departure in 1947, Kuo witnessed the blossoming of self-expression among Chinese women at that time. Women were dressing in Western clothes, experimenting with modern hairstyles, and applying bold makeup.

Artist Nina Kuo at The Astor Chinese Garden Court.

Xintian Tina Wang

As a second-generation Chinese American, Kuo was hoping her trip to China would help her navigate between her American and Chinese identities. This struggle, however, had served as a wellspring of inspiration for her artistic endeavors and continues to do so now. Inspired by the Tomb sculptures from the Tang Dynasty she saw in China and the newfound women's liberation movement, she returned to the United States and contemplated on how her upbringing was similar to the ladies in the Tang Dynasty. After years of research and practice in the arts residence programs, in 1995, Kuo started to create an ongoing series called Tang Ladies, through paintings, sculptures, video works, and photographs.

“I want to revive these ladies in the past, by giving them a new life in the contemporary world. By looking into the past, I felt present, and I felt freer to express myself.”

Now 70 and still living in New York, Kuo continues to work on new Tang Ladies pieces in this 28-year-old series. Planning to open her solo show revealing her recent works for the first time in New York next year, Kuo hopes more viewers can experience a journey drifting amidst the realms of the past and present, blending elements from the East and the West, entwining symbols of heritage and contemporary expressions.

“I want to revive these ladies in the past, by giving them a new life in the contemporary world,” says Kuo. “By looking into the past, I felt present, and I felt freer to express myself.”

"Cyber Dome Affair," acrylic, 2028.

Nina Kuo

The Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) epitomized a glorious era of Chinese arts and culture. During this golden age, ladies in court embodied both elegance and literacy. The Tang ladies were often considered the pioneers of female empowerment in China. However, with the decline of the Tang Dynasty due to socioeconomic turmoil, foot binding was carried out on young women to limit their freedom and kept them at home. Kuo’s grandmother, whose feet were damaged by this practice, inspired Kuo to work on paintings that symbolize the social restrictions imposed on women.

“As women, we were told to emulate the virtues of the scholars, and yet we need to fulfill the responsibilities as mothers and housewives,” says Kuo. “Asian women were often told that only a good marriage can grant you a good life, which is very disturbing.”

"Tang Lady Yoga Retreat" (part of a 3-D animation series), acrylic/canvas 2017-2022.

Nina Kuo

Therefore, in her paintings, Kuo set these Tang ladies free from historical constraints. In her recent works, Tang ladies are performing daily rituals in the contemporary world: they are doing yoga, working on laptops in enclosed space, going on a voyage, and doing makeup. The anachronistic settings invite the audience to reflect on the evolving roles and aspirations of women throughout history.

Kuo’s work not only celebrates liberated women but also criticizes the sexualization of Asian women. In a painting titled Tang Lady Perfume, nude Tang ladies are laying under the water with several fragrance bottles labeled with ethnic slurs usually referring to a person of Chinese descent. “Sometimes we have to poke fun at ourselves to better fit in the society as Asians,” says Kuo. “The sexualization of Asian women is everywhere.”

"Tang Lady Perfume," acrylic/canvas 2017-2022.

Nina Kuo

Like Kuo, who is forging a path to the future by looking into the past, the Tang ladies in her paintings are also trying to break away from the shackles. In another painting titled Tang 3 Ladies Vacuum (2019), three Tang ladies are vacuuming relics, cityscapes, and piles of debris on the ground. Those architectural destructions are seen as a city falling apart and rebuilding, as if these women are trying to clean up the past that restricts them.

“The Tang ladies are rebellious, independent, and are trying to break the norm,” says Kuo.

As the first artist in residence at the New York’s Asian American Arts Centre in 1981, Kuo is a leading Asian American artist who is striving to build the AA+PI artist community in the United States. She was curated early on by influential artists and curators like Fred Wilson, Thelma Golden, and Dawoud Bey, and her work was exhibited at the New Museum in New York, MOMA, and the Brooklyn Museum. As an active member of the AA+PI community, she also highlighted the sense of community and female empowerment in her work.

“The Tang ladies are rebellious, independent, and are trying to break the norm.”

“I believe that each one of us can relate to the concept of Tang Ladies, especially Asian women who share certain connections, like the symbolic pigtail hair that connected two women in my paintings,” says Kuo. “There might even be elements of eroticism and self-reflection intertwined within these depictions, which may arise unintentionally but holds a captivating aura that defines who we are. This enables us to embrace the femininity of our explorations into the future.”

Ultimately, we are all Tang ladies trying to break the tyranny of time, and transcending the boundaries we once believed existed.

Published on June 26, 2023

Words by Xintian Wang

Xintian Tina Wang is a bilingual journalist covering cultural stereotypes and innovations, including gender and sexuality, arts, business, and technology. Her recent work appears in TIME, ARTNews, Huffpost, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Daily Beast, Inc. Magazine etc. She is also the director of events for the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) New York Chapter. As a journalist of color and a visual storyteller, she is constantly speaking for cultural minority groups whose voices are buried in mainstream discourses. Her documentary Size 22 won the "Best Short Documentary" at the Boston Short Film Festival and an "Audience Award" at the New England Film Festival. Her photography work is featured in TIME, HuffPost, The Sunday Times, Air Mail, etc. Visit her website at www.xintianwang.net.