Questioning traditional gender roles with Chinese photographer Pixy Liao - Friends of Friends / Freunde von Freunden (FvF)

Questioning traditional gender roles with Chinese photographer Pixy Liao


The Shanghai-born, Brooklyn-based photographer on her male muse, the film genre pinky violence, and revindicating history’s ‘evil women’.

“When I was younger, I had very little to zero knowledge about feminism and the LGBTQI+ movement,” says Chinese photographer Pixy Liao, who explains that her home country has a very conservative understanding of gender in comparison to her current Brooklyn base. “In large Chinese cities, and within art and cultural circles, there isn’t much difference to the attitudes in America. But in general, there’s still a long way to go.”

It’s hard to imagine that Liao was ever unaware of feminism, especially when viewing the progressive images from her most notable series, ‘Experimental Relationship’, which received a special mention at this year’s Paris Photo Festival. An ongoing project that started 12 years ago, the series charts Liao’s relationship with her Japanese boyfriend Moro. Five years her junior, Moro is depicted as deferential to Liao in her photography, subverting the traditional Chinese view—which Liao experienced as a young girl growing up in Shanghai—that men should be the dominant, responsible, and assertive party in romantic relationships.

Mountain Mirror, Pixy Liao, 2018
Open Kimono, Pixy Liao, 2018
Two Tunas on the Tatami, Pixy Liao, 2018
The woman who clicks the shutter, Pixy Liao, 2018
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Pixy Liao, 2015

The woman in the red robe, Pixy Liao, 2018

Images range from showing intimate scenes of Liao biting her boyfriend’s lip or rolling him up like a sushi roll, to more risqué tableaus such as one that sees Moro lay naked across Liao’s lap, her hand raised as if about to spank him. Despite their sometimes suggestive nature, these shots have had a positive impact when Liao exhibits them back in her native country. “When I show my work back in China, the most interested audience is always young people, especially younger women,” she says. “Occasionally I will get encouragement from older generations. People are seeing more diversity in gender roles and slowly it is changing their minds.”

Liao frequently uses the word ‘muse’ to describe her creative relationship with her partner. This opens up a discussion about the role of the muse in the art world, which traditionally is associated with beautiful women inspiring and being depicted—often nude or dripping with sexual connotations—by male artists. In contrast to many of her male predecessors, Liao presents her muse in a gentle, caring way—a recent close-up image she shot of him with the sun gently reflecting off his glasses being a perfect example of this tender approach. Liao also makes sure that her muse is offered a certain amount of power during their shoots. A recurring motif in the images is the presence of the shutter release ball and cable. “Often Moro is the one who clicks the shutter. It shows he has a degree of control.”

“American people are familiar with the idea of gender equality and diversity, but that doesn’t mean they all agree with it.”

The latest installment of photographs to be added to ‘Experimental Relationship’ was taken during a trip Liao and Moro took across Japan and China to visit their families last year. The images the journey produced have a very different feel to those taken in the couple’s current American home, and see them wearing brightly colored and patterned kimonos against the backdrop of a traditional Japanese house. “Japan is very clear and delicate to shoot, whereas the U.S. is very bright and bold,” she explains.

Recently exhibited at Chambers Fine Art in New York as part of a solo exhibition titled ‘Open Kimono,‘ and currently being shown as part of Arles International Photo Festival, these photographs have a cinematic quality, namely due to the fact Liao took inspiration from a genre of Japanese film called Pinky Violence. “Basically films about female Yakuza,” she explains, referring to the members of the transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan.

Chinese garden, Pixy Liao, 2015
After Onsen, Pixy Liao, 2015
I can tell that your heart is fogged, Pixy Liao, 2012

Ass Drumming, Pixy Liao, 2015

This enduring interest in powerful, violent women fully explains the motivation behind the risograph and bookshelf-sized installation she also included as part of ‘Open Kimono’, as they are both are inspired and dedicated to Wu Zetian, the only officially recognized empress regnant in China who was reputed for being a ruthless leader. “Wu Zetian is a female figure who made a great impression on me when I was a girl,” says Liao, who thinks women today can learn from the leader’s strength and unflinching approach to wielding power. “It’s hard to imagine growing up without even one queen in your culture, which is why I think she is really important, especially to Chinese girls.”

Both the risograph and installation are the inaugural contributions to Liao’s new ‘Evil Women Cult’ series. “I’m researching historic female leaders, especially those with a bad name,” explains Liao, who lists Japanese Queen Himiko, Isabella of France, and Britain’s Elizabeth I as other rulers she’s interested in. It feels like a very timely project, especially considering the popularity of the “nasty woman” slogan which rose to public attention after Donald Trump used the term during the 2016 American presidential elections. It goes to show that Liao’s discussion and reconsideration of gender aren’t just necessary in China, but also in the Western world. “In America, there has been a long history of feminism and LGBTQ+ movements,” says Liao. “American people are familiar with the idea of gender equality and diversity, but that doesn’t mean they all agree with it.”

Pixy Liao is a Chinese photographer currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Her most notable series, Experimental Relationship, is an ongoing project which challenges traditional views of gender roles in heterosexual relationships. To find out more, follow her on Instagram, or check out her current solo show at the Rencontres d’Arles, which is co-produced by Arles International Photo Festival. Or, if you fancy reading more FvF stories about inspiring photographers, take a look at our interview with Mila Teshaieva, a documentary photographer who deals with issues like personal and national identities and how they are influenced by history.

Text: Emily May
Photography: Pixy Liao