Student Research Project: Shuyuan Zhou’s “My Great Grandmother, My Grand Aunt, My Grandmother, My Mother and I: A Family Album”

Shuyuan Zhou is one of the nine winners of 2022 Freedom Lab’s Shirley Graham and W.E.B Du Bois Award.

Her research project is highlighted below. Read other student researcher’s projects here >>

Supported by Professor Zairong Xiang

Project title:
My Great Grandmother, My Grand Aunt, My Grandmother, My Mother and I: A Family Album

Project summary:
Shuyuan’s signature work will be an exploration of female intergenerational relations in a patriarchal context.  By using photography as her main artistic medium, she draws from her own and her family’s experiences to present a personal, first-person perspective on social issues related to gender and generation in China over the last century. The long-term goal of this project is to use art to focus on intergenerational relationships of women in a patriarchal setting. By focusing on her own past and complex family structure, she hopes that her artworks will interact with the static patriarchal art world and draw the viewer’s attention to two long-neglected social issues: aberrant gender inequality and intergenerational relationships in Chinese society.

Interests in this topic:
China has a long history of gender inequality, and women have faced various kinds of discrimination from birth. Shuyuan’s mother, as an example, was born in the time when China’s family planning policy was initially tested. It can be said that her upbringing epitomizes the hegemony of the family under the patriarchal system in China for thousands of years. From the time she was almost killed by her biological parents for being a girl, growing up in the countryside with her grandparents, aunts, and uncles, to being abandoned again at the age of ten, and sent back to her biological parents, she has been a child without a sense of belonging for more than twenty years. Her grandmother and adoptive mother (aunt), who had given her the warmth during her childhood, also carried heavy female missions in the patriarchal society. Since then, such notions have invariably influenced her mother’s subconscious. She has become a victim as well as a feminist fighter, struggling to break free from the shackles imposed on her by society and her family. Through this project, Shuyuan hopes to restore this tragic history and inspire a larger audience of beleaguered women.

In Shuyuan’s mother’s upbringing, her repeated abandonment by her family and her relationship with her biological mother became the most significant traumas. The intergenerational relationship between Shuyuan’s mother and grandmother had a serious impact on the trajectory of Shuyuan’s mother’s relationship with Shuyuan later in life. A woman who was not loved by her own mother imagined her daughter as her childhood scraped and bruised self to love and care for. This created a perverse result: Shuyuan’s mother loved Shuyuan far more than she loved herself, but her love for Shuyuan was also interspersed with a strong desire to possess and control. Despite their love for each other, Shuyuan’s relationship with her mother was filled with quarrels and even violence. Even though they are aware of similar problems, their prevalence creates a sense of powerlessness and reinforces stereotypes. Shuyuan hopes to break the stereotype of this unresolved issue by digging deeper into the individual by using personal and in-depth reporting.

This project is not only about images of family, but also a great return to self-exploration. Shuyuan will intervene in the creative process of filming and shooting, depicting the subtle and complex relationships between the five female family members from a first-person perspective. Although the four women and Shuyuan know each other very well, each of them seems to possess unique imprint of the times of their own. In the process of revisiting these histories, she expects the recurring daily life and objects of domesticity to turn these stories from abstract to concrete, and to bring the histories back to life in a realistic and vivid way.

Current stage:
The project consists of three main parts: the results of the preliminary research, the artworks, and the public exhibition and screening. The final form of output will contain the following.

  1. A paper focusing on the artworks on female intergenerational relationships. This paper will also detail the development process of my own creation and final output of the entire project.
  2. A group of photographic works, the presentation may contain a photographic exhibition and a photobook.
  3. A docu-fiction film.
  4. One or more sets of installation works.

So far, Shuyuan has finished the documentation and background research section, conducted the first photo shoot, and finished writing the film script. According to the current work plan, she will finish all the shooting and enter the post-production part by September; around November she will hold a solo exhibition about the project.


Shuyuan Zhou

Shuyuan is an undergraduate student (Class of 2023) at Duke Kunshan University, majoring in Media and Arts (Creative and Practice Track) and plans to apply for an MFA degree in photography. Using photography, poetry, collage, video, and installations, her work explores her identity as a new generation of Chinese female artists and focuses on feminism, social identity perception, and intergenerational trauma. Her collaborative installation work “Birds Turn into Cages” was exhibited at the DKU Water Pavilion. Her experimental video installation “How to Prove Your Survival” was exhibited at Shanghai City Sleepless Bookstore.