Prune Nourry on Terracotta Daughters

Young French artist reflects on China's gender imbalance

Photographs by Zachary Bako
Artist Prune Nourry spent three years documenting gender imbalance in India. Now she’s focussing on China. Time Out hears about her Shanghai-bound Terracotta Daughters

When French artist Prune Nourry decided to document China’s missing daughters – the millions of girls never born due to the country’s gender discrimination – she needed an instantly recognisable symbol. She hit upon a national treasure: the Terracotta Warriors.

More than a hundred of Nourry’s terracotta figures will be exhibited for the first time globally this month at Shanghai’s Gallery Magda Danysz. They are sculpted from the same local Chinese clay and with the same techniques used to create the original warriors over 2,000 years ago. Like the warriors, who were buried to protect the emperor Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, each is unique. But there is a crucial difference. Rather than burly men bearing swords and shields, Nourry has created rows of schoolgirls. She has named them the Terracotta Daughters.

‘All my projects work on the issue of human selection,’ explains Nourry, 28. ‘The myth of the perfect child – the idea of what you would prefer to have, from choosing the gender to the colour of the eyes and hair.’

Terracotta Daughters is a continuation from Nourry’s previous series, Holy Daughters, an examination of gender imbalance in India. The young artist was fascinated by the holy cows who wander freely in cities and towns in the country. Indians worship the sacred animal as a symbol of fertility, but most holy cows were previously owned by families; only once their milk runs dry are they released onto the streets to survive on a diet of rubbish. In Nourry’s work the holy cow became a metaphor for hypocrisy and discrimination. ‘When you don’t give any more milk, or [in human terms] when you don’t give a son, you’re useless,’ she says.

To highlight this, Nourry created life-sized resin sculptures which fused a cow’s face with an adolescent girl’s lithe body. The soulful, slender figures – christened the Holy Daughters – were exhibited on the streets of New Delhi in front of a milk bus. They represented India’s lost generation of girls. Shortly afterwards, in 2011, when Holy Daughters exhibited in Paris, India released its once-a-decade census.

Despite government attempts to redress its gaping gender imbalance (ultrasounds which reveal a foetus’s gender, for example, are banned) the census showed that the child gender ratio had dropped to its lowest since the country gained independence.

"terracotta-daughter"For Nourry it was natural to move from India to China, where the gender ratio stands at 118 boys to 100 girls, largely due to the one-child policy. Combined, the two countries total more than one third of the globe’s population. ‘It is a nationwide issue but then when you think of the fact that India plus China is such a large part of the world – then it’s a worldwide issue,’ she says.

In India, infused as it is with spirituality and religion, a sculpture modelled on a deity carried most weight. But in secular China Nourry had to find a national emblem instead. ‘The Terracotta Warriors are a very strong, familiar Chinese symbol,’ she explains. ‘To change them in a slight way raises questions: “Why did she change this symbol that we know and nobody normally touches?” Against an army of males here you have an army of daughters which symbolise the missing girls.’

To prepare for the project Nourry visited professors at the University of Xian in 2012. She then sculpted eight life-sized Terracotta Daughters modelled on eight Chinese orphans who she met through the NGO The Children of Madaifu, founded in 1999 by Marcel Roux, former vice president of Médecins Sans Frontières. To fashion her work on the real Terracotta Warriors, Nourry collaborated with craftsmen in Xian who specialise in making warrior replicas using ancient techniques.

It proved a challenge. Nourry trained in wood sculpture at the École Boulle in Paris. But to create the daughters she had to discard her own tools and rid herself of her signature style. She elaborates: ‘[In 210 BC] you didn’t have the same notion of anatomy. I love to see the muscles, the bones. Here, I had to change my style to make it much more round. More simple in a way.’

According to estimates the Terracotta Warriors numbered 8,000 (the number eight is considered lucky in China). To adhere to this Nourry asked the craftsmen to create a further 108 sculptures from her prototypes. Copying the assembly methods used for the real warriors, the craftsmen then made each Terracotta Daughter through combining different parts of the original eight – mixing arms, legs, torsos and heads. They then individually carved each face to make sure that no one sculpture was the same. It is not just the technique and style which the craftsmen mimicked but also the dress. While the Warriors wear military uniform, the Daughters wear the ubiquitous red neck scarfs of Chinese school uniforms.

Collaboration with Chinese artisans was ‘really important to fight the cliché we have in the Western world of China [as] a paradise of plastic,’ says Nourry. She hit some resistance, however. In an interview included in a short film which will play at the exhibition, one craftsman admits: ‘At first I didn’t accept her imagination because the Terracotta Warriors are all males and all of a sudden she makes them girls. I don’t accept it because it is a history of 2,000 years and you make such change.’

Change, of course, is the point. And Nourry wants to enact change not only in art but also in life. The sale of the eight original sculptures will pay for three years of education for the eight orphan girls on which they are modelled. Nourry also took the girls, most of whom are from poor rural villages, to Xian to meet the craftsmen and visit the Warriors for the first time. She recalls feeling a deep pleasure ‘in sharing this alchemy. Suddenly the girls discovered a new world of sculpting.’

Critics have said that Nourry ‘walks the line between art and activism’. Rejecting this label, she likes to term herself ‘an artist who puts on the skin of a sociologist’ instead. Nourry may have chosen to visualise a contentious issue, but she believes her work boils down to the same questions that artists the world over ask: ‘Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?’

Prune Nourry’s Terracotta Daughters is at MD Gallery (Gallery Magda Danysz) from Saturday 14 to October 26. See exhibition details.