Sonia Jia explores trauma and the still-raw legacy of Japanese occupation on canvas
A bare maiden gets down on one knee. She offers a delicate bouquet to another woman, who, in silent reverence, inclines her head closer to the flowers with a lit cigarette. Against a skin-colored backdrop, their unadorned bodies come to life, revealing the presence of scars and veins. The artwork resembles a fragment peeled from an ancient cave painting.
Nearly all Sonia Jia’s recent paintings have this same palette of skin tones mixed with stormy mauve. The 23-year-old artist from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, takes inspiration from both her own past sufferings and the collective trauma of Chinese women during fraught moments of the 20th century to produce her works.
Even though Jia’s career is just beginning, her work already hangs weightily on the walls of Cubism Artspace in Shanghai. When TWOC met her this October, she had just wrapped up a group exhibition at Cubism and was about to embark on her first solo exhibition in the same gallery a week later. Titled “Untouchable,” the exhibition will explore the idea of precarious intimacy—the connection, care, and solidarity formed during perilous circumstances.
“I think in the formation of many intimate relationships, conflict will arise from personal trauma. But at the same time, our shared empathy toward trauma often blurs boundaries between people and allows us to form deeper bonds… That’s what makes the concept of precarious intimacy so captivating to me,” Jia tells TWOC.
Jia’s work has always been centered around the exploration of intimacy and vulnerability. Her artistic expression is part of her way of healing from the sexual trauma she experienced during her childhood.
She often finds solace from her past in books and films. She discovered Precarious Intimacies: The Politics of Touch in Contemporary Western European Cinema by Maria Stehle and Beverly Weber, when she was pursuing her Master’s degree in painting at London’s Royal College of Art. The book delves into films that explore tales of sexuality, love, and friendship against the backdrop of violence and exclusion, illustrating how political and economic changes can simultaneously restrict and enable fresh avenues for intimacy.
“[The book] broadened my understanding of the relationships between people and things in my own surroundings,” says Jia. She realizes the harmful relationship brought about by perilous environment does not only exist in herself or others individually. Throughout history, there have been countless people who have been persecuted by wars, and the relationship born out of those circumstances inspired many of the pieces in her solo exhibition.
Raised in Hangzhou, China, Jia is familiar with the country’s tumultuous history in the early 20th century, marked by invasions and attempted colonization. Elderly members of her family often watched TV dramas about Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s, and later she too came across movies about the lives of “comfort women”—women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in occupied territories, such as the 2016 Korean movie Spirits’ Homecoming. Jia was fascinated by the bond formed between these girls and women and began researching the topic further.
She became haunted by the images and depictions of these women in Japanese military doctor Aso Tetsuo’s memoir, From Shanghai to Shanghai, which chronicles his experiences during his stationing in the occupied city from 1937 to 1941. The images also inspired Jia’s “Fading Bruise” series.
“The female students lying in the dark and desolate ruins, the boats transporting women, and the torn clothing...If you’re not actively looking or researching this kind of information, it might just disappear from the world, just like the initially painful bruises on our skin that will gradually fade away,” she writes in a social media post.
Referencing Aso’s photo of a ship transporting comfort women, Jia created the inaugural work in the series. From a distance, it appears as a searing, crimson wound encased within an antique plaster frame. However, upon closer inspection, the contours of a cargo ship materialize, unveiling a haunting narrative.
Other works in the series also draw on more harrowing photographs captured amidst Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s and ’40s. From dead bodies resting in military trenches to the captured rural women being transported to Japanese military camps, Jia’s paintings hide the gruesome particulars within nebulous contours but convey emotional essence through her bold manipulation of color.
Rather than employing Western oil painting techniques, which use heavy layers, Jia embraces the delicate approach of Chinese landscape painting, covering the canvas with thin and translucent paints. The technique also signifies the artist’s attempt to seal the scars and bruises that are destined to fade with time within the canvas.
Beyond her expertise in oil painting, Jia has also ventured into filmmaking. In 2021, her short film Her Feather, Her Body, a story about the psychological journey of a Chinese performance art student as she navigates through a same-sex relationship and childhood trauma, received awards at both the Paris Film Festival and the New York International Film Festival. Movies are a major source of inspiration for Jia. In her painting “Tactile Fragment II,” two women meld into an embrace, cradling an infant in their tender arms. The palette, a symphony of flesh tones dances with hues of cyan, once again evoking bruises.
The scene is taken from a frame in director Zhang Yimou’s 2011 movie The Flowers of War, set in the 1937 Nanjing Massacre when Japanese soldiers rampaged through China’s then-capital for six weeks killing civilians and committing atrocities. Zhang’s film, based on a novel by Yan Geling, tells the story of desperate schoolgirls and a group of flamboyant prostitutes who both seek refugee from the carnage in a local church. When the Japanese order the schoolgirls to sing at their victory celebration, the prostitutes selflessly switch places with them to protect their innocence.
The movie also inspired her oil painting “Fragments of Porcelain in the Haze of Battle,” where the intricate patterns echo the qipao designs worn by the female characters in the film. For the installation “Ci” (瓷, porcelain), which comprises scattered porcelain pieces laid on the ground, Jia intentionally framed it in a 16:9 ratio, mirroring the dimensions of a movie screen.
“We placed these two pieces of artwork in the same area, with the intention of having them be an extension of each other. This is my tribute to the solidarity among women portrayed in the film,” Jia tells TWOC.
Although her subject and context can be full of uneasiness, Jia doesn’t want her art to be interpreted as a product of pessimism but as a celebration of unity that blooms from intimate relationships, much like how the skin rejuvenates from injury.
Despite just beginning her career (Jia only graduated from the Royal College of Art this July), Jia hopes to inspire audiences to reflect on conflict in a different way. “I also hope to explore, through my artwork, the connections between people in war beyond hatred,” she says.
Images courtesy of the Cubism Artspace
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Healing Strokes: A Gen Z Artist Explores Personal Pain and Historical Trauma is a story from our issue, “Online Odyssey.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.