‘Green Snake’ Provides a Folkloric Model for Resistance

A group exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong argues for feminist-ecological consciousness as a mode of resisting colonial oppression

BY Ysabelle Cheung in Exhibition Reviews | 14 MAR 24

When I was younger, my mother told me a story about a man who travelled to a faraway lake in China, where he met a beautiful young woman dressed in white and spent the night on her boat. Bolstered by his good fortune, the man drank excessively. When he awoke, the woman had vanished. In her place was a giant white snake, as thick as his own body and twice as long.

The many variations of this story in East Asian culture are united by the same cautionary message: beware the shapeshifting monstress. In recent years, however, queer and feminist movements have reclaimed this common tale, interpreting the woman-snake’s fluidity as a strategy for empowerment and survival amid violent, patriarchal societies. This re-examination is at the root of ‘Green Snake: Women-Centred Ecologies’, a group exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary, consisting of more than 60 works by 30 artists and collectives, curated by Kathryn Weir and Xue Tan with Tiffany Leung and Pietro Scammacca. Here, the snake also serves as a symbol of water (its curves resemble a meandering river) and, as such, it unites our ecological crisis and the historical othering of Indigenous communities by white settlers with modes of feminist resistance.

Dima Srouji, The red river, 2023, hand-blown glass. Courtesy: Tai Kwun Contemporary; photograph: Kwan Sheung Chi

A river always finds a path, adapting itself around obstacles and uneven terrain. Likewise, the artists in this show find inventive ways to respond to the extractive practices of colonial forces: the hoarding and removal of resources or the control of land and water that destroys homes and violently disrupts traditional ways of life. Seba Calfuqueo’s 3D animation video and wallpaper installation MAPU KUFÜLL (2020), for example, follows a Mapuche woman as she forages for mushrooms using a technique passed down by her grandmother that requires keeping the fungus’ roots intact to ensure regrowth. A narration recounts the occupation of Curacautín (in present-day Chile) by Spanish invaders, who murdered many Mapuche people. While the graphics and exploratory perspective recall first-person-shooter video games, the work subverts our expectations of kill rates and bounties with a matrilineal storytelling and the notion that, with care, restoration is possible.

Natasha Tontey, Of other tomorrows never known, 2023, mixed-media installation. Courtesy: Tai Kwun Contemporary; photograph: Kwan Sheung Chi

Yet, there is a danger in presenting such communities as pacifying – or even pacified – agents of healing: it positions inaction and reaction as suitable modes of resistance to the aggressive machinery of capitalist extraction and implies an impossibility of survival. In a bid to reclaim agency, the exhibition also features works such as Minahasan artist Natasha Tontey’s video Of Other Tomorrows Never Known (2023), in which a healing spirit travels into the future and discovers a benevolent artificial intelligence based on the traditions of the Minahasan people, such as their use of waruga (sarcophagi), which were declared unsanitary and banned by Dutch colonizers. Guided by the illogic of magic, the collapse of past, present and future challenges rigid, patriarchal norms and allows for alternate readings of time and trauma. Nearby, Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo recasts the phrase ‘In God We Trust’, from the US dollar banknote, with In Yarrow We Trust (2021), which features illustrations of female sex organs and yarrow herbs on printed posters. Referencing the emotional and physical labour of mothers, and the commodification and exploitation of such labour by governments, Caycedo highlights the power of the yarrow herb, which in Colombian communities was traditionally taken by women to end unwanted pregnancies. Visitors are invited to take away these posters as a soft form of political distribution.

Candice Lin, Kiss under the tail, 2023, mixed-media installation. Courtesy: Tai Kwun Contemporary; photograph: Kwan Sheung Chi

‘Green Snake’ makes a sincere attempt to untangle the underlying colonial and patriarchal structures of our current ecological crisis. Although the myriad and detailed histories and cultures are difficult to digest in a short visit, the work itself presents tangible narratives connected by compelling motifs of water, songs and soil, bringing life into the space.

‘Green Snake’ is on view at Tai Kwun Contemporary until 1 April 

Main Image: Jaffa Lam, Tin Hau is coming for a piece of water 2.0, 2023, sculptural installation. Courtesy: Tai Kwun Contemporary; photograph: Kwan Sheung Chi

Ysabelle Cheung is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong.