This queer graphic artist is pushing boundaries in Beijing

Mao Yi mixes community outreach with subliminal messaging

Q Space could be one of the most vibrant, edgy, artistic communities that most Beijingers have never heard of. Tucked into a warren of courtyards, the only sounds being birdsong and the mewing of many cats, this bucolic haven for queer artists, writers, designers and activists seems to belong to a different time and place – maybe pre-smartphone Portland, Oregon.

Mao Yi, a deceptively youthful-looking graphic artist originally from Fujian, is one of the community’s long- term residents, and her distinctive, bold works adorn most walls and a good number of surfaces within Q Space. She quit her job as an architect (a professional compromise between a creative child and resolutely pragmatic parents) and joined this queer collective to pursue the artistic, and social, life she wanted.

'Right now my work is very object-focused, on bodies, especially non-conforming bodies. My own gender identity is becoming more opaque as time goes by, so this is helping me discover more about myself,' she told Time Out, explaining that her personal journey is increasingly tied to the community work that Q Space does. Mao Yi is instrumental in organising the space’s activities, ranging from queer life drawing to writing and filmmaking. It’s a far cry from her slick former office in Sanlitun, but Mao Yi clearly has no regrets.

'At Q Space, you feel that inner passion people have for their chosen subject, and you get to dip into those topics and engage with the queer community. Gender, sexuality, public perception of the community – all these things can be discussed and are a source of inspiration.'

Q Space’s queer life drawing classes brought together a diverse room of participants – queer and non-queer; male, female and gender nonconforming – with a form of artistic 'speed dating.' Their models – one of them Mao Yi herself – were asked to adopt various poses for five minutes at a time, simulating sex, while the students sketched out the details of their interactions. While logistically and conceptually challenging for all concerned, Mao Yi was delighted with the results, and went on to convene masturbation and gender fluid life drawing workshops.

'Much of the value is in the process. People know they’re drawing people having sex, so they come with curiosity – a bit of awkwardness – but through the process they build up an understanding of what they’re seeing.'

'For some, they felt it was just like any life drawing session, for others it normalised sexuality in a non- male-dominated, non-pornographic, intimate experience.'

One idea Mao Yi is committed to is bringing the Q Space family together to shoot a documentary made up of short videos shot by different community figures to form a video collage of everyday life for queer people
in Beijing.

'Right now we’re writing and collecting stories for that project. I’m really interested in documenting the underground scene in Beijing – really delving into the real life of, say, volunteers at the Beijing LGBT centre or of a queer singer, to show how diverse and dynamic the community is.

'What we need to show is not just queer people talking about their queerness or their struggle, but just being themselves. That’s the real story.'

Contact Jack Smith ( for more on Q Space.

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