Prune Nourry's Army of Schoolgirls

By Zachary Bako


Gender preference is alive and well in China, and Prune Nourry’s remarkable installation intends to provoke a conversation about it. 

It’s been 40 years since the discovery of China’s Terracotta Army, a sort of installation of thousands of statues of Chinese imperial guards, rendered in clay around 221 B.C.

Prune Nourry decided it was time for an update.

I met the French-born, New York-based sculptor in 2012, just before she started work on Terracotta Daughters. It consists of 116 statues of schoolgirls and is intended to provoke conversations around gender and China, where a whole generation of unmatched bachelors attests to the legacy of the country’s one-child policy. As with the Terracotta Army, every statue in Terracotta Daughters is rendered in clay, and each is different.

Nourry wanted me to document the first 10 days of her project, but the project snowballed. I ended up spending 42 days over seven months …

Nourry wanted me to document the first 10 days of her project, but the project snowballed. I ended up spending 42 days over seven months with her and Xian Feng, a local collaborator, at a working Terracotta Warrior replica factory in Xi’an, China. There, Terracotta Daughters was thrown into the mix of everyday duties.


The replica factory itself was a three-story brick building, with only the first two floors in service. We began production in winter. The factory’s first floor was heated with a bin of coal. The second floor was at the hands of Mother Nature, and most of the windows were missing. Before we wrapped each night, Nourry and Xian Feng covered incomplete sculptures in blankets to protect them from the drop in temperature overnight. If the sculptures froze, it would destroy their progress.

Nourry’s Terracotta Daughters has been exhibited in Shanghai, Paris and Zürich. The statues will travel to New York in September before returning to China in 2015. Then the plan is for them to be buried for 15 years and “discovered” in 2030, as a mock archeological site. By then, we hope, the gender preference debate will have shifted to the schoolgirls’ side.

Xian Feng with Terracotta Daughter

Xian Feng creating the distinct uniform of the Terracotta Warrior on a miniature Terracotta Daughter.

Pieces in the oven

Pieces in the oven.

2 men outside waiting by an oven

Xian Feng and another craftsman take a break after loading and firing the oven.

Xian Feng in studio during the day working on piece of work on table

Xian Feng prepares a mold.

Prune's hands on faces of sculptures

Prune reworks a few details.

Wider view of statues inside studio beingn worked on by Xian Feng

Xian Feng rests his sanding disc atop a sculpture.

Xian Feng working on scupture upclose

Xian Feng patching cracks.

Sculptures lined up

Sculptures before the patina is added.

Pieces of clay on the floor

Discarded remnants from casting the sculptures.

Prune facing a sculpture with hands on face

Nourry making an adjustment.

Xian Feng working on scupture  in large studio during the day

Xian Feng applying the patina.

Finished sculptures lined up in studio facing camera

The completed sculptures.