Brenna von den Benken
A full house of more than 50 spectators, challenging the maximum occupancy of 46, attended the lecture on “China: Insights,” curated by writer Allan D. Coleman at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont last week.
Coleman touched on the delicate expressions of seven contemporary Chinese photographers: Chen Yuan Zhong, Hua’Er, Jia Yu Chuan, Li Nan, Yang Yankang, Yu Haibo and Zhang Xinmin, whose works focus on mainstream documentary photography in the People’s Republic of China.
“Each photographer has undertaken the creation of long-term documentation of one or more aspects of Chinese culture that he or she believes reflects something urgent about China now – whether something emerging or something vanishing,” Coleman said.
The photographers’ themes include rural Catholicism, in “Faith of a Village“ by Yang Yankang; matrilineal culture in an agrarian setting in “Mother to Daughter” by Hua’Er; population shifts in “Country to City” by Zhang Xinmin; prostitution in “Young Pros, Oldest Profession” by Chen Yuan Zhong; gender and identity in “Bending Gender” by Jia Yu Chuan; typologies of urban citizenry in “Urban Identities” by Li Nan; and the emergence of a thriving pop music/club scene in “Night Moves” by Yu Haibo.
They approach their subjects by employing methods ranging from classic modernist documentary to more formal experimental styles.
Unlike the commissioned or staff work that some of them produce occupationally, “China: Insights” is neither state-sponsored nor state-endorsed.
“Self-subsidized at the outset, and often self-sustained through to completion, these projects represent the photographers’ personal and professional commitments to investigating social and cultural issues that each of them have independently decided merits photographic inquiry and preservation,” Coleman said.
The photographers’ work travelesd from rural to urban China at the end of the 20th century and to the start of the 21st; at which point China stood poised to play a major role in the world’s future.
On a sociological level, these works allow viewers from the western world entry into a variety of Chinese microcultures.
“Some of them reflect the ferment of an emerging global economy and China’s determination to play a leading role therein,” Coleman said.
These works as a whole speak to the rapid modernization and urbanization that the Chinese government has set as the nation’s course into the future.
Collectively, these photographers have numerous publications, exhibitions and awards to their credit, but little of their work has appeared outside of the People’s Republic of China.
Six of the seven photographers are based in Shenzhen, which serves as a miniature representation revealing many of the much larger, dramatic shifts in contemporary China.
“China still needs a comprehensive national program to support artistic and cultural development in all forms and media, including photography,” co-curator Gu Zheng said.
“I think it’s interesting how people think the American and Chinese cultures are very different, but these pictures show so many similarities,” museum attendant Kate Murphy said.
“The array of various photographic styles is the only thing ‘different’ about this.”
Brenna von den Benken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.