Edit 5/2017: My father travels to experience an unknown China, far from the crowded cities and Mandarin Chinese. Deep in these mountains, his camera shows me the minority cultures which speak to his roots. He doesn't shoot like a tourist, but like someone who left a village longing to return, even as he watches high rises spring in multitudes from the now paved ground of his beloved hometown.
Edit 11/2017: One of my teacher's exhibits was named East Meets West for what's described as his combination of western medium with eastern technique. What can be attributed to which influences though? I know he peers into the eyes of Old Masters while holding his Chinese ink training dear. I more than pay homage to him with my empty canvas spots and dripping turpentine. I always detested labored technique, valuing deliberate strokes at the expense of illusory space. I have never been able to resolve the tension between gesture and representation when engaging with real forms. I think about extricating myself from them. I question if I'll ever emerge out of the shadow of my teacher. So many things still have their grip on me, but what is it that I cannot release? Is such a purging of academic training, whatever it means to be trained by such a believer in free-forms, possible? Certainly I can never measure up to him in his own arena. I don't know how much of the East is in me. When I look West, my art looks dead, or at the most, gasping in dying forms. What am I imposing onto these portraits? What was my father thinking when he took these photos? What kinds of marginalized narratives can we possibly still claim—the geography of China says enough about cultural boundaries and memories. Even his roots are far flung across the ocean and deep in time.
Edit 2/2018: I try not to paint these portraits as exotic glimpses into an underdeveloped culture worthy of our Western spectatorship, but rather as everyday states of being—the same mirth or desolation, the same feelings of mundane routine, of wistful thinking, of things taken for granted, of living and watching life—for me, the sight of the skyline across the Hudson, blasted pink at sunset, for her, mountains I may never see. The landscape need not always be romanticized, and neither do the people within them.
I don’t know anything about her, and I feel no need to spill her story on my canvas. All I see in the photo is that familiar shyness in front of a camera during those first few adjustment shots. She doesn’t know what to do, and I can imagine my dad laughing to make up for the awkwardness as he squints at the camera buttons.
Edit 7/2018: "I visited a mountain village by Lancang River (澜沧江) in the city of Lincang, Yunnan. A few hours driving from Nainai's home. The village is named 河边村 (By-the-River village), since there is a small stream flowing through it from a mountain peak. See it in a picture with water mill. The village is poor. Traditionally houses were built with large chunks of rocks and covered with even large and thin clay rocks from the local site. I went there with a group of government officials who help the villagers improve their life and develop economy. Villagers were very warm-hearted! Olders were willing to let me take pictures (without any tips)." —Xin (my dad)
I'm wary of the kind of landscapes I want to include in these. I don't want to perpetuate the notion of idyllic perfection. I don't want these portraits to be vehicles for that kind of longing. They exist as much in the here and now as we do. They have their own difficulties and ways of living, as relatable and as different as the human experience can be. As much as their landscapes shape them, there's no need to use a landscape to situate them; their figures have enough of that agency. Their histories are not mine to claim.
Edit 8/2018: The history of these people (the Wa) is long and fraught with conflicting narratives of cultural "otherness": imposed by colonists, instrumentalized by war, made "primitive" by the countries in which they reside, confused by the lack of standardized written languages and religions. State-sponsored officials have been visiting and gathering data on these villages. Their goals are presumably to develop economic aid. Realistically, what should the state's role in these villages be? With so many ethnicities and cultures, what can, and what should a state do in terms of preservation, acknowledgement, and reparations?
The most I can do is respect their images by not disfiguring them (they don’t translate through the canvas as figures for the purpose of speaking about figuration), by placing them in real space and time, and hopefully through these actions, I give them both a humble distance and a relatable humanity they deserve.