China: Insights

It’s hard to go a day without reading or hearing about China. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world and a staggeringly powerful government, China gets plenty of attention when it comes to big, global issues. But besides all the initiatives and figures, the “China” printed daily in newspapers is faceless—a bizarre phenomenon considering how many faces there are in China, and how profoundly those faces affect—and are affected—by the stories being printed. The new exhibit at the Pomona College Museum of Art, “China: Insights,” gives a look into the human emotions and daily scenes of China that don’t appear on the front page. Seven photographers capture a wide variety of subcultures from the enormous country. Some of the stories these documentary photographs tell are older and more permanent, others newly born and rapidly morphing, but all are unique and compelling, especially when considered within the context of China’s continuous change.

Two photographers, Hua Er and Yang Yan Kang, focus primarily on village life. Hua Er’s collection “Mother to Daughter” is part of the artist’s study on certain matriarchal societies in rural China, in which the father is severed from any role in raising his children and the women have the most highly regarded jobs in the community. Hua’s photographs feature intimate views of the household and village life, and include powerful portraits of women at their jobs and in family settings. Yang Yan Kang’s collection “ Faith of a Village” focuses on Catholicism in villages in the Shanxi province. The photographs are touching views of worship and community—one particularly sweet photo shows a young boy, mischievous and curious, playfully lifting up the back of a nun’s habit as she talks to a few other children.

Zhang Xinmin was, for me, the standout photographer of the group. His collection “Country to City” features black and white photos, richly printed, with brilliant, cinematic compositions and a narrative focusing on the current transition of many Chinese from country peasantry to city workers. Zhang captures a 22-year-old Jhong Jia Cai’s worn hands and feet, their texture filling the frame. They seem to decay the same way fabric would. Half a wall away, Zhang’s smiling face looks straight at the camera as he sits suspended from some ropes hundreds of feet in the air along the side of a skyscraper. The photographer captures moments full of dynamism, yet with a serious stability. Working in both the countryside and the cities to which the country folk relocate, Zhang’s photos are chock full of detail and narrative.

Yu Haibo and Chen Yuan Zhong both photograph different scenes from the city of Shenzhen. Yu Haibo’s collection, “ Night Moves,” features photographs stained with blurs of nightclub lighting, action, and sweaty dancers. Chen Yuan Zhong focuses on a different sector of nightlife: prostitution. The collection, “Young Pros, Oldest Profession,” features portraits of prostitutes from the streets, images of police raids, and the young girls in “reform by labor,” where they are placed after being charged.

Jia Yu Chuan photos revolve around an urban cross-dressing culture. Throughout “Bending Genders,” relationships are visible in both the more private, intimate spheres, and in public on a night out on the town. Li Nan poses his subjects for the collection “Urban Identities,” exposing and playing with the public identities which people assume in their jobs or social roles. The portraits all feature multiple subjects, more or less lined up across the frame, in similar if not identical costumes. The portraits highlight the tension between group and individual identity.

“China: Insights” houses some remarkable photographs, powerful in both their visual impact and the lives and cultures to which they provide access. The interplay between the two makes for a truly rich journey through the gallery. There are not an overwhelming number of photographs, but it’s easy to get lost in a single picture. The exhibition will be open until Apr. 10, and it is definitely worth seeing if you are at all interested in photography, China, or—at a basic level—humanity.

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