New Show Views Chinese Culture Through Recontextualized Photos

by Jean Schiffman

The Chinese Culture Center and SF Camerawork’s joint show explores the ever-changing issues of diaspora, immigration, modernization, the blending of cultures and the provenance of art itself.

If three artists of different ethnicities, from different cultures, based in different locations, depict China through a contextualized presentation of found photographs, the question might arise: Who is allowed to tell the story? In San Francisco, with its large population of first- and second-generation Chinese, that was a relevant issue for co-curators Abby Chen of the Chinese Culture Foundation and Heather Snider of SF Camerawork when they agreed to join forces to present the joint exhibition “Retrieved: The Living Memory of Change.” A decade or so ago at the Foundation’s visual art gallery at the Chinese Culture Center, the “silent consensus” was that all artists showcased must have two parents of Chinese descent, says Chen. But now the curators look through a global lens at what “Chinese” means. “In our minds, it’s okay for anyone to tell the story,” says Snider.

Another question also emerged: Who is the author? The artistic gesture of “treating” a photo as opposed to shooting a photo is important, especially in an age when photos are ubiquitous, points out Snider. “A lot of artists are working in this mode—gathering and recontextualizing photos,” she says.

Each of the three artists represented in this free, dual-venue show three years in the planning uses retrieved photography as the central element in an individualized perspective on China’s past and present. All three collections have been seen separately elsewhere; this is a rare coming-together of the artists, each of whom will be present for the opening, in simultaneous but non-identical showings at Chinese Culture Center’s Chinatown gallery and SF Camerawork’s smaller, downtown digs.

After agreeing that they wanted something more comprehensive than the work of a single photographer to explore art “in and around China and across the Chinese-American continuum,” the curators came across Parisian photography collector and editor Thomas Sauvin, whose “Beijing Silvermine” is an evocatively assembled set of snapshots taken from the early 1980s to 2005—that is, during the two decades of a post-socialist China, as Sauvin writes in an artist’s statement, that also follows the evolution of Kodak film to the digital camera in mainland China. Starting in 2009, Sauvin, who lived in Beijing for years, culled from half a million negatives that he bought by the kilo from the owner of a recycling dump (the negatives were valuable for the silver nitrate) on the outskirts of Beijing. Subjects tended to pose proudly by their new acquisitions; Sauvin considers the images “unpretentious, often quite funny and undoubtedly endearing.” Snider immediately visualized an interesting interplay between the work of another artisst, Kurt Tong, and Sauvin’s archive-sourced projects: Tong’s of his Chinese forebears going back more than a century, Sauvin’s of complete strangers in the recent past.

Chen found Kurt Tong through the prestigious WYNG Masters Award in Hong Kong. His exhibit, “The Queen, the Chairman and I”—seen in Europe, New York and Hong Kong—is an extension of his book of the same name, which itself is an integral part of the show. A Hong Kong native and current resident whose mother tongue is Cantonese and who went to boarding school in England at age 13, Tong wondered, “How Chinese am I, or indeed, who am I?” He gathered images from family photo albums to explore his lineage, and interspersed them with his own color photographs. “It’s a unique re-interpretation of his family’s history,” says Chen.

Reached in Hong Kong via email, Tong says that he envisages his own photographs, which, in his book, he interspersed with the family photos, to function like movie sets, populated by the characters from the old photos—his paternal and maternal grandfathers and their extended progeny. He wants viewers to look at his book—which is a piecemeal, non-linear narrative of the migration of his relatives, recounted through photos and text—while they’re looking at the hundreds of photos on display. To facilitate that interaction, he is installing a Chinese teahouse at the Chinese Cultural Center, where visitors can relax and contemplate the images while sipping tea; the Chinese Cultural Center display will focus on the historical photos, while the more minimal and modern SF Camerawork display highlights his own contemporary pictures.

To gather material, Tong spent months contacting relatives in China, the United States, Canada and Denmark, who told him stories and pulled apart their photo albums. Then he spent about 20 months taking his own pictures of scenes and objects that connect, however abstractly, to the stories. And he also references a more global historical context—the “Queen” of his exhibit’s title is Victoria; the chairman, Mao: he sees the fate of Hong Kong as heavily influenced by both figures.

Initially, Tong was concerned whether people could relate to such a geographically specific journey as that of the Tong family, but now he sees that his photographs are a “catalyst for people to think and talk about their own history.” A personal favorite in the exhibit is one of a cherry tree in blossom in Tong Bay, his ancestral village; he was the first in four generations to return there. “While I was waiting for the light to be right . . . I looked up and saw the blossom and felt the really strange sensation of belonging. The fact that the blossom really could have been [found] anywhere in the world, in Hong Kong, in London even … the image in a weird way [summarizes] the project for me.”

The third contribution to “Retrieved” is New York photographer and filmmaker Daniel Traub’s “Little North Road,” which the curators viewed as a perfect balance to the work of the other two exhibitors. “[Traub’s] photos are more contemporary than the other two,” says Snider, “and they tell you so much about the current state of globalization, the mixing of cultural identities and economies.” Traub, whose work has been seen internationally, including at SFMOMA, has created a set of contemporary images of Africans posed for itinerant photographers on a busy footbridge in Guangzhou. Traub’s own photos of the surrounding skyline and streetscape provide context. (A book of the work has been published in China and will be published here in the spring.) Half Chinese on his mother’s side, Traub speaks Mandarin and lived in Beijing and Shanghai from 1998 to 2007. Like Sauvin, who rescued negatives that would otherwise have been destroyed, Traub reclaimed, by way of digital files, thousands of images of a unique cultural mix in one small section of a large Chinese city.

The China/Africa relationship had fascinated Traub for about a decade; his artist mother, Lily Yeh, had been involved in creating a genocide survivors’ village memorial in Rwanda, built by a Chinese construction company. In 2005 Traub began photographing in Guangzhou, which has the largest population of Africans in China, examining the flip side, he says: the African presence in China. When he came across the pedestrian bridge in 2009, where Wu Yong Fu was taking portraits of passersby with a digital camera, he was struck in particular by the African subjects in their dashikis and caftans. Says Snider, “Clearly the Africans in these pictures are to some degree affluent … the fancy outfits are probably made in Chinese factories; they’re traders, business people, there for the textile industry.” Traub wrote in his artist’s statement that something about the interaction between these two worlds captured his imagination. Over the next several years Wu and another photographer, Zeng Xian Fang, allowed Traub to transfer hundreds of their digital images to his computer.

On the phone from his home in Brooklyn, Traub explains that he chose the most compelling images—those whose facial expressions and clothing drew him—as well as those who represented a cross-section within the African immigrant community that traversed that bridge. The two photographers, he says, have different styles—one more formal, the other more aggressive—in bringing out the personality of the subjects. He’ll show enlarged samples of Zeng’s work at one venue, Wu’s at the other, 20 or 30 of each, and five or six of his own photos as well, plus a few of his videos. “They’re kind of like self-portraits,” he says, “[because the subjects told] the photographers where they wanted to stand and how they wanted to be shown.” Ultimately he
saw the project as “a collaboration between these two photographers and myself.”

“Whether you’re looking at Kurt Tong’s playboy grandfather posing like a Western movie star,” comments Chen, “or Thomas Sauvin’s lady standing by her new TV set or refrigerator, or Daniel Traub’s Africans posing in front of the urban landscape of China, there is … a very subtle commonality. [The subjects] almost seem like they’re directing the photographer … like today’s selfie, but at a time when they had to rely on communication with the photographer.” The Chinese character in the exhibit’s title, “Retrieved” (hui), means retreat, return, to circle back, she explains—to expand but to keep going back to a certain point, just as the three archivists have done.

“There’s a circular conversation going on,” adds Snider—a conversation that encompasses the ever-changing issues of diaspora, immigration, modernization, the blending of cultures and the provenance of art itself.

"Retrieved—The Living Memory of Change"

Feb. 20 - May 14

Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St.

Feb. 20 - Apr. 16

SF Camerawork, 1011 Market St.

(415) 487-1011/

(415) 986-1822/