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Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography to Open at China Institute Gallery

NEW YORK, NY.- A new exhibition of documentary photography, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography, will be on view at China Institute Gallery from September 24 through December 13, 2009, revealing a glimpse of China never before seen in the U.S. The photographs, dating from 1951 though 2003, offer intimate portraits of rural and urban daily life in China, beyond the glossy veneer of the economic boom.

Much in the way that The Family of Man, the 1955 landmark photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, explored the universality of the human experience, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography offers rare insight into ordinary and extraordinary human experiences – in this case, taking place in China over the last 50 years.

Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography was organized by the Guangdong Museum of Art and represents the first large-scale collection of photography acquired permanently by any museum in China. Opening at the Guangdong Museum in 2003, the exhibition has since traveled to seven venues in China, Germany and Scotland. The curators, Wang Huangsheng, An Ge and Hu Wugong, visited photographers’ homes and studios in more than 20 provinces and viewed an estimated 100,000 photographs before selecting 600 images by 248 photographers. The exhibition at China Institute Gallery will offer a more tightly focused selection – 100 photographs by more than 80 photographers – chosen by Dr. Jerome Silbergeld, Professor of Chinese Art History at Princeton University.

Together the images present an unvarnished, starkly realistic view of the hardships and rewards of social modernization. “These photographs are not just about society and history but are equally about photography itself and the history of documentary photography in China,” Silbergeld writes in the catalogue essay.

Willow Hai Chang, the Director of China Institute Gallery, notes “The medium and language of photography provide an exceptional opportunity to foster a dialogue, enhancing communication and understanding about everyday life in China. Growing up in China and returning there often, I have witnessed the transforming relationship the Chinese have experienced with photography – from the fear that the camera could steal one’s soul that still exists in some remote regions to the urban proliferation of cell-phone cameras and social-networking sites filled with portraits. Photography also provides a most compelling method of recording history, and Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography creates a contextual framework for both the traditional and modern elements of life in China.”

The emerging themes from the exhibition span an enormous range of human emotions. Tragedy can be seen in the eyes of a man holding a portrait of his deceased wife, while fear is evident as victims flee rising floodwaters. There is also a graceful patience on view as a couple awaits their country wedding, and utter joy is clearly evident as a man displays his wads of cash after winning the lottery.

One of the most striking images in the exhibition is Iron Rice Bowl, Hei Ming’s 2000 portrait of a Muslim chef squatting in front of a crude construction workers’ restaurant, his skullcap mimicking the customers’ rice bowls hanging on the restaurant’s facade. Another notable image, Geng Yensheng’s painterly photograph Miners at Wumeng Mountain, 2003, depicts the harsh working conditions in the mountainous district where Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces come together. As Silbergeld writes, the photograph of the young bathing miners “brings social bitterness and formal beauty into a perfectly fused relationship.”

One of the images, A Parent-Official Like This, became well known in China. In May 1985, Liu Jun had his camera ready when he witnessed a rural deputy chief from the Baishui region in Shaanxi province forcefully push a 60-year-old villager to the ground in a dispute over migration. The resulting photograph captures the horrific arrogance of the authority figure as he towers over the powerless villager whose mouth is contorted in pain. The award-winning image is considered the foremost work of photographic social criticism since the 1949 revolution.

China Institute Gallery | Hei Ming | Shaanxi | China |

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