2009 - 2016

After Mao was created in 2009 shortly after uprooting my life from NYC and moving to Beijing. I had come across an article about a photographic retoucher who was most known for working on Mao’s portraits since the late 1940’s, long before our digital days. I was intrigued by his work on the aesthetics of portrait shaping and how meaning could be emphasized or altered by it. Portraits he worked on include Mao on the 100 Yuan bill, Mao wearing his straw hat in the countryside and Mao’s iconic photographic portrait that is rendered as an oil painting which tons of visitors experience as they enter the Forbidden City. This latter portrait has been reported to be the most reproduced Mao image of all time.

Many questions percolated after engaging Mao’s portrait that seemed to be gazing at me regardless of where I stood in front of the gates of the Forbidden City. What made a portrait so globally recognizable and iconic? Are there aesthetic characteristics that render a portrait significant? Is it the subject matter that enhances aesthetic value of the portraits? I was grateful to have met this retoucher to discuss some of the importance of his work from an aesthetic angle, especially on such a historical figure. And soon two projects materialized as a result of this meeting - Sunrise (2011) a photographic portrait that explored symbolism, color and the absence of the figurative and After Mao (2009-2016) a portrait study that analyzed composition, lighting, identity and its alternative meanings from the perspective of the laowai (foreigner).

After Mao is a photographic and textual portrait series that profiles 130 internationals living in China, mainly in Beijing. The work highlights experiences living in a developing country with a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Because I had no in-depth background with Chinese culture prior to my arrival nor could I speak the language, I chose to explore China and also the rest of the world through the angle of the international. These stories described one’s journey in unfamiliar cultural terrain, a journey of self-discovery by questioning their sense of self and their cultural constructs where some learned how to live comfortably in the “uncomfortable”. What did they choose to hold onto? What did they let go of? What layers of experience and understanding added to their identity? In some ways, this is a continuation of KYOPO (2004-2009) as it highlights the experience of coming from one culture to another and the personal development that happens from this change. It also allows us to learn about their cultural heritage making this more a global conversation than solely one about China. The discourse of global identity and migration continues with After Mao further teaching us about place, identity and its evolution, which is a continuing thread through much of my work.

Additionally, the series addresses the exploratory nature of iconic portrait making and how alluding to iconic composition styles with different subject matter can make us question how the meaning behind the portrait fluctuates. It also reminds us of how portrait making today has diversified and has become accessible to almost everyone, a significant change from the privilege it was to have your portrait taken many centuries ago; and in many cases those portraits only represented the elite. With some exceptions, After Mao also captures the transitory nature of migration, especially in a country where it’s not easy for internationals to obtain Chinese citizenship and where bustling cities easily entice people to partake in temporary personal or economic endeavors. After Mao allows for the expansion of personal stories to reflect the beauty behind human connection and the reality of cultural hurdles or growing pains one encounters moving to a new place. Perhaps these strong, unique and diversified viewpoints will effectively help our societies continue to grow consciously and with multiplicity or at least allow us to question our modes of thinking and how this may change in other cultural contexts. - CYJO

After Mao Collective Portrait 2009-2016 © CYJO  

Marie Anne Souloumiac Front 2014 © CYJO  



Marie Anne Souloumiac Back 2014 © CYJO