Hot Flux Fosters Afro-Asian Solidarity

TAINAN, Taiwan — It wasn’t long after the global uptake of studio photography in the early 20th century that party pictures followed. This is clear in early images from Taiwan and Africa, gathered in the first gallery of Hot Flux: Modern and Contemporary Photography in Taiwan and Africa at Tainan Art Museum. Impeccably dressed young dancers lean to music in Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s 1962 snapshot “Regardez-moi!,” while an auntie wearing face paint hypes up a crowd of kids in “Street Performances” (1954) by Taiwanese photographer Huang Jin-Shu. Indeed, the exhibition’s curators have seized on such parallels, attempting to unite works into a whole that hints at synchronicities between the contemporary concerns of far-flung places, one a small island nation, the other a vast and diverse continent. 

During the 20th century, both regions were gripped by struggles for national identity and self-determination. Hot Flux asks what role curation can play in galvanizing solidarity, building collaboration, and inspiring an empathetic gaze. For instance, it pairs J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s “Onile Gogoro Or Akaba” (1975) with Hsu Yuan-Fu’s “Hairstyle” (1963), two portraits with nearly identical compositions that meticulously document traditional hairstyles, reiterating commonalities between the ways artists of each culture invested in photography as a tool to enshrine the local.

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Installation view of Malick Sidibé, “Nuit de Noël (Happy Club)” (1963), photograph

However, this curation strategy becomes inconsistent as the show moves toward the contemporary. Taiwanese photographer Shen Chao-Liang’s STAGE (2008) and SINGER (2006) series present attentive portraits of people alongside shots of the flourishing worlds they inhabit — here, arresting technicolor documentation of local festival stages. Noticeably absent, though, are corresponding scenes that offer audiences in Tainan insight into African contexts. Despite this missed potential for bridging distances between the two regions in the opening gallery, the exhibition’s second room brilliantly documents the role of contemporary photography in chronicling exchanges integral to a globalized world. Taiwanese photographer Ze Wei’s “The Anonymous of Mazargues” (2012), for instance, is a sprawling wall mosaic of headstones laid in honour of Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese soldiers who died together in France during the World Wars.  

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Installation view of J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, “Onile Gogoro Or Akaba” (1975), photograph

A grave is both a historical record and a deeply personal relic; so too are the photographs of Hong Kong-born American artist Pok Chi Lau. Mixed-Cuban descendants of Chinese migrants meet the gaze of his camera, holding staged family photos or stamped passport pictures. Lau’s work empathetically presents a complex migrant lineage familiar to people of other diasporas. His imposing but tender portraits from across the African continent, such as “Farmer hunter – Corn with silks” (2023), depict subjects similarly clutching postcard-sized images of victims of the transatlantic slave trade who were scattered across the Americas. These photographs, rich with care, offer a balm for the fragmented lineages of African and African-American people and an empathetic foothold for those with similar diasporic experience. 

The exhibition’s final space considers self-expression in a world oversaturated with photographic images and visual discourse. Wu Cheng-Chang’s series of self-portraits, Vision of Taiwan (2007–13) presents scenes brimming with homes and factories, cables and concrete — the infrastructure and detritus of life, industry, and national security on the island.  With the human captured as a faceless figure, the series invites viewers to meditate on the place of Taiwanese identity within the global imagination and the ever-proliferating takes on the island’s place in the world.

In a similar yet distinct vein, Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop’s self-portrait, “Trayvon Martin” (2012), presents the Black artist curled up on a bed of Skittles, clad in the same garb as his titular subject, who George Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood community watch, violently murdered. Diop reminds us of the worst ramifications of the ways “Blackness” is visualized, imagined, and redefined, often outside of the agency of Black people themselves. Those ideas have been thoroughly exported to every corner of the globe through media and popular culture — for reasons driven both by profit and politics — and, as such, are inseparable from much of the work in Hot Flux, which assumes the responsibility of representing the diversity of Black identity to an audience of non-Black people. The works bear a weight that feels far from the party snapshots of the first room. Still, placed alongside one another, these photographs from Taiwan and Africa strike up a dance that amplifies their reach.

Installation view of Shen Chao-Liang, “STAGE #41 Taichuag City, Taiwan” (2008), giclée print
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Shen Chao-Liang, “SINGER Kao Ya, Tainan County, Taiwan” (2008), giclée print
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Installation view of Hot Flux: Modern and Contemporary Photography in Taiwan and Africa, featuring works by Lau Pok Chi
Installation view of Wu Cheng-Chang, “Vision of Taiwan” (2009), giclée print
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Installation view of Wu Tien-Chang, “Consolidation” (2003), mixed media
Installation view of Tou Yun-Fei, “ZHANG, Chen-Jia, Yunlin County, 2018” (2018), giclée print

Hot Flux: Modern and Contemporary Photography in Taiwan and Africa continues at Tainan Art Museum (439 Zhongping Road) through April 28. The exhibition was organized by the museum.

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