Family Stuff

About the work:




Normality, when inverted, can bear astonishing insights, for example in the work of Huang Quingjun and Ma Hongjie. Since 2005 the two Chinese photographers have been portraying family dwellings turned inside out: Furniture, accessories, animals and all, neatly presented – in the front yard. The series of photographs compellingly documents average Chinese living conditions today; and it captures the fragility of a status quo defined by change.


When Huang Qingjun and Ma Hongjie agreed to collaborate on their project „Family Stuff“ in 2005, they knew it would take a while. Aiming to portray Chinese families from different regions and ethnic backgrounds, they planned this project very much like a long term expedition. So far, a series of 20 images has been compiled that were exhibited at the 798 photo gallery in Beijing in 2007, two pieces were also shown at last year's Paris Photo. In 2011 the project is scheduled to end with a total of 50 pictures and a book.

For Huang, this is not the first project concentrating on aspects of China that may not last. His previous UNESCO-awarded work,a photographic cycle featuring the country's last still operating steam locomotives, gained him international reputation. Ma has been chronicling Chinese life, preferably behind the scenes, for over 15 years. His works have been published in national as well as international newspapers and magazines.


[The authentic side]


Due to the professional backgrounds of Huang and Ma, „Family Stuff“ can be considered both a journalistic and an art project, its formal concept successfully merging both perspectives. While 1971 born artist Huang is particularly interested in the social change that is becoming visible in daily life, 1963 born photo-journalist Ma is concerned with showing China from its authentic side, the reality of the country's rural majority instead of the urban facades usually portrayed by the media. Above all, however, both artists want to document the profound transition China is undergoing. Nowhere else can this be observed more clearly than in the everyday life of normal families. Family is the central institution in the Confucian tradition, the family home represents identity rather than style. It is this rural way of life where home is a means of existence and livelihood that Huang and Ma sought to document and that has already been superseded by a more westernised materialistic understanding in the cities. The times are changing...


[The secret protagonist]


Time is in fact the secret protagonist in these photographs. Every picture shows its effects and relativity: It eats away at aged houses soon to be replaced by modern construction sites already looming in the background; it presents its manifestations in TV-sets and refrigerators alongside traditional furniture and cooking accessories; it is even directly captured in the clocks that Huang likes to place prominently in his staged arrangements. The images demonstrate that progress takes as much as it gives. To Huang, the positive effects should not be overlooked. He points out that life has become safer and easier in the last 30 years. The expressions of the families portrayed are indeed mostly content, they are proud of what they have gained, little as it may seem from a Western point of view. But troubled smiles can be noted too, as in the faces of the family in the resettlement programme in Beijing, waiting to be moved to their new home so their old one can be demolished.


[Naked in a way]


Huang and Ma work as independent partners, Huang covering the North, Ma the South of the country. Convincing families to expose themselves to their cameras in such a radical totality, naked in a way, is the major challenge both face on their respective expeditions. Building trust and preparing the grounds for the shoot can take months, again and again Huang and Ma have to explain why they want the families to empty their houses and let the artists decoratively arrange their belongings outside. Once they have consented to participate, most families are happy to display their possessions, even more so since they receive financial compensation. In some cases, not all belongings are permitted to be shown, in others not all furniture fits through the doorways; but generally, the artists confirm, their portraits depict average Chinese reality as it is today: simple, unpretentious and compared to 20 years ago strikingly void of political paraphernalia.


With its playful quotation of traditional documentary photography and the portrait genre, „Family Stuff“ is a compelling work, undoubtedly a great gift to future generations - and intriguing as humbling for any Western audience accustomed with a mass market of products „made in China“.


by Lisa Contag and Eva Ballestrem

FAMILY STUFF, 2005 - 2008


C- Prints on Kodak Pro Paper

80 x 100 cm

Limited Edition: 8


120 x 150 cm

Limited Edition: 6


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