Inspired by Mao’s statement that calls for an end to gender inequality, Lili Almog journeyed to the depths of China to document women of diverse backgrounds and societal functions. Beginning in 2006, she traveled to the remote provinces of Yunnan, Henan, Shaanxi, and Sichuan to locate minority communities, in turn revealing the idiosyncrasies inherent to the Chinese female population.
The project is sectioned into six sub-categories: Muslim Chinese (Backyard), tile factory workers (Factory), residents of Shangri-La (Street), communities at the foot of mountains (Mountain), the farmers of Southwestern China (Land), and the Mosuo community (Lake). In each series, Almog produces portraits of various local women in their customary clothing and defining surroundings.
These photographs teach us much about the intricate structure of Chinese society, and the woman’s unique role within it. Perhaps most striking are the portraits of the Chinese Muslim community, which uncharacteristically bestows women with spiritual authority, their own mosques, and female leaders. Almog documents these women in their natural element as teachers or followers, dressed in everyday modern outfits accompanied by a traditional Islamic headdress. Also intriguing are the images of the highly distinctive Mosuo women—the powerful members of an agrarian matriarchal community that resides by Lugu Lake in Western China. These women own all property, do not marry, and raise their children without input from the male.
The exhibition also includes four “video portraits” that bring to mind earlier works by Bill Viola. Echoing the photographs, the same women stand motionless in front of the camera—blinking and smiling awkwardly before fading out. Although this addition introduces these individuals into our present, they add little to our understanding of their personality, history and predicament. The strong and vibrant still photographs are most successful in conveying the paradox inherent to Chinese culture as it strives to modernize and evolve, while still maintaining its defining rural character.
Images: Muslim Girl (2009); Muslim Teacher (200); Lugu Lake (2009). Courtesy Andrea Meislin Gallery, New York