Portraits In a Chinese Studio

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“Through this project I am making an oblique comment on Imperialist visions of the ‘exotic’ Chinese and by reversing roles, I have become the Imperialist photographer documenting my exotic subjects in the ‘Port’ of Hastings. The question of cultural representations in the archive is highlighted through my constructed tableaux and conflation of history. I have additionally created a unique archive of 400 subjects in a British seaside town during the summer of 2005”.

In response to the Imperialist visions of the exotic Chinese made by Westerners during the turbulent years in China between the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, Lau has reversed the roles in her photographic study “21st Century Types” (later becoming “Portraits In a Chinese Studio”), positioning herself as the Imperialist photographer documenting her exotic subjects in the Port of Hastings, South East England.

Creating a studio in Hastings to photograph passers by with her 3-year old Hasselblad camera, her props included the ubiquitous patterned carpet that was displayed in Victorian portraits. The panda rug represented an ironic nod to the tiger and bear skin rugs that were popular with Victorian colonialists. The discrepancy between the historic cultural context and the modern appearance of her subjects is highlighted by the overall formal presentation and by their personal accoutrements such as coke bottles, chips, ice-cream, mobile phones, sunglasses and plastic shopping bags.

Introduction text by Prof. Val Williams

Grace Lau’s Seaside Studio

In the summer of 2005, photographer Grace Lau set up a free portrait studio in the seafront building of St Mary in the Castle in Hastings. Lau moved from North London to the Sussex coast in 1999, and her 21st Century Types project, (her title for the series which emerged from the free studio) marked a significant change in her work. The rationale for the portrait studio emerged from Lau’s interest in August Sander’s monumental photograph series, People of the Twentieth Century, begun in Germany in 1922. Published as Anlitz de Zeit (Face of our Time) in 1936, it was divided into seven categories of people and place, and immediately incurred Nazi disapproval. The printing plates were destroyed and many thousands of negatives were consumed by fire. For Grace Lau, whose own family had been traumatically displaced by totalitarianism and who, as a teenager in London had struggled with divided identities, People of the Twentieth Century was a resonant model. Portrait photography is to do with how you look, more than with who you are, and since the early years of photography, studio and itinerant portraitists have laboured to make their subjects look as they want to be seen. Seaside studios, dealing with people passing through, thrived on novelty, speed and commercial acumen. For Grace Lau, funded by an Arts Council diversity grant, there was no commercial imperative, and the photographs were free.

Lau constructed the studio with care, making a hybrid Chinese/English studio from furniture and props she found in Hastings Old Town. The resulting 400 photograph series, made over six weeks, with everyone who had posed receiving a free digital print, is probably the most extensive and significant portrait study to be made in post-war Britain. ‘Through this project’. Lau Wrote recently. ‘I am making an oblique comment of Imperialist visions of the ‘exotic’ Chinese and by reversing roles, I have become the lmperialist photographer documenting my exotic subjects in the ‘Port’ of Hastings.. Types were recorded by Western missionaries who portrayed beggars, blind orphans and scenes of poverty, to raise money back home for their cause and to ‘convert the heathens from their backward ways.’

21st Century Types demonstrated, in a powerful visual way, the diversity of British seaside society in the early 2000s, making it clear to Grace Lau that although Hastings lacked the multiculturalism of London, it could still be discovered there. These rich, many-layered opulent portraits, made in a community centre on a scruffy seafront, by a Chinese-born feminist photographer more used to portraying the fetish underworld than families with ice creams, are a monument to place, race, people and the passing of time, and a direct political comment on the uses of photography as propaganda. Grace Lau’s positioning of herself as an outsider photographer, drawn to the south coast of England to photograph the procession of ‘types’ that passed in front of her camera, was essentially performative – acting the part of the stern Chinese studio portraitist, who would not allow her subjects to smile, she creates a theatre of photography in which the émigré’s drama is played out. All the children in Lau’s photographs will now be almost adult, almost all the dogs will have passed away. Partnerships and friendships may have fractured, or be still sound, family groups will have morphed, reformed, grown larger or smaller. The photographs of those days in the summer, two years into the 21st century act as memory and milestone, precise echoes from the past.

Prof. Val Williams 2019


Portraits In a Chinese Studio
Artist, Grace Lau
Edited by Prof. Val Williams, the renowned curator and author
With an essay by Shirley Read
Published by Parakeet Books
144 pages / 85 photographs
Dimensions, 240mm x 195mm
Design by Dean Pavitt
ISBN 978-1-5272-2793-4

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Books can be purchased from Corner House Publications.


Forthcoming Commission – Co-Creating the Public Realm 2022-23

John Hansard Gallery, part of the University of Southampton, is pleased to announce ‘Co-Creating the Public Realm’, a nationally significant project principally funded by Arts Council England, University of Southampton, Southampton City Council and with support from GO! Southampton. ‘Co-Creating the Public Realm’ invites communities from Southampton to develop major art commissions, created in conjunction with leading international artists. These new public artworks will be launched as part of major festivals and community celebrations in Southampton and beyond.

This project, which starts in April 2022 and runs over two years, will see John Hansard Gallery and a range of city-wide partners working with local and international artists, including: Mary Evans, Oozing Gloop and NewfrontEars, Rich Holland, Grace Lau, and other artists TBA. These artists will work in partnership with multiple community groups and organisations and aim to empower communities to reimagine how public space is used in their cities. ‘Co-Creating the Public Realm’ will explore new thoughts around creativity and public space in relation to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, ability, access, health and wellbeing.

Grace Lau will be re-creating and touring her ’21st Century Types Studio’ along the south coast, working with Chinese Arts Southampton, Chinese Association of Southampton, and the Confucius Institute.

Previous Exhibitions

  • ‘Seaside Photographed’, Turner Contemporary, Margate & touring – 2019 Group
  • ’21st Century Types’, Photofusion, London & toured to Aberysthwyth Art Gallery, Brighton and Hastings – 2007 Group
  • ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain’, Tate Britain – 2007 Solo