Portraits In a Chinese Studio

Statement  |  Work  |  Book   |  Exhibitions

Forthcoming Exhibition at Solaris Print Gallery, St Leonards on Sea

October, 2024 (dates to be confirmed)
Solaris Print Gallery, 76 Norman Road, St Leonards-on-Sea
An exhibition of works from the ‘Portraits In a Chinese Studio’ project as part of the annual PhotoHastings Festival, of which Grace was a founding director.
The exhibition follows on from May, when Grace’s ‘Portraits In a Chinese Studio’ travelled to St Leonards, coming full circle back to the town where the project began in 2005 in Hastings & St Leonards. Visitors were invited from the 2005 project sittings, to sit once again for Grace, as well as all comers and locally settled refugees, via The Refugee Buddy Project in Hastings. The Studio was presented in partnership with John Hansard Gallery, and its supporters. The project archive now boasts in excess of 1700 images.

Global SinoPhoto Awards – Overall Winner & the Betser Prize 2024

Winners were announced and celebrated at an entertaining and lively event, hosted by GSPA together with The British Library, on 5 February 2024. Grace Lau being the winner of the Betser Prize with a selection from her 400+ image series, 21st Century Types, taken in her Chinese Studio Hastings, UK. Lau says, “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”. Global SinoPhoto Awards 2024.

Selected reviews and interviews 2023:
Aesthetica Magazine – Subverting the Canon: Grace Lau Review
“Even though Lau claims to have become an ‘Imperialist photographer’, her images are inclusive, devoid of stereotypes and a testament to the times in which we are living. In that respect, Portraits in a Chinese Studio is not just about reversing the colonial gaze. It goes beyond that, confidently documenting a multicultural pluralistic society”. Words by Shyama Laxman.
Photo essay in The Guardian  |  The Art Newspaper podcast  |  Interview on Creative Boomi-D Magazine

Statement

“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

Book

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
2019
Softback
144 pages / 85 photographs
Dimensions, 240mm x 195mm
Design by Dean Pavitt
ISBN 978-1-5272-2793-4

Order Online
Books can be purchased from Corner House Publications.

Exhibitions

Grace Lau: Portraits In a Chinese Studio
October, 2024 (dates to be confirmed)
Solaris Print Gallery, 76 Norman Road, St Leonards-on-Sea

An exhibition of works from the ‘Portraits In a Chinese Studio’ project as part of PhotoHastings Festival 2024, of which Grace Lau was a founding director.

Previous Studio Incarnation’s & Exhibitions

  • ‘Grace Lau: Portraits In a Chinese Studio’, Solaris Print, St Leonards On Sea – May 2024
    In May Grace Lau’s Portraits In a Chinese Studio travelled to St Leonards, coming full circle back to the town where the Studio Project began in 2005 in Hastings & St Leonards. Visitors were invited from the 2005 project sittings, to sit once again for Grace, as well as all comers and locally settled refugees, via The Refugee Buddy Project in Hastings. The Studio was presented in partnership with John Hansard Gallery, and it’s supporters.
  • ‘Grace Lau: Portraits In a Chinese Studio’, Towner Gallery, Eastbourne – February 2024
    Grace Lau’s Portraits In a Chinese Studio travelled to Eastbourne to celebrate Chinese New Year 2024. Presented in partnership with Eastbourne ALIVE and Towner Gallery, as part of a wraparound programme of public art, exhibitions, movement, music and workshops celebrating the Turner Prize 2023 coming to Towner Eastbourne.
  • ‘Grace Lau: 21st Century Types’, Christie’s London – January 2024
    Images from the project on display as part of the Global SinoPhoto Awards short listed finalists exhibition. Grace went on to win ‘Overall Winner & the Betser Prize 2024.
  • ‘Grace Lau: Portraits In a Chinese Studio’, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton & touring – September 2023 Solo
    In January – February 2023, Lau’s studio was recreated in Marlands Shopping Centre, Southampton to commemorate Chinese New Year 2023. Presented by John Hansard Gallery as part of their Co-Creating Public Space programme, the project engaged diverse communities across Southampton. Digital copies of all the photographs are being donated to Southampton City Archives, with the aspiration of creating a social record of communities in 2023. After Southampton, the project toured to other cities across England. Visit #CoCreatingSoton on Instagram for images from the Southampton project. Supported by Arts Council England, Southampton City Council, University of Southampton and GO! Southampton. Working with Chinese Arts Southampton, Chinese Association of Southampton, and the Confucius Institute.
  • ‘Grace Lau: Portraits In a Chinese Studio’, Centre for British Photography, London – October 2023
    In October – December 2023 Lau’s studio was recreated at the Centre for British Photography. Portraits from two previous incarnations of the studio surrounded the studio. The residency formed part of the gallery’s focus on communities for its autumn exhibitions. Presented in partnership with John Hansard Gallery, and it’s supporters.
  • ‘Seaside Photographed’, Turner Contemporary, Margate & touring – 2019 Group
  • ‘Grace Lau: 21st Century Types’, Photofusion, London & toured to Aberysthwyth Art Gallery, Brighton and Hastings – 2007 Group
  • ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain’, Tate Britain – 2007 Solo