Grace Lau’s Portraits in a Chinese Studio is not just an entertaining pop-up studio but also addresses issues around Imperialism by inverting Western notions of the Chinese as an exotic ‘other’. The studio will be set up in the Mezzanine Gallery at the Centre for British Photography and visitors will be able to book a spot to pose for the camera at times throughout the exhibition’s run. Portraits from two previous incarnations of the studio will surround the studio.
The first photographic portrait studios in China were set up in the mid-19th century by Western travellers, and focused on ‘exotic’ subjects such as beggars, opium smokers, coolies and courtesans. Many of these images were reproduced as postcards to send back to amuse a European audience. In 2005, Lau created her own version of an old Chinese portrait studio in which she would document the residents and tourists to Hastings as ‘exotic’ subjects. Open to anyone passing by, the project made an oblique comment on Imperialist visions of the Chinese; and by reversing roles, Lau became the Imperialist photographer making portraits of the diverse people of a British seaside town.
The props including mock Chinese furniture and a faux panda rug, and the vibrant ‘Oriental’ backdrop was painted by muralist, Robina Barson. The discrepancy between the historic studio context and the contemporary appearance of the subjects is highlighted by the overly formal presentation.
In 2023, Lau’s Portrait Studio reopened in a Southampton shopping mall during the Chinese New Year as part of John Hansard Gallery’s Co-Creating Public Space programme and resulted in over 600 portraits representing a Southern English port. The resulting portraits would inform several layers of cultural interpretation, conflating 150 years of history in a raucous theatre of photography, but leaving an unrepeatable archive of ‘21st Century Types’.
Grace Lau was born in London of Chinese parentage. She has written that her intent is to raise awareness of stereotyping and prejudices, to encourage questions and debate, and to respond as an artist to social issues. She is also driven by curiosity about the performative aspect of portraiture photography and how her subjects enact out roles and interact with the photographer. From her earlier work on the underground fetish scene of the 1980s to this series, all her portraits are based on photography providing the stage for performance.
Portraits In a Chinese Studio is presented in partnership with John Hansard Gallery, part of the University of Southampton, supported by Arts Council England.
Grace Lau : Portraits In a Chinese Studio
October 4–December 17,2023
The Centre for British Photography
49 Jermyn Street
London SW1Y 6LX