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John Hansard Gallery : Grace Lau : Portraits In a Chinese Studio


Artist Grace Lau recreates a 19th century Chinese portrait studio in a Southampton shopping centre, inviting participants and passers-by to sit for free photographic portraits alongside Chinese New Year celebrations.

Portraits In a Chinese Studio by Grace Lau is based on her research into studio portraits made by 19th century and early 20th century Western photographers in China. Lau realised that Chinese subjects were placed in a Victorian studio setting as ‘exotic subjects’ and ‘unusual beings’. Lau’s project highlights this relationship and reverses the roles for 21st century participants.

Lau’s photographic studio is made of mock traditional Chinese furniture, with a decorative backdrop and accessories including a soft-toy panda rug. Participants are asked to pose in a similar formal manner to the Victorian studio portraits. However, in contrast to their historical setting, those having their portraits taken are encouraged to keep their contemporary accessories, such as mobile phones, shopping bags, and clothing. A free portrait is emailed to each participant.

Grace Lau comments:
“Through this project, I am making a comment on Imperialist visions of the ‘exotic’ Chinese. I want participants to think about how different people have been represented in portraits over time, and today – placing people in this constructed historic setting and taking their portrait is a great way to start that conversation.”

For this new iteration, Lau’s studio is recreated to commemorate Chinese New Year 2023, hoping to engage diverse communities across Southampton. Digital copies of all the photographs will be donated to Southampton City Archives with the aspiration of creating a social record of communities in 2023. After Southampton, the project will tour to other cities across England.

This project is presented by John Hansard Gallery as part of their Co-Creating Public Space programme, a two-year nationally significant initiative that explores thoughts around creativity and public space in relation to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, ability, access, health, and wellbeing. Co-Creating Public Space is supported by Arts Council England, Southampton City Council, University of Southampton and GO! Southampton.

Portraits In a Chinese Studio is presented until 12 February 2023 at The Marlands Shopping Centre, Southampton, in association with Chinese Arts Southampton, Chinese Association of Southampton, UK Shaolin Centre, and the Confucius Institute.


Grace Lau
Grace Lau, born in London of Chinese parentage, is a photographer, artist, writer and lecturer. She has a MA in Photography & Culture from UAL. She has exhibited widely in the UK, including at the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, Photofusion London and Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Turner Contemporary Margate included a selection of her Chinese Studio portraits in their 2019 exhibition Resort. Published books include Adults in Wonderland, Serpents Tail UK, 1997 and Picturing the Chinese: Early Western Photographs and Postcards of China, Joint Publishing Hong Kong, 2008. Her work is in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Wilson Photography Collection, and Asia Culture Institute, Korea.


Grace Lau : Portraits in a Chinese Studio
21 January – 12 February 2023
Flourish, The Marlands Shopping Centre, Southampton
#CoCreatingSoton |

John Hansard Gallery

Chinese Association of Southampton

University of Southampton

Arts Council England

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