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Xiao Quan, Our Generation


Xiao Quan (pronounced Shiao Chou’an) born in 1959 in Chengdu, is reputed in Chinese photographic circle as the best portraitist in China. I have been thinking harder but could not come up with another name in the lineage of Sander, Arbus or Leibovitz.

He enjoyed an unprecedented popularity in Shanghai during these sizzling hot months of July-August with three exhibitions and seven lectures in different locations of the megacity formerly known as the Pearl of the Orient. At the K11 Art Museum in the basement of a luxury mall on Huaihai road (formerly Avenue Joffre), Xiao Quan had two exhibitions running from July 14 to August 31: one based on his seminal book published in 1996 “Our Generation”, another is based on his years as Marc Riboud’s assistant in China from 1993 to 1995. Further west on Nanjing road is another prestigious address, next to the Jing’an Temple, the 10 Corso Como an extension of the Milan’s fashion and art center, with an exhibition of Xiao Quan’s new work called “Faces of Our Time”, that ran from July 23 to August 30.

The exhibition “Our Generation” gathered some 148 prints from his 462-page monumental photo album published end of 2014 by Zhejiang Remin Meishu Chubanshe, called “Our Generation: Portraits and Historical Context”, a catalogue of the large scale retrospective of Xiao Quan’s photography held at the MoCA of Chengdu in 2014.

At age 20, before serving with the navy-air cargo Xiao Quan bought his first camera, a Seagull 205. After his military service he worked for “Modern Photography” one of China’s earliest photo magazines founded in Shenzhen, and started making portraits of his friends. By then China was fully engaged in Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening, as a reaction to the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the era was ripe for an explosion of writers and poets, musicians and artists

Among Xiao Quan’s earliest portraits was one of Gu Cheng and his wife Xie Hua both poets sitting by the window at Chengdu’s Garden Hotel in 1986. Gu Cheng, who was a “beautiful mind” but a lost soul, committed suicide seven years later, after killing his wife after an argument on a scarcely populated island of New Zealand . Other eminent figures relatively unknown in those roaring 80’s and 90’s won fame and success later, such as Oscar wining musician Tan Dun, movie directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, painters and artists Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, etc.

He photographed China’s first rock stars Cui Jian and the excitement of fans during his concerts. Xiao Quan famously photographed Taiwanese novelist Sanmao in 1990 one year before she committed suicide (another tragic fate). His portrait of Sanmao drew the attention of dancer Yang Liping who asked Xiao Quan to be her photographer. By 2010 in Beijing, Xiao Quan held a sensational retrospective of his twenty years of photography of Yang Liping. Of this incredible portrait of Yang dancing on the Great Wall, Xiao Quan said: “She was wearing nothing but a white bed sheet wrapped around her body, the wind was blowing so hard that she almost fell off the wall.”

Jean Loh

Xiao Quan, Our Generation

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