The Lives of the Other Half

Lili Almog’s solo show, “The Other Half of the Sky,” at Andrea Meislin Gallery offers a layered view of female identity in minority groups throughout China.

poster for Lili Almog

Lili Almog "The Other Half of the Sky"

at Andrea Meislin Gallery
in the Chelsea 24th area
This event has ended - (2009-05-02 - 2009-06-13)

In Interviews by Alyssa Tang 2009-05-19 print

Like a lighting rod, Lili Almog reins in powerful moments with a quiet strength. The artist has a history of photographing women during intimate moments. It is in these potentially vulnerable and mundane scenarios that Almog finds her most powerful portraits. For her current exhibition at Andrea Meislin Gallery, Almog traveled to the other side of the globe to photograph minority women groups throughout China. Her portraits capture women proud to be mothers, daughters, workers, leaders, caretakers, and believers. The vivid colors, faces, landscapes, and clothing all paint a world that is both an anthropological record and a tribute to strong women.

Lili Almog, ''Muslim Girl #14,'' 2007. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist.

You have a history of portrait work, especially with women as subject matter. In staying within this context, how do you address new ideologies for each project?

During the past ten years I have focused my artistic efforts on creating representations of the feminine body and psyche, the spiritual and cultural identity of women influenced by western culture. I guess that that is the common thread between all my works. My past work on women and their private lives inspired me to explore the fascinating topic of women in today’s China. I wanted to look at the paradox of China as a society in extraordinary transition and yet still deeply embedded in tradition, and how the communist revolution, with its vision of the nobility of physical labor and emphasis on gender equality, left its mark on women and personal identity in a changing China.

China is quite far away. What sparked you to begin this project?

At the beginning of my trip I came to China in search of Muslim women, following research on women-only mosques—that is a unique situation known only in China. I learned that Muslims are considered one of many minorities in China. I found out that Chinese Islamic women are passionately traditional, yet firmly enmeshed in modern society. Their religious and domestic appearance is a blend of modern components mixed with expressions of traditional values. After spending some time with the Muslim women, and being exposed to Chinese culture in general, I realized how many complex layers of social diversity exist in Chinese culture (that the majority of Chinese citizens are not even aware of), and how fast this culture is changing. I then decided to travel to Yunnan, the province with the most minorities, and meet the other “unknown” Chinese.

Lili Almog, ''Muslim Teacher #2,'' 2007. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist.

This photo series documents so many women. Portrait work is much like a conversation between subject and viewer. With so many subjects, how much did your initial plan change from start to finish?

As in my other work, I am trying to explore and experience an unfamiliar place and culture. Every single day of my journey was another exploration and discovery and of course as much as you plan in advance, the project takes a life of its own. I think that the significant change for me from the start was the change of focus: at the beginning I was focusing on Chinese Muslim women in central China and then it shifted to explore more minority women in western China with the focus on the Mouso women—a matriarchal society.

How much do you attribute the environment, the subject, and yourself with creating each photo’s visual language. And in the end, who is the audience you seek to reach with your work?

My photography is based on social negotiation of diverse cultural traditions and women’s private and meditative spaces, since they are taken usually in a intimate setup—even if it is in the middle of a field. The environment is a great part of it because it adds another layer of information/impression to the portrait. Even if sometimes it is appearing in a very minimal way, it can not be separated.

As far as audience: My personal impressions and reactions to the women I met are presented as an edited monograph and gallery installation, and I can only hope that each viewer will engage and share my aesthetics and that they “take away with them” particles of my experiences.

Lili Almog, ''School Guard #22,'' 2007. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist.

Your subjects seem to be primarily photographed in public spaces, but there are beautiful moments of quiet strength. Are there other common threads that you would like to elaborate upon?

My main idea is to capture “the moment,” which means to create as natural an image as possible. Through that, I can portray the state of mind and the personality of the woman. The best way to get this effect is to make her feel comfortable and confident. I never start photographing before I make a basic friendly contact with my sitters. I have to gain their trust and make them comfortable first, and only after they understand what my mission is and after spending some time together, then it is possible to create an intimate and more meaningful setup.

Language must have been an issue while traveling through some regions in China. Did you find this limited communication an advantage/disadvantage?

Like in anything in life, limited communication is always a disadvantage. I had to communicate with the women I met through a translator, so I was not able to speak with them freely, which always take longer to create an intimate setup. However, usually after a few days with them, we were using eyes, hands, and feet to achieve a more direct communication and in most cases it was successful.

Lili Almog, ''Lugu Woman #3,'' 2007. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist.

How do you go about befriending your subjects? Any memorable people? And do you keep in contact with any of them?

The women I connected the most with were the Mosuo women. They come from a unique matriarchal society situated near the beautiful Lugu Lake in western China. Up until the mid-1980s, the Mosuo people were completely isolated from Western society, living similarly to peasant farmers in the 18th century. There is no marriage system within the Mosuo people. Open relationships are widely accepted, and the children that are born into these relationships stay with their mother. In this society, the women hold the property and authority, and the family structure is based entirely on the matriarch. It will be interesting to watch how this society will blend into modern life, and whether or not they will manage to keep any of their hundreds of years of tradition. Unfortunately, because I am here and they are so far away in their own world, keeping in touch and communicating is impossible.

Also, from a historical, social, and feminist point of view, I actually found a lot of similarities and realized how, globally, we share common roots and experiences. As far as the uniqueness and beauty of the ethnic societies I met, I realize that it is not going to take much longer for them to change their appearance and move to regular apartments—as they are completely open to the influence of the Western world. But creating new, “modern” values will take longer and will be much more difficult and confusing. There is one part of me that does not appreciate this change, and would like to leave “the rough and pastoral picture” the way it is. Isn’t it ironic that in our time the fantasy is to go back to the basics?

MORE INFO
Almog’s monograph, “The Other Half of the Sky,” is available during the exhibition at a discounted price. Also visit powerHouse Books or Amazon.

Alyssa Tang

Alyssa Tang. Her parents first met at a Chinese-American Halloween square dance. If you know Alyssa, this explains a lot. Born in 1979, this Boston-bred kid’s been drawing since the day she could crawl. She holds degrees in Studio Art & Psychology from Wellesley College, and Fashion Design from Parsons. Living by the "try anything once" mantra, she's worn multiple hats: muralist, community worker, event planner, graphic designer, textile designer, freelance stylist, and now fashion designer. With a penchant for discovering the unusual, she likes to wander, discover and create ways to put a smile on people’s faces. » See other writings

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