Yunnan Province, or ‘the place south of the clouds’, is a southwestern region of China bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma that’s home to over 25 ethnic minorities – which makes it one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country.
Philadelphia-born artist Colette Fu spent some time in the nineties teaching English in the province where her mother, a member of the Yi minority, was born. She went back in 2008 on a Fulbright scholarship and visited over 50 villages, taking photographs of the rituals, festivals and everyday life in the region.
It’s no ordinary photography series. Because the pictures have been carefully curated, deconstructed and pieced together to form intricate, vibrant pop-up books, as part of her collection We are Tiger Dragon People.
Colette first travelled to Yunnan with some friends, but decided to go back alone. “Back then they had certain areas that were closed off to foreigners,’ she says. “I would buy what I called ‘disposable clothing’ – you could just go and spend a dollar and you’d get a whole outfit. I’d just have a backpack. Sometimes I’d sleep at someone’s house who I’d met on the bus.”
“When I travelled I didn’t have fear. Here there’s fear everywhere, you’re afraid of saying anything – I’m afraid of saying anything at least!”
A lot’s changed since the photographs were taken – and continues to change quickly. “People from the countryside move to the cities,” she says. “They just need to survive so people start buying cellphones and learning the common language and don’t have time for the traditions – like embroidering. Things get expensive.”
Colette’s work isn’t necessarily an attempt to sustain or make permanent the traditions she’s encountered. Although captivated with her cultural heritage – the Yi minority’s textile, in particular, which she tattooed on her arm last year – We Are Tiger Dragon People is art, not documentary.
Colette calls herself a ‘paper engineer’, and she learnt her trade by reverse engineering pop-up books she’d bought on eBay. A glimpse into the history of the medium shows that it’s much more complex than we might imagine: movable books have been around for hundreds of years, and were originally used to illustrate ideas about anatomy, navigation and astronomy.
There’s a sense of movement you get from Colette’s pop-up books that you don’t often get with the irresolutely physical. They jut out, they slice through the air, almost as if they’re in flux. She now teaches paper engineering to marginalised communities in Philadelphia; she holds intensives where you can learn the technical parts of the process in five days.
As we speak, it becomes clear that Colette deals in transient things. It’s not that pop-up books might be seen as a thing of the past, and therefore temporary in the cultural sense of the word. On the contrary, the current trend for fetishising analogue objects – vinyl, even books – seems to speak more to our wish to be anchored to something non-virtual and permanent. The project’s transience lies in its subject matter; capturing the traditions of her ancestors even as they fade away.
Authenticity and propaganda
In one portrait, a Dulong woman shows her facial tattoo, a cultural practice of which the origin is unclear. “The Dulong people say that they would tattoo themselves to look unattractive to neighbouring tribes so they wouldn’t kidnap the women,” Colette says. A large part of the project was oral tradition; tales passed on to Colette from various elders and experts. “It’s research I’ve gathered from a variety of different places and put together.” It’s a process that almost mirrors the way that myth and ritual percolate on the edge of fact, blurring the line between the real and the imagined.
What’s more, her hesitancy to pin down tradition appears to be related to the way that minority culture is being exploited as a commodity in some parts of China. “Sometimes the government might use the minorities to attract tourism – especially because Yunnan is the province that’s known for its ethnic diversity,’ she says. “They’ll have people dress up in costumes and perform. You can also go to a minority theme park – there’s one in Yunnan, there’s also one in Beijing. I guess in some ways you don’t know what’s authentic and what’s propaganda.”
Tourism is seen as a mixed blessing for China’s minority groups: while some hope that it might reinvigorate the unique cultures that otherwise run the risk of dying out as a result of assimilation and globalisation, others have watched their villages become “human zoos.”
In a sense, pop-ups don’t lay everything flat. Their structure, to an extent, denies full disclosure. Colette has just written a grant proposal to go back to Yunnan and focus solely on Yi culture – but the inevitability of flux and change hangs heavy. “I don’t think I want to preserve [their traditions]. I just want to capture them before they’re gone.”
Colette has now received funding to extend her research to other Chinese ethnic groups outside of Yunnan Province. Read more at blog.colettefu.com.