I’ve heard a lot of criticisms about the exhibition of Quentin Shih entitled Shanghai Dreamers. Most of them (if not all) were accusing him of racism. The reflexion, if reflexion there was, consisted in saying that because the Chinese people in the photographs were all similar and the only occidental was taller and dressed in fancy Dior cloths, then it could be considered that the artist wanted to demonstrate the superiority of the occidentals and their individualistic values over the subjugated Chinese people, oppressed and homogenised by the communist party. This interpretation led to people thinking the artist was patronising and racist towards the Chinese people. I even read someone claiming he was an American artist.
First of all, although settled in New-York, Quentin Shih - who’s real name is Shi Xiaofan - is nonetheless Chinese and NOT American. This first rectification does not entirely undermine the legitimacy of the argument saying he is racist, but certainly weakens it. Also, I’d like to say that a deeper reflexion and deeper focus on Shih’s work would have been appreciated before the debate started. Only because there’s no reason to think this work of art is racist if one observes and thinks rationally for the following reasons :
How can the simple fact that a people is pictured as very homogenous be the reason to think the photographs are racist ? I think Quentin Shih simply wanted to put forward the great production of High standard clothing brought by occidentals, because let’s remember this was done in the context of the re-opening of a Dior Store in Shanghai...in other words, it can be considered advertising. Also it could be, and certainly is since Quentin Shih said it himself, that the photographs show the homogeneity of the Chinese people during the communist years, while comparing it to the individualism of some occidental countries.
This contrast shown in the photographs does not mean that the artist’s work constitutes a racist judgement, nor does it constitute the most un-insulting judgement. Why do people have to see a critical statement or a judgement in every work of art? It may just as well be an observation. That the observation is biased or not is another problem, but I think we should see Shih’s photographs as an (obviously) exaggerated observation, which is nevertheless quite true when one looks at China’s history (particularly in the 1960s-1980s).