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Little North Road 小北路

A photography and film exhibition exploring the social life and ethnicities of a pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou, China

Values


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Memory
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Slought

Organizers

Aaron Levy

Funders

Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania

Acknowledgments

Press images available upon request

Book forthcoming from Kehrer Verlag in Spring 2016

Exhibition presented in partnership with The Print Center's 100th Anniversary

Process initiated

04/01/2015

Opens to public

09/17/2015

Time

6:30pm

Address

Slought
4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

On the web

http://littlenorthroad.org

Economy

25% Formal - 75% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Little North Road 小北路," a photography and film exhibition by Daniel Traub exploring the social life and economies of a pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou that functions as a symbolic gateway into China from Africa and the Global South. The exhibition will be on display in Philadelphia from September 17, 2015 to November 27, 2015.

The project takes its name from a district known as Xiaobeilu (Little North Road in English) in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, which is also known as "Little Africa" because of its sizable African population. Guangzhou is located in the Pearl River Delta, which has come to be known as "the workshop of the world," accounting for one third of the goods China exports. Tens of thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, as well as migrants from other parts of China, have migrated to Guangzhou to trade in the goods produced there, and in search of other opportunities. The exhibition at Slought explores a pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou that was built in the early 1990's with functionality in mind, and links different parts of Xiaobeilu.

In 2009, Brooklyn-based photographer Daniel Traub approached two Chinese photographers Wu Yong Fu and Zeng Xian Fang who were making a living by providing souvenir portraits of passers-by on the bridge. Traub began collecting these photographs as a way to create a visual record of the African presence in Guangzhou and other populations that have a precarious foothold in China. Additionally, photographs by Traub document the urban landscape around the bridge and provide a context for the collected portrait photographs. Nearly seven years later, this collaborative effort has now produced an archive that numbers over twenty thousand images, and is a small part of the photographic record of China's rise.

The archive consists of Wu and Zeng's portraits, as well as additional landscape photographs taken by Traub, as an outsider. The majority of the photographs are akin to self-portraits. While Wu and Zeng took them, they are more facilitators of their customer's self-presentations rather than their author. Wu and Zeng use a small digital camera; afterwards, the memory card from the camera is inserted by Wu's wife into a battery-powered printer and a copy is made for the customer, typically for a small fee (typically 10 RMB or $1.50 per sheet).

Images that may at first appear prosaic and repetitive in fact participate in a broader visual conversation consisting of a coded language of clothing, facial expressions and gestures. They reference other images such as those of the renowned Malian photographers Sedou Keita and Malik Sadibe, and other African traditions of representation, as well as conventions of vernacular Chinese portrait photography.

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As China's power has grown, it has become a new center of gravity pulling people from remote lands. Some of these people are merely passing through China, conducting business, searching for opportunities. Others are staying longer, seeking permanent residence, marrying Chinese citizens and perhaps, slowly, influencing the character of China.

The pedestrian bridge in Guangzhou is thus a unique space that functions on multiple levels, and, interestingly, embodies Africa's deepening involvement in China. It is a metaphorical gateway for populations entering into the country from the global South, a sort of Little North Road into China. It is also a platform upon which Chinese migrant workers interact and conduct business with these newcomers, fostering a vibrant informal and ad hoc economy. As the sun sets, Chinese migrants from all over the country spread out plastic sheets and cover them with all manner of goods for sale–toys, underwear, cellphone cases, animal skins, ginseng–transforming the bridge into a night market.

The bridge also functions as a key public space or town square for the quarter, through which everyone in the area inevitably passes by several times a day. In addition to allowing for safe passage over the large arterial road that runs through the area, the bridge, with its openness and perspectives, also provides a respite from the frenetic activity of the surrounding area, where crumbling, old structures abut newer, glassy, high-rises. Because it is aloft, there is a sense of being lifted out, not only from the dense urban fabric of the city, but also, for a moment, from the cares and imperatives of everyday life. The elevated highway above and its curving on-ramps cast shadows under which people linger to shield themselves from the mid-day sun. Planter boxes filled with greenery and bright pink cascading flowers soften the otherwise harsh environment.

Here, people come to meet, linger and gaze out onto the city, losing themselves in thought. It is, both literally and figuratively, a heightened space that shifts one's perspective, invites one to pause, look out into the distance and, perhaps, at oneself. The bridge becomes a stage on which one can explore, reimagine or simply take stock of oneself. Photography is a mechanism for documenting this place.

Public programs

"The Bridge as Metaphor," a conversation with artist Daniel Traub, media and communications scholar Wazhmah Osman of Temple University, and Aaron Levy of Slought, on Thursday, September 17th at 6:30pm.

"A Bridge Too Far: Authorship and Public Space," a closing reception and conversation with artist Daniel Traub, Peter Barberie, Curator of Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Robert Pledge, Director of Contact Press Images, on Tuesday, November 24, 2015 at 6:30pm.

Further considerations

"Little North Road 小北路" raises complex questions concerning artistic collaboration, permission and privacy, while also challenging normative conceptions of Chinese identity and influence.

Traub is a Brooklyn-based photographer who has undertaken this project as an artist, while Wu and Zeng are itinerant laborers who photograph as a means of survival, which invites us to consider the difficulties inherent to collaborating across different social and cultural circumstances.

Moreover, the subjects of these portraits had prints made for their private use, or to share with friends and family. They may have assumed the photographs would be deleted, and might not have expected or consented to have them published in any form. This exhibition thus asks us to consider the rights of both the individual and the artist to their image, the tension between privacy and public memory, and what privacy means in a cross-cultural context as well as a digital era.

Finally, while many of the photographs in the archive are of Chinese, Middle Easterners, and other ethnicities, the vast majority are of upbeat, dynamic, and entrepreneurial Africans. This raises further questions about the politics of representation and how Africans are imaged in China and in a larger global society.