My Big Family exhibit in Vancouver B.C.’s Chinatown an insightful slice of life

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My first foray into the Vancouver Asian-Canadian arts and entertainment beat took me to My Big Family, a photo-exhibition showcasing pictures from several Chinese provinces taking place at the 221A Artist Run Centre in Chinatown.

I initially heard of the exhibit from a local events website, and also from an article in The Province that piqued my interest. After attending the rain-soaked Lunar New Year festivities last weekend I decided to pop over to the gallery to have a look.

The artist

The collection was put together by Phoebe Jin, a third-year photography student at Emily Carr University. I had a chance to briefly chat with her about her work and experiences.

Jin travelled to her home province of Hebei, China in 2010 with a film camera and a hundred rolls of film to visually document family life in China. But her trip was not purely business, it was also deeply personal.

“I started to take photos around 2001, since my father passed away. I started to travel alone to explore lots of places in China,” Jin said.

During her travels she always had her camera, but at that time she was mostly shooting landscape shots. Then, tragedy struck again.

“In 2005 my mother passed away — too many things happened in my life so I started to think about serious questions, what was the meaning of life.”

Jin said this was a confusing time for her, and she turned to photography for solace.

“I found that I couldn’t express this confusion or these questions through language or writing. I think at that time I started to take photography seriously, as some way to express [my] inner problems.”

At the end of 2007 Jin quit her job as an art director at an advertising agency in Shanghai and moved to Canada, where she started taking classes at Emily Carr and learned the skills to begin her collection.

Besides returning to Hebei in last year, Jin also travelled to seven other northern and eastern Chinese provinces to take pictures of relatives. She said it was a way for her to remember her family, and to let people who didn’t have a lot of family in their lives feel connected through her photographs.

“I found that lots of Chinese people can relate to my project very emotionally.”

It particularly affects people that have immigrated to Canada because the pictures remind them of their childhood, she added.

Form + function

221A is a modest gallery that reminded me of a living room in a trendy downtown loft. Enveloped in brick, glass and white walls, the first thing that caught my attention was a collage of several unframed matte photographs clipped simply to the wall. Most of the pictures centre around life in rural China: a woman cooking in a closet-sized kitchen; a man relaxing on a balcony under hung out laundry; two girls studying in a cramped bedroom littered with books.

An LCD mounted to the opposite wall also plays back looping video of footage she captured during her trip that complement the stills.

The journey continues

The photographs paint a good picture of the people living outside of the big cities in modern-day China, with a theme of juxtoposition putting new things in old settings or vice versa. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many examples to look at.

Jin admitted that it is a work in progress and she hopes to add to it after she returns from another trip to China this summer, this time to visit the remaining family members she didn’t get to see on her last venture.

My Big Family runs every Thursday to Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. until February 27, admission is free. For more information please visit their website.

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