In search of one’s self-reflectio

What attracted Wang Gang to the Yi people? From his first desire to go to the most secluded Yi habitat in the Liangshan region of Sichuan province, to his subsequent repeated visits, might his explorations be comparable in some way to what motivated Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) to achieve his monumental body of work on the American Indians? Or could it be the sense of a looming tragedy of a “vanishing race”? All together Ed Curtis spent nearly thirty years documenting the American Indians while Wang Gang visited the Yi people only four times, successively in August 2006, December 2006, May 2007 and October 2007. We don’t know how long Wang Gang will continue to photograph the Liangshan Yi people, what we do know is that a strong and solid bond has been established between this maverick figure and the forgotten Yi (forgotten in the sense of leftaside and passedover by the country’s accelerating economic development). Not content to donate thousands of books for the Yi children Wang Gang is raising fund now to build schools for them as well.

While Ed Curtis almost disguised the Indians -- dressing them up in old costumes -- to document the Indian culture as it had been, not as it was then, Wang Gang just photographed the Yi just as he saw them. In other words he portrays them as they are, and at the same time, I would go a little further and suggest that, he is depicting them as if they were his own self-reflection. True, Wang Gang is not concerned with their history, or with their identification according to the different “tribes” or “clans”. He went to the Yi country neither for anthropology study, nor for social analysis of an ethnic minority in a fast-changing society. In contrast to his peers, among them such photographers as Li Lang and Li Fan, who made extensive and excellent documentary work on the Yi people, Wang Gang stands out as a formidable portraitist. Using a twin lens Rolleiflex a la Diane Arbus, Wang Gang is consumed by, perhaps unconsciously, a kind of reconnaissance, a recognition of his own true self in the Yi he encountered.

Wang Gang’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Child,” can be found in his favorite portraits of the Yi children, which he would associate with Lord of the Flies, (William Golding 1954), revealing there his own vulnerabilities and his own conflicting personalities, both creative child and tough businessman, charming yet menacing, sentimental yet capable of barbaric cruelty, angelic but devilish at heart. His Yi child with a toy gun can be compared with Diane Arbus’ child with the toy grenade, and with William Klein’s grimacing gun-waving child. Unsurprisingly one portrait resembles…a photograph of Alice by Lewis Carroll (1856-1880, during which time he was a photographer), that is to say the extent of photographic influences Wang Gang has amassed.
Wang Gang’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Free Man,” can be found in those portraits of the Yi in the wild that represent the fascination they held for Wang Gang; this aptitude for letting oneself merge with the elements, with the animal and the vegetal worlds, exemplifies the ease of the Yi to lie down anywhere in the wilderness; in the meadows, on top of a hill, in the rain or in the cold, or even on a billiard table. This connection with Mother Nature characterizes Wang Gang’s love of freedom and his disregard for conventions, conformity, and is certainly the key motivator for his repeated visits to the Yi country.

Wang Gang’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Man in Pain” can be found in this strong parallel with Diane Arbus, in the keen empathy of Wang Gang for the suffering of the Yi, their pain hidden behind the “charwa” - ponchos or capes in black or white (a simple garment in wool sometimes hemmed with long tassels -- designed to keep warm outdoor or to keep dry when it rains) that add a dramatic visual effect to the grey tone, the melancholy or even the tragic sense of fate described or recognized as the Balkan blues in the facial expressions of the young and old alike. It is said that the Yi of the Greater Liangshan area in the past suffered from severe shortages of means of production and of subsistence, and that they also practiced slavery until the liberation: with the domination of the Black Yi and the White Yi over other lower castes.

In this series of powerful and moving portraits, indeed what we see are neither Indians nor some Balkan minorities. These men and children with their black capes or white capes…they are angels. Black angels. White angels. These capes are their wings. See this young shepherd angel lying on his stomach over his black cape holding a cigarette in his hand: his stern gaze is betrayed by the happy dangling of his feet almost suspended in the air, for he is lying over a vertiginous precipice with the spectacular valley in the background. This other black angel is standing on a stone, ready to take off. Over there, the three stooges -– three brothers in arms posing with distinct expressions: the black angel on the right, the smart one, wears a mischievous smile; the white angel in the middle is the serious, grave-looking consigliere meditating on some secret plots; the one on the left side in the cape with intricate patterns he is the leader of the gang, the young Tony Soprano with the menacing frown. Over here a white angel with a cigarette in his mouth is standing in front of a road press whose circular frame gives him an aura that makes him look like an Indian chief drape in a poncho with long tassels, a cutout straight from the collection of Edward Curtis. At last, this little angel without a cape but with a shaven head like a Buddhist novice, just flapping his shirt over his shoulders as if he is spreading his wings, isn’t he learning to fly?

Who is the true Wang Gang? He said he found himself each time he pressed the shutter. Is he the black angel with his body and face buried inside two elevated black wings, leaving just a lock of hair out in the open air? Is he the lonely black silhouette lost in deep meditation in front of the silent landscape? Or is he that young fellow proudly exhibiting the bird he just captured or this other philosopher in a short cape contemplating a dead tree blowing in the wind?

We know angels are simply metaphor. They are the messengers between humans and God. Actually angels are the messengers between our conscious selves and our souls. Wang Gang’s work reflects his need to capture the soul of these Yi people in the wild in order to nourish his own self, completing the process of recognition – of self and other.

Jean Loh

Wang Gang - Yi in the Wild
96 pages