A few weeks ago I met local artist Mei Xian Qui at her Inglewood studio, a space she has retained for the past 8 years. The artistic community in Inglewood serves her well as many of her artist friends assist with and support her practice. Many of the artists live in their studios, but this is not the case for Qui. One section of the open studio space is set up like a gallery with several of her photographs on display, some on Plexiglas substrate and others in light boxes. In the sitting area of the studio space was a garment rack with several items of clothing. I learned that Qui occasionally screens her own fabrics and sews many of the items that her models wear in her carefully staged photographs. It was particularly fascinating to learn about her process and inspiration.
Mei Xian Qui is her Chinese name, she has an Indonesian name as well—and an American name. With 3 names, it is no wonder that her identity is so significant in her work. Qui was born in Java, Indonesia where being Chinese and practicing its traditions was illegal. She suffered quite a bit because of this—prejudice and violence were prevalent. Growing up in Java as a third generation Chinese Diasporic minority, Qiu reconstructed the unknown, conjuring fantastical notions of her Chinese culture. After several moves back and forth her family finally settled in America when she was in her teens. She was continually questioning what it meant to be Chinese. Here she was disenchanted by those who chose (and still choose) to embrace Western values and customs. Qui began to embrace her Chinese heritage. She returned to China several times in a search for clues about her own background. All of this has become fodder for her artistic expression.
Trained as a painter, Qui moved to photography as she found it a medium better suited to the messages she wished to communicate as an artist. Her oeuvre is now exclusively photo-based. Her process often involves sketches or even paintings of what she wants to photograph. Hence the photograph is a means to an end as she does not consider herself a “photographer.” She does indeed approach her photographic work as a painter and will often paint directly on the images that are printed on to the Plexiglas substrate. Qui uses a digital camera and manipulates the images after they are printed. After applying more and more pigment, she sometimes re-photographs them to obtain just the right color, light and texture. The imagery is rooted in history painting and is certainly political. Unlike Chinese art, she is insistent that her work has a dialogue with the viewer. She is very concerned about the issue of “where did I come from?,” which makes sense for an artist with several displacements in her heritage. Some of the Chinese history she was exposed to was fabricated even by her own mother. This is in part why she desires to regain a culture to which she had no access. Qui is not only concerned with her own personal history but also about globalization and the environment. She uses a UV cured ink process because it is the most eco-friendly solution for the images that she creates. She also finds that this ink keeps the colors true and embedded into the surface.
Qui has exhibited her work locally and internationally in exhibitions such as “Trans Angeles” at the Wilhelm Morgner Haus Kunstmuseum in Germany, curated by Peter Frank in 2014, and Art Basel. Her work is in many collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She has several exhibitions opening in the coming weeks: a solo show in Rome, Italy, a group show at Radiator Arts Gallery in New York, and a show at L.A. Artcore Union Center for the Arts (Brewery Annex) entitled “This Train is Bound for Glory.” This exhibition is a continuation of her (previously exhibited) series entitled “Let a Thousands Flowers Bloom.” Qui describes the series as a “mock invasion of the United States by the Chinese.” The title refers to a popular partial Western misquotation of Mao Zedong’s “Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.” Taken from classical Chinese poetry, Mao used this slogan to proclaim a great society where arts, academia, and “a hundred schools of thought contend.” As a result, artists and academics came out of hiding and there was a brief flowering of culture. In the photographs, hidden political dangers are suggested and must be addressed urgently, but are put aside momentarily, subsumed to the romance of “the beautiful idea.” The models for the imagery are Pan Asian American artists, and academics specializing in Chinese culture. Costumes are discarded military uniforms, cheongsams constructed for the photographs and Chinese mock-ups taken from a Beijing photography studio specializing in dress for foreign tourists to re-enact Cultural Revolution Propaganda imagery.
In this current exhibition at L.A. Artcore, a video “This Train is Bound for Glory” will be central accompanied by “Thousand Flowers” selections. The video’s conceptual origins are post WWII Chinese propaganda videos. It is produced and directed by filmmaker Chris Gehl. The music for the video “This Train is Bound for Glory,” an old American gospel hymn, is sung by 9-year-old Flora Luna Mack White. In the video a beautiful young man is clumsily but delicately putting on and off Chinese opera makeup, portraying the Maiden archetype. He pauses as he puts the final touches of red stain on his lips. He then dons his Cultural Revolution uniform and practices marching, saluting and bowing.
Mei Xian Qui’s work is fresh, political, personal and engaging. She brings her culture to the forefront and exposes many truths and fantasies through her photographs. Her passion and dedicated and skillful process elevate her visual language. I look forward to seeing in what new directions Qui’s work will “blossom” in the years ahead.
Exhibition dates at L.A. Artcore Brewery Annex: Sept. 9-Oct.1, 2015. Opening reception: Sept. 13, 1-3 pm; artist conversation at 2 pm.
You can read more about Mei Xian Qui on her website