I make one-of-a-kind collapsible artist’s books that combine my photography with pop-up paper engineering. My inspiration for this format derives from my adoration of children’s pop-up books and my formal studies in fine art photography. I am intrigued by the compact and intimate format of a book that when opened, suddenly reveals a playful, over- sensory, multidimensional scene. I photograph for, paper-engineer and bind all the work myself.
Growing up in New Jersey, I was not proud of my Chinese heritage. Yet after college I went to my mother’s birthplace in Yunnan Province, China, to teach English and stayed for three years. China has 55 officially recognized ethnic minority groups that comprise less than 9% of the nation’s population. Twenty-five reside in Yunnan, with the Han representing the majority. In Yunnan, I learned that my mother is a member of the Black Yi Nuosu minority and that her grandfather was governor of Yunnan from 1927-1945 and commander-in- chief of the 1st Army Group during WWII. In Yunnan I found people like what I saw in the mirror; they did not fit the stereotypes, the archetypes, the categories that I was taught were typically Asian, and this recognition sparked a new sense of identity, pride, and acceptance. Learning about my Yi ancestry and family history in my mid-’20s inspired me to formally study photography and begin my current body of work that is still in progress.
In 2008, 14 years after my first trip to China, with the help of a Fulbright fellowship, I began We are Tiger Dragon People, a series of photographic pop-up books about the ethnic minority groups of China. After spending time in an area, I return home to my studio in Philadelphia to create pop-up books from my photographs. The pop-ups range from 5 inches to room-sized installations of 21 feet. With my pop-up books, I want to overlap boundaries between people, book, installation, photography, craft, and sculpture.
My mother is black Nuosu Yi, one of the many subgroups of the Yi nationality which the Chinese government has grouped as one ethnicity. All Yi though worship the tiger as their grandest totem. Yi people from Southeast Chuxiong (a Yi Autonomous Prefecture) believe that they once lived in a mystical forest disturbed by serpents and wild beasts. Annually, under the direction of the black Tiger King, they offer sacrifices and dance to reflect the journey and way of life of the Yi people. The men dress up in felted tiger costumes and visit each house to guard the village from evils. They dance – mimicking surveying, plowing, harrowing, sowing and weeding – all steps of the rice-growing cycle, to ensure a healthy crop and long life for all. Thus “Luoma,” the Tiger Festival, was created to protect the village and display the Yi people’s tiger-like strength and valor.