In November this year, Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival, the sister festival to the renowned Rencontres d’Arles, celebrated its fourth edition in Xiamen, in China’s Fujian province. With an overall view to “serve as a cultural exchange between France and China”, the annual event hopes to also raise the profile of photography in China by providing a meeting place for professionals in the field and providing a platform for emerging photographers to showcase their talent.
“It is a matter of promoting an idea of culture and art, that is both creative and popular, open to greater audiences but also a site for encounters between creatives,” explains Victoria Jonathan, one half of the creative direction team alongside Bérénice Angremy. “It is also an opportunity to nurture an artistic dialogue between Chinese and European artists and audiences. Ideas travel with exhibitions and art projects. For Arles, it is also an opportunity to have a foot in China and grow a deeper knowledge of the Chinese and Asian photography scenes.”
The festival was founded in 2015 by Sam Stourdzé, director of Rencontres d’Arles, and RongRong, a leading figure in Chinese contemporary art and founder of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, one of the festival’s main exhibition venues. Given the over-saturation of arts and culture events in the larger cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and now Shenzhen and Chengdu, the local government of Xiamen wanted to establish an event in this slightly smaller, Southern city to place it onto the cultural map. RongRong, who comes from Xiamen, was contacted to take the lead with this responsibility.
Aside from this initiative however, Xiamen has been quietly growing its artistic community since the 1980s, just after the Cultural Revolution – namely with the Xiamen Dada movement founded by Huang Yongping, and the Five Ones, one of the first photography collectives that capitalised on the renewed creative freedoms and open-mindedness during that period, consisting of Chen Yongpeng, Cui Jiannan, Jiao Honghui, Li Shixion, Wang Lujia, Zeng Huang and Zhou Yuedong. An exhibition of their archive was on show at the festival this year titled Turning Point – Fujianese Photographers from the 1980s.
Even so, the independent photography community in China is a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the economic reforms introduced at the end of the 1970s by Deng Xiaoping, the prominent leader of the People’s Republic of China until 1989, photography was largely used as propaganda. As Berenice Angremy explains: “It’s only during the ’90s that a small community of artist photographers emerged in China.
“The first independent photo festival started in 2001 in Pingyao, the Guangzhou Image triennial in 2005, and the first centre for photography, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, opened in 2007, under the leadership of photographers RongRong and Inri, who launched the Three Shadows Photography Award one year later to promote young Chinese photography.”
But, she adds, the development of dozens of photography festivals around China in the last decade – including as Lianzhou, Lishui and Dali, plus two photo fairs in Shanghai and Macao – and several museums, galleries and dedicated magazines, interest in photography is gaining momentum. “In parallel with this institutional and market development, the photography community has naturally expanded: not only artists but also photography collectors and photo lovers, in all corners of China and not only big cities like Beijing or Shanghai,” she says.
It hasn’t been without challenges, and it has taken time for the fine arts community in China to consider photography a medium on a par with more traditional practices. “Just like in the West 30 years ago, art amateurs are a little suspicious towards a medium that can be reproduced,” says Jonathan. “It took time to realise the role that photography plays in the realm of creation, and then even more time for the art market to open its doors to photography.”
There is also the question of censorship. It is no secret that the Chinese authorities make no apology for a policy of intense control of anything made, publicised or indeed said in the country. Whereas in the West topics challenging politics and society are vastly addressed by artists and photographers, here such attempts are extensively controlled. The festival, for example, must declare a list of exhibited artworks and programme to apply for a permit from the cultural bureau.
Nevertheless, for the directors, this does not present itself as a restraint as such. “Some topics can’t be explicitly represented, like pornography, internal political issues or violence, but there is no specific set of rules,” says Jonathan. “Young Chinese artists have integrated these constraints, which have not necessarily refrained their practice, and can even act as stimulant. This year we have been able to show the work of artists that are quite daring, which is proof that nothing is black or white.”
Visiting Xiamen for the first time to visit festival, the city’s rapid development is clear, with tower blocks rising several stories high in clusters along new roads. The large square stretching out towards new restaurants and shopping centres just outside the Three Shadows Centre didn’t exist this time last year. Looking forward to its fifth edition, Jimei x Arles International Photography Festival plans to continue to expand. On the last day, I said my goodbyes to Stourdzé as he prepared to fly to North Korea to seek out new talent there. Perhaps the exhibition halls next year with display what he discovers there.
In the festival catalogue he writes: “Jimei x Arles Festival is a place of sharing and discovery photography in its diversity but also in its acute gaze on this world. It is a tool to understand, think, and build the society in which we live. Because one this is sure, images shape this world!”