An evocative exploration of Chinese masculinity, queer sisterhood and slow violence

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Shanghai-based artist boihugo questions the cultural power dynamics and social hegemonies in the context of race, queerness, gender, and colonialism

boihugo’s cuddle me, don’t colonize me began with its two most evocative images. The artist poses naked, faceless, held in place by anonymous white hands. The seated figure holds both the power and the artist, his suit and grip creating an uneven power dynamic between the two bodies. It is an uncomfortable interaction, one fusing erotic aesthetics with a racialised queerness. 

“I was interested in hegemonic masculinity, and how it relates to the paradoxical phenomenon of exclusion and fetishisation towards East Asian queers,” the artist explains. In cuddle me, don’t colonize me, they question cultural power dynamics and social hegemonies, particularly in the context of race, queerness, gender, and colonialism. “Those first images felt like yelling,” they say. “With the research that followed, the project shifted. I began looking for solutions to these imbalances of power.”

boihugo, 27 years old and born in Beijing, studied Fine Arts at Capital Normal University, before moving to the UK to study an MA in photography at London College of Communication. Their work is a deep, long look into the conditions born from the social landscape we live in and under: race, gender, queerness and sex, which all exist in a matrix of labels and expectations. boihugo is on the hunt for their causations, citing capitalism, colonialism, and racialised patriarchy. 

Whether we like it or not, we can’t escape the lenses we view the world through, lenses built with specific bodies in mind. Binary – or perhaps the myth of it – becomes the modus operandi as they play rough against soft; gentle against violent. cuddle me, don’t colonize me does not just highlight these binaries, but demonstrates their ultimate fallacy – there is no binary. Structural powers create this apparent duality, boihugo argues, and exemplifies this through illusions of “ideal” masculinity. It exists not through rigid characteristics, but by negating undesirable ones. “It cannot exist without a generated opposite: the feminine, the non-white, the other,” they say.  

In one image [below], fishing wire presses uncomfortably against the skin.“That tension is a nuanced interaction. The feeling isn’t the direct violence of a stab or punch. If I don’t look too closely, I won’t even notice,” boihugo explains. Bodily subjection is ever present, always pressing down. This “slow violence” is caused by “every construct being the result of a conflict between power relations,” the artist adds. They say this almost as a mantra, a reality hard to swallow, impossible to ignore.

The artist shoots with a pace and urgency akin to paparazzi photography. The “snappy snapshot” images have a caught-in-the-act feeling, made possible through the use of a decade-old family camera and its built-in flash. “I am sensitive to the hierarchy of images, especially those considered elegant, ‘good’, fine art,” they say. Race and queerness are not boihugo’s only concerns. The camera possesses its own imposed logic of right and wrong, high and low. 

Queer sisterhood becomes boihugo’s solution to these tensions. They point to an image of bejewelled hands [above], representing their childhood love of toy jewellery and the feminine playfulness it brings: playing dress up with friends, painting nails and buying flashy outfits in pound shops. Discussing this makes the artist laugh. 

cuddle me, don’t colonize me is an ongoing series, intensely aware that no person, object or thought generates in a vacuum, instead originating within a complex web of power. By stitching these binaries and hegemonies together, the illusion is revealed. There is no dominant without the submissive, no hard without the soft.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.