Picturing social realities: aesthetics, politics and Chinese photography groups, 1979-1989

Li Xiaobin

In 1979, a group of young photography enthusiasts in Beijing formed one of the earliest unofficial photography groups, the April Photo Society, at the immediate starting point of the reform era. Between 1979 and 1981 the group were to hold three annual exhibitions, each presented under the single title Nature, Society and Man. Taking place at the onset of a new era of social relaxation following the strictures of the Cultural Revolution, one of the most notable features of their activity was the way that the members consciously aimed to make “art” images, distancing themselves from politics. Each exhibition showed images of a consciously fashioned “everyday life”, celebrating a quotidian beauty and private sentiment that appeared new, and a challenging contrast to officially sanctioned visual culture at the time. Inspired by the April Photo Society, other amateur photography groups also emerged across China throughout the 1980s.

With scrutiny of the photographic works and activities of seven seminal unofficial photography groups, this research aims to examine the transformation in Chinese photography from Socialist Realism of the Mao’s era to a humanistic concern for social realities during the 1980s. Despite carrying certain rhetoric from Socialist Realism, the transformation was evidenced both in the choice of subject matter and the aesthetic in their photographs, with reflection on their individual perspectives on the nature of human self, social life and art. In addition to examining their work, this research will also investigate why and how these photographers self-organized a collective to navigate between newly available social and cultural spaces to initiate an aesthetic movement, how their organization of activities bridged and blurred the boundary of the official and unofficial sphere, and question if this aesthetic movement was eventually co-opted into the official discourse, when the state expanded its own sphere of cultural production in the 1980s.

About the Speaker

Chen Shuxia is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre on China in the World, the Australian National University, researching on unofficial Chinese photography groups, their relation to the state and the aesthetic transformation in the 1980s. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Chinese art and culture, and Chinese intellectual history. Chen holds an MA in Art History from the University of Sydney; and an MA in Studio Art from Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Chen is also the fellow of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Greater China Curatorial Residency, Asia Art Archive, 2014-2015. She will develop an exhibition on the topic of From Socialist Realism to Social Reality: April Photo Society, 1979-1989.

Photographed at the Old Summer Palace, 1980, By Li Xiaobin. Courtesy of the artist.


Chen Shuxia

Dates & times

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

2.00pm - 3.00pm


Seminar Rooms, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU

Updated:  6 October 2016/Responsible Officer:  Director/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team