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Shanghai Dreamers: Racist? The artist responds

Qi

 

A fashion photo shoot for the Christian Dior boutique in Shanghai has stirred something of a controversy on the Web.

 

In the "Shanghai Dreamers" series, photographer Quentin Shih creates a surreal effect by replicating long rows of an image of a Chinese model next to or behind a Western model. The Chinese models in some images are in iconic socialist-era garb (overalls for men in one, hair in handkerchief for women in another) or in the traditional qipao dress.

 

In the foreground of the wall of identical Chinese people in the images is a tall, vampish woman wearing Dior haute couture – an evening gown and gloves; a lacy dress; an interpretation of English riding wear.

 

A column posted at the website Jezebel.com -- titled “Dear Christian Dior: Your Orientalist Campaign is Lame” -- takes very strong exception to the approach.

 

To quote a section:

 

In the case of Dior's ‘Shanghai Dreamers,' the conformity and the old-fashioned appearance of the rows and rows of repeated Chinese faces and bodies only serve to constitute a visual record of the Western world's construction and affirmation of self through the racial and cultural other ...

By the way, I know a lot of people have defended this campaign by pointing out that a Chinese photographer, Quentin Shih, shot these photos, but that argument doesn't make any sense. Just because there are people of color working in the police force and in the courts, that doesn't negate and invalidate the structures of racism that exist in the criminal justice system?”

 

After reading another blog that took a thoughtful look at the images -- "Is Dior's 'Shanghai Dreamers' campaign racist?" -- it seemed like a good idea to ask the photographer himself.

 

Shih and I exchanged a few notes by e-mail and he was kind enough to agree to share the correspondence (lightly edited by mutual consent) publicly.

 

His take:

“First, it's totally my art work supported by Dior. I mean, it's originally my idea and has nothing to do with Dior.

In this series of work, I wanted to express a dialogue between Chinese fashion (60s to 90s) and Western fashion (Dior Haute Couture represents it the most). During that time, China was a country with socialism -- people wearing all the same outfits and divided into different groups/identities like workers, students, intellectuals etc. That's the history.

Comparing the two fashion styles and two histories (east and west) is interesting for me, and has some humor.

I don't think the Chinese models are in some way demeaning. The Dior model for me is also a ‘model’ -- I mean she stands there only to represent the clothes, not herself and not a western people.

I was not lucky enough to shoot a Chinese model wearing Dior -- if I did I would have put her in my work.

When reading Chinese history of the last half century ... the objective reality is much more cruel than the 'daydream' harmonious group people shown in my work.”

Qii

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Comments

The Muted Cry

This photo is interesting art but it certainly is not good advertising, if in fact that is what Dior intends to use it for.

As an American who has lived in Shanghai for the last decade, I can tell you that using western models in advertising (especially for local brands) is very common. In the eyes of the local market, generally speaking, clothing brands that don't use international(white) models are simply not international enough. Brands without a clear international image are deemed "lesser" brands.

Shih is an artist with evident talent. However, the message of this photograph is not clear and universal enough for advertising of any kind. It is meant for a modern art museum. Fashion brand advertising should never convey a message that can so easily be received with negative feelings. Besides, this photo says nothing about Dior.

Tom Lasseter

Hi Gary, Thank you for the comments. I am also curious about the marketing aspect of using non-Chinese models in the China market and how that affects, or doesn't affect, sales. It'll be interesting to see how that issue evolves in the years ahead as the domestic consumer market here gets bigger.
Best, Tom

Gary Soup

I half agree with Shih. The "cloning" of a representation of a Mao-era worker is just a device frequently encountered in contemporary Chinese art. It's generally used to good effect, and the artist seldom seen as racist. But China certainly has plenty of tall, elegant models who could pull off the generational contrast, and the use of a Caucasian model certainly seems to send the wrong message. In fact it might be counter-productive; A thoughtful potential customer might wonder if the white model was used because the clothes were designed to look best on a white person, and not necessarily as good on an Asian person.

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