Contemporary Chinese artists on selfhood

The five-star flag of the People’s Republic of China was designed with the idea of each star representing a revolutionary class: the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie. The fifth and largest star represents the Chinese Communist Party, suggesting that it unifies all four classes.

Yet, as the exhibition I Am the People at White Rabbit Gallery attests, China today faces huge economic and social disparities between the urban and rural populations, with ethnic minorities often feeling the brunt of this. In Sydney, 28 contemporary Chinese artists are addressing these inequities, questioning the limits of a class society and how the individual can make themselves seen and heard amongst the crowd.

While I Am the People focuses on the working class and manufacturing industry in China, it’s taken a few years to develop. “The idea was refined after I read a short novelette, Folding Beijing, by economist and award-winning science fiction writer Hao Jingfang,” says curator David Williams.


Ge Hui 葛辉, Never Prepare a Story, 2010-22, oil on canvas, 255 x 345 cm Courtesy of the Artist and the White Rabbit Gallery.

“Her dystopian megalopolis is split into rigid spaces and timeframes where people of different social classes and occupations inhabit the same city, yet they lead separate lives. It was a nice idea to see how the class structure in China (and globally) has changed since the inception of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] in 1949.” This stratification in the novelette belies the urgent social and class questions pertinent to I Am the People.

The title of the show comes from an exhibiting piece, a video work by Li Xiaofei that interrogates the porous boundary between self and the other. Xiaofei has a long-standing practice of documenting the lives of the working class in factories and other industries across China. Six of his video works are being exhibited in I Am the People.

Other pieces range from painting to photography, from film to sculpture. “The artists are utilising incredibly varied practices and media to explore the divide between the social classes from the poverty stricken to politicians, labourers and ethnic minorities, to clubbers and cowboys,” says Williams.

Among the exhibiting artists are Hailun Ma, a young Xinjiang photographer who documents her Uyghur and Urumqi neighbours; Ge Hui whose vibrant paintings are being exhibited for the first time; and Shyu Ruey-Shiann, who is displaying his evocative and melancholy installation Rivers of Childhood.

I Am the People
White Rabbit Gallery
(Sydney NSW)
30 June—12 November

Preview Words by Sally Gearon