A figure, face covered, half turned away, reaches out to a floral background. Eyes, at first barely discernible, and then hard to escape, peer out from behind a silken flower. Image after image, layer upon layer, color and pattern run riot in Wei Xianwen’s series Mothers. There is an exuberance to these photographs but also something that at first feels unsettling. Who is this figure hiding their face? What are these patterns and materials?
In Wei’s photographs we are presented with portraits of the photographer’s mother. Moving beyond a conventional understanding of portraiture, Wei blends contextual images of her mother’s home with still life details to present a documentation not only of her subject’s world but also her own evolving understanding of her mother. In approaching the work, she relied on her dual identity as a photographer and designer to guide her, resulting in a series of inventive portraits full of eye-catching details.
Wei was close to her mother as a child. After a period apart in which their separation deepened, Wei returned to her mother’s home to find that she had cut off the water and electricity, shaved off her hair, and lived and traveled in isolation. She had surrounded herself with what she considered daily necessities, chosen to turn waste into treasure. Initially confused, Wei gradually noticed a sense of vitality and resistance within her mother’s decisions. These items were a form of self expression. Inspired by her mother’s unique aesthetic, she began to photograph.
She calls the process of making the work a ‘dialogue’ with her mother. “By ‘dialogue’ I’m referring to both verbal communication and my observations—a constant dialogue with the traces of her life, which changed my perception along the way. I dropped my initial prejudices against her, and it was then that true ‘consensus’ emerged,” explains Wei.
The world that the two create—photographer and subject, daughter and mother—is one that immediately envelopes the viewer. Wei’s mother was a true collaborator in the project, explaining that they “performed together and many of the costumes and poses were selected by us on a whim.” Without electricity in the house, Wei chose to use handheld flash and flashlights causing the colors to pop even more. The clash of fabrics, patterns, textures, and colors creates a sense of chaos and confusion at times, a sense of clarity and focus at others.
The layered patterning is kaleidoscopic and seductive, yet hints at the subject’s push back against a world of feminine tropes. Underneath the candy colored sections lies a rejection of norms, stereotypes, and the type of consumerism so often foisted upon women.
Wei’s mother is seen turned away from the camera, her eyes blocked by props held out in front of her face or pulled down low over her head. A gesture that could come across as shyness—as a retreat from the camera—reads as anything but that. She is defiant, she is herself. As Wei states, her mother was in a sense “freed from the female dilemma, she covered her face during the shooting and naturally released herself.” In coming to reconcile with her mother, she found a “rebellious and unruly female soul”.
In Mothers, Wei leaves the viewer with more than a simple portrait. The series documents a relationship, an unfolding narrative of one subject finding oneself and one artist finding the ability to look below the surface, beyond estrangement, and past fear.
Editor’s note: Xianwen Wei was a Finalist in the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2021. To discover more inspiring approaches to portraiture, check out the rest of the winners!