If most of us were asked to create a self-portrait, we’d probably flip around our phones and take a 0.5 picture. Perhaps the more artistically inclined would quickly sketch out their face on a piece of paper. Not Sirui Ma. Her new exhibit at the Hackney Gallery, Little Things Mean a Lot, on view through June 30, flouts convention and rather features the people and places that surround the photographer in a sort of inverse self-portrait.
Instead of the staged, ultra-self-aware photos that one might expect in anything remotely portrait-y, we find playful, organic shots. Ma’s friends lie in the grass among dandelions, contemplate their reflections in blue fountains, and pet jet-black lizards. Plants and fruits are also the stars of the show. Brownish mushrooms peep out of lush carpets of moss, a pink flower’s petals just begin to open, and slices of a juicy orange sit semi-arranged on a marble counter. Despite the relaxed look and feel, we also recognize the carefully crafted equilibrium in each image. There’s a sense of intimacy, as if we’re peeling back a curtain that separates public from private, whether that’s capturing individuals in a moment of quiet, finding a rare serene shot of London, or depicting wild spaces in their purely natural state.
And though its approach is unconventional, Little Things Mean a Lot is an effective self-portraiture project. Of course, Ma is highly observant, as demonstrated by her skill at visually capturing emotions. But beyond that, we can tell that she has a penchant for meditative tranquillity, that she, like portrait subjects, also appreciates her alone time in nature. Still, there isn’t a hint of misanthropy in the exhibit. Each photo has an undercurrent of connection; the love and celebration behind Ma’s lens is clear. We can also appreciate that she seeks out different forms of oases — the simple pleasures of a perfectly sweet orange, the little patch of green in an otherwise greyish concrete cityscape, the moment to catch your breath before getting on the metro home. But while we can learn a lot about the photographer from the images in the exhibit herself, that’s certainly not the whole story. I sat down with Ma to chat more about her style and inspiration for this exhibit.
Hi Sirui! How are you? What were you up to just now?
Hey Maya. I’m doing great! My show opened last night and right now I’m working from the gallery.
What do you think is the dynamic between the human-constructed camera and the organic natural environment? Are they in dissonance or in harmony?
I think the act of documentation as appreciation is what I’m interested in mostly. For me, there doesn’t need to be a dynamic as long as the human-made doesn’t disturb the natural.
I really enjoy your pictures of mushrooms and oranges. What fruit do you think best represents you?
Hmm… I’ve never thought about that, actually. Orange is my favourite colour and definitely my favourite ‘everyday’ fruit, so maybe an orange? But my favourite fruit of all time is mangosteen. It’s not too sweet, kind of peculiar looking, and hard to come by.
You’ve just opened a new exhibit in London, congratulations! The name is Little Things Mean a Lot. What little things mean a lot to you?
Thank you! Any little thing can mean a lot if you look closely, I suppose. The idea of the show is to be able to appreciate and love what might otherwise be overlooked.
You describe that these photos are a “self-portrait through the women around you.” What role do you think other people play in our understanding of ourselves?
We are definitely a reflection of those we surround ourselves with. Humans are social beings by nature. You can tell a lot about someone by getting to know the people around them.
Also, could you give us insight into who these friends are? Why are they important in your life?
The women in this body of work are my friends and my sisters. They’re all in the creative fields, each with their own art, and I really enjoy seeing them grow and prosper.
How would you describe your experience being a woman with Asian heritage in England? How does that come through in the photos?
A goal in this body of work is to turn the photographic gaze on myself, in a way, to subvert an outsider’s gaze and take ownership. Asian women often get portrayed in ways that feed into Western stereotypical tropes, and I reject that.
This exhibit is also a portrait of the minutiae of London. Did you seek out beautiful moments? Or just try to capture the city as it is?
It’s less about seeking out and more about being able to see the beauty maybe. This is the city as I see it, but two people looking at the same things can see different things. That’s also beautiful.
What are your favourite spots in the city?
In terms of nature, I love Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath. I also really enjoy the city farms scattered throughout London.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
I have two books coming out later on this year, one of them features some work from this show. The other is about the subway in NYC. I’m super excited to share them!