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Zhang Xiao’s photos look at rural life during Lunar New Year celebrations in northern China

A show of the photographer’s work is at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Zhang Xiao, "Villagers wearing a lion dance costume for two performers, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province," 2018.© Zhang Xiao

CAMBRIDGE — The Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography selection committee keeps its options open. The fellowship is awarded to an “established practitioner of the photographic arts to create and subsequently publish . . . a major book of photographs on the human condition anywhere in the world.” A Harvard anthropologist, Gardner is best known for the documentary “Dead Birds” (1963). He died in 2014.

Since the fellowship is administered by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, such non-narrow criteria make eminent sense: All the world’s its stage. Guy Tillim, the first fellowship recipient (2007), took his selection of photographs in southern Africa. Dayanita Singh (2008) took hers primarily in India. Chloe Dewe Mathews (2014) took hers in several countries surrounding the Caspian Sea. And so on.


Zhang Xiao, "Yanjia'an Village, Southeast Town, Long County, Baoji City, Shaanxi Province," 2018.© Zhang Xiao

Zhang Xiao’s 39 photographs in “Shehuo: Community Fire” are from rural northern China. Zhang took them between 2007 and 2019. The Peabody’s Ilisa Barbash curated the show, which runs through April 14.

Shehuo is a traditional festival in Shanxi province celebrating the Lunar New Year. The show’s subtitle is the word’s English translation. “Community fire” can be further read in at least two ways: the excitement inspired by the celebration but also the destruction of old traditions as commercialization and standardization intervene. Or as Zhang puts it: Shehuo displays a “growing relationship between traditional culture and mass-produced goods.”

Fire has an additional, if more distant, relevance: Zhang’s colors can be that vibrant. White frames and mattes accentuate that vibrancy. This is color photography that would be very different as black and white.

Zhang Xiao, "Huozhuang Village, Lingjing Town, Jian'an District, Xuchang City, Henan Province," 2019.© Zhang Xiao

A favorite subject is animal costumes: lion, donkey, phoenix, dragons, cranes, roosters. A man’s head emerges from an orange-and-red lion costume. The vivid colors are what first catch the eye. Then other details announce themselves. That he’s standing by the side of a road makes the juxtaposition of head and costume all the more incongruous. So does the presence of a man in the background, sitting on a scooter and taking a photo of the scene. There’s also the sight of a running shoe worn by the otherwise-unseen person in the back of the costume.


At its best, incongruity can be both hilarious and telling. For decades, Elliott Erwitt has been its master (Erwitt, bless him, turns 95 on July 26). At its worst, incongruity is visual schtick: worth a glance, but nothing much beyond that. Ho, ho, ho without the subsequent aha. For Zhang, incongruity is something else. It’s a means of conceptual exploration, letting him grapple with past and present, cultural continuity and economic calculation.

The single most incongruous aspect of “Sheheo” has nothing to do with what’s actually seen. It’s what we don’t see. None of the festival performers are shown in front of audiences — we museumgoers are the audience. Also, with the exception of some stilt walkers, none are seen in performance. (Then again, maybe they’re just on their way to a performance — or practicing?) This creates a subtle sense of distancing, even dislocation.

Zhang Xiao, "Huozhuang Village, Lingjing Town, Jian'an District, Xuchang City, Henan Province," 2018.© Zhang Xiao

That distancing may in part reflect Zhang’s own experience. He’s 41, too old presumably to feel the wonder of a festival but not so young as to be immune to the tug of nostalgia. Also he lives in the southwest, in a city of nearly 21 million inhabitants, Chengdu. What he saw isn’t that much less alien to him than it is to Western viewers. (In a nice touch, wall text is in both English and Mandarin.)


Instead of performance, Zhang emphasizes preparation: mask, costume, makeup, props. A version of the festival called “Blood Shehuo” is a kind of Grand Guignol, with exaggerated goriness. Strange as it is to see performers with hatchets and cleavers affixed to their foreheads, it’s that much more so to see them taking a cigarette break.

Zhang Xiao, "A girl waits to change into her costume in the early morning. Huanghuayu Village, Shaanxi Province ('Shaanxiseries, No. 1')," 2007.© Zhang Xiao

Zhang began as a photojournalist; and part of the pleasure of “Shehuo” is its documentary aspect. He’s interested in showing rather than showiness. A pair of very large photographs (30 inches square) are exceptions, though happily so. They show actresses standing outdoors in the mist. The effect is highly evocative and painterly. These photos are themselves versions of performance, only the performer in question is the photographer.

SHEHUO: Community Fire

At Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University,11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge. 617-496-1027, peabody.harvard.edu

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.