Born 140 years ago, Edward S. Curtis came of age in a society that saw the camera as a symbol of modern times. But his passion for photography lay in chronicling the obsolete Native American culture. His calling drew ridicule, in a time when ‘red man’ was synonymous with ‘savage’. Today, his work remains a crucial link to an otherwise forgotten past.
Li Wei loves his camera and aboriginal people in equal measure, too. Although a Han Chinese, the ever dwindling Mongolian people of his native Nei Mangu are forever in his mind’s and lens’ eye. No reformer or activist, Li Wei sees himself as a documenter, and seeks to convey his subjects with as little melodrama or political context as possible.
“I have no illusions about understanding or representing China,” Li admits modestly, but in reference to famous artists who take it upon themselves to sum up the Chinese condition in their canvasses. He’s not impressed by the high prices politically charged pieces are commanding at auction houses, either. “It’s a lucky time for those kind of artists,” says Li. “The government has opened up, and allows politically critical work, but foreign collectors still see it as legitimate protest and rebellion.”
Not that Li’s complaining; he feels lucky too. He’s making a living freelancing with his camera, and has plenty of time to devote to his quest – documenting the lives of Mongolians and their culture, savoring the bittersweet knowledge that what he digitally captures may be all there is for his children’s children to see.
Native American Shelter Mongolian Yurt
He points to Mongolian acrobatic troops as a vivid example. “These performers never made a good living,” he concedes, “but they used to be relevant. Now, with television and other electronic entertainment, they are only used for entertaining tourists.” The performers in these troops lead lives of grueling discipline and economic uncertainty, and Li would be the first to plump for government largesse as a means of ensuring their continuity, but is wise enough to avoid advocacy. Preserving the essence of the Mongolian soul drives him.
Are today’s Han Chinese analogous to yesterday’s White Americans, viewing their aboriginal populations as benighted souls in need of modernization and superior culture?“Not quite as bad as that,” smiles Li Wei. “There’s a lot of interest in their brand of Buddhism mixed with Shamanism, and Mongolian-themed tourism is very popular. But the disappearance of Mongolian culture certainly isn’t an issue of primary concern to your average Han Chinese.”
Li Wei admires the spirit of the Mongolian as much as his culture, but mistrusts that such a small minority might play a role in shaping modern Chinese culture, the way Black culture has in America, for example. “Chinese culture is very powerful,” Li grins, almost regretfully. “Before too long, the culture of Nei Mangu’s Mongolians will exist only in museums,” he laments. “And cyberspace,” he’s quick to add.