‘Foothills’ depicts rural China

The latest exhibit at the Yale-China Association showcases photographs of rural Chinese scenes.
The latest exhibit at the Yale-China Association showcases photographs of rural Chinese scenes. Photo by Joyce Xi.

The 112-year-old Yale-China Association is continuing to bridge the Sino-American cultural gap with “Foothills,” an exhibit featuring the photography of Aaron Reiss ‘10.

“Foothills,” which held its opening reception and lecture for roughly 30 Yale community members last Friday, is self-described as “a window” into Wan’an, a village in the impoverished Annhui Province in Southern China. This past September, Reiss completed his two-year term as a Yale-China Teaching Fellow in Wan’an, teaching English at a rural public high school.

“For many students in China, education is a lecture,” Reiss said. “Being a Western teacher in this school was … a unique experience.”

“Foothills” is the third exhibit of individual artists’ work that Yale-China has hosted. Together, these exhibits represent the association’s recent focus on the arts — in the past, the Yale-China Association has interacted with China much more through “grassroots efforts,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, the executive director of the Yale-China Association.

“We’re trying to do more to bring what we see on the ground in China to the New Haven community,” Maasbach said.

Reiss’s talk was largely anecdotal as he revived for attendees both the comical and solemn moments of his term as a Yale-China Teaching Fellow. In answering the crowd’s numerous questions, Reiss often referred to specific photographs, exposing the characters and stories behind many images. Reiss said that the pictures collectively represented a slice of the surprises he encountered in China and painted a portrait of a village on the fringes of urban development. The photographer also described the exhibit’s personal yet representative nature — while specific to the people of the village, the collection in some sense depicts the half of China’s population living in agrarian communities.

“This exhibit was just of this village, but I have a lot of pictures of rural labor outside their province,” Reiss said. “These places could very well not be like this in 15, 20 years from now.”

As an undergraduate student, Reiss, who said he was interested in food and farming at the time, majored in Environmental and Urban Studies and managed the Yale Farm and New Haven Bike Collective. But he explained that his time in China revealed that only Americans romanticize subsistence farming, explaining that farmers engaged in agrarian work in rural areas of China are working to provide a different life for their children.

“For photographers, you watch things disappear and you document them,” Reiss said. “But for them, losing these traditions isn’t a sad thing.”

Reiss, who is currently working as a freelance photographer, said he used black-and-white schematics to portray images that seemed “raw and ancient,” such as the rice paddies. Photos in the exhibit varied from anonymous street photography to frontal, colored shots imbued with personal relevance.

“Our goal in curating this exhibit was to share a part of China through Aaron’s lens in a manner that any person — Chinese or otherwise — could walk away with some insight into the people and the traditions that have been passed down from a time when tractors and machines had not yet been invented,” Annie Lin ‘09, a former Yale-China Fellow who helped Reiss curate the exhibit, said in an email.

The exhibit will be on display at the Yale-China Association during business hours through May 31, 2013.

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