Zhang Yuqing b.2000 autism 张雨晴 女 2000年生 自闭症 北京 Qingqing once painted the inside and outside of the toilet bowl and wall in their family home in deep red. At first glance; it exactly resembled as one of those horrific “crime scenes”. Qingqing has a diverse range of painting styles with static object of realistic themes and abstract composition of the dream word; and even a portfolio full of numbers and texts… No one knows for certain what she is thinking and what kind of scene she will portray next. Recently; what she most concerned about is asking the people she meets what their Chinese zodiac is; and what brand of cellphone they have. Qingqing’s mom is already accustomed to her so many little special hobbies; saying; “Others think that Autistic children are abnormal, in fact, the world is always colorful and diverse. What is meant by ‘normal’? Who can even say?”
If you believe that there are people who are different from us, then the value of their existence is often represented in some other way.
We began this project two years ago with an interview to Guo Haiping, one of the few people who have dedicated their career to researching and promoting the artistic work of individuals with mental disorders. In the Nanjing Natural Art Center, which he established, we saw many unforgettable scenes. These paintings were by made by special artists from different countries, with different illnesses and different styles, yet it was the sincere and shocking value of these paintings that impressed people the most. I clearly remember a painting by a psychopath named Zhang Yubao in dark grey, in its center there was a mass of dark clouds entangling a person’s upper body, leaving only two legs struggling to escape for the viewer to see. Later, Guo Haiping told me that it was a treasure he had discovered while he “lurked” around the mental hospital for 3 months.
After contacting the group of people involved in the project, I become deeply attracted to their artistic world and conceived the idea of photographing them. I have photographed SARS sequela patients and rare disease groups, so when I came across this group of the disabled, I comprehensively had to consider what kind of position and perspective to represent them with, as well as what kind of technology and techniques would be most suitable for this project.
On April 2nd, 2012, the annual World Autism Day was held. The Beijing Association for Rehabilitation of Autistic Children cooperated with the Intermediate Fine Arts Gallery to hold an art exhibition titled “Photo of the Innocent”. This exhibition featured paintings created by children with Autism. My “normal” colleagues and I were thoroughly overwhelmed by more than 100 paintings on exhibition from over 30 children. We became familiar with just a few of the gifted artists at the exhibition, and soon began our interviews and photography project.
We always want to re-interpret this kind of art, or at least make the work of artists like them more relatable to our own, less inhibited realities, thus less comfortable to understand. However, disease isolates them from the impetuousness and temptations of the outside world, and thereby allows them to remain true to their nature. In the brushstrokes of these special artists we do not see the “obstacles”. On the contrary, we see the life of thriving vitality displayed honestly and frankly, with an emotional strength that washes over the observer. Their honest radiance entirely comes from within. This is something that cannot be accomplished by any form of training or education.
Having been deeply touched by the profoundly self-identifying art, the photographs were executed smoothly. The tearfully openhearted parents conducted themselves politely and carefully in conversation. The often curious and sometimes stereotypical behavior of the children was unforgettable.
It is an unfortunate fact that society often uses the artistic creations of the mentally disabled as a means for only charity, frequently failing to really understand and appreciate the inherent artistic value of their works. Consequently their talent is often overlooked, buried or even stifled.
Only extraordinary ability in art tends to attract attention. As more people pay attention to autistic children, more opportunities will begin to arise for them. When facing the works of these gifted artists, people cannot avoid thinking and searching for motives and desires buried down within the deepest reaches of their hearts. For the onlookers, it is also a means for introspection and self-redemption.
A year has passed. Without them I never would have had a project like this to photograph, and I feel very lucky and satisfied to have the chance to be brought closer to innocence and myself.
Zhang Minzhi, born in 1977, Autism Minmin’s parents divorced long ago. Her mother raised both her and her little sister on her own; struggling in hardship for more than 10 years. Minmin is uneducated; having never attended school. Her mother is always busy working to earn money to feed the family; so she has no choice but to lock Minmin at home during the day. One day a few years ago; upon returning home from work; Minmin’s mother discovered that the lock on the door was broken and quickly ran inside in a panic; only to find Minmin being sexually assaulted by a neighbor. The desperate mother; as a result of the fear; developed the psychological disease. Their home is being torn apart by poverty and illness; casting a shadow over the whole family. Her younger sister brought Minmin and her mother to receive an intrauterine ring insertion operation; and because Minmin’s sister was unable to care for two people; she sent Minmin from distant Guizhou to the Nanjing Boai Disabled Development Center.Minmin has spent two Chinese New Year celebrations in Nanjing; and now has regarded the Center as “home”; and she has finally rediscovered the happiness and warmth that she lost long ago. She is a lover of beauty. She loves to wear skirts and paint her nails; and forever wears jewels. Other children talk about what they are going to eat; while she begs the teacher to buy flowers and necklaces to wear.Old calendars have been filled with images from Minmin’s imagination. Her drawings consist mainly of flowers and flowing lines changeable; each shape corresponding to the others from a distance. Each part is magnified specially; and some of the flowers are independent of others; just like countless antennae; at its own way. Her style is both sensitive and casual. Her works have been collected by the Nanjing Natural Art Center. Experts who examine her works consider she is “only one step away” from those of truly matured primary artists.
Wu Kejun, male, born in 1994, Autism, Yulin, Guangxi 吴柯均 男 1994年生 自闭症 广西玉林人 The 18-year-old Wu Kejun; who has gained the National Junior Piano Tuners Certificate; he is the first person to gain the certificate in Yulin City; Guangxi; and he is soon on the successful receipt of the first business. “It seems that he can now do something both in the fields of music and painting!” His mother; Li Lan; is looking forward to seeing the future of her son.In the afternoons; Kejun returns home; turns on the music; and sets up his easel. This is his daily routine. He; like many other autistic children; has some very special little habits. Take mysophobia as an example; when he is painting; if he finds that he missed a pigment; he refuses to touch it; and his mother must do it instead. When one brush becomes stained by a color; he will not again unless it is cleaned. He doesn’t eat food with stuffing inside; such as steamed stuffed buns; for the same reason. While these small quirks are incomprehensible for other people; in his mother’s eyes they are both cute and annoying.
Liang Fangzhou, male, born in 1995, Autism, Nanning, Guangxi 梁方舟 男 1995年生 自闭症 广西南宁人 After the Art Exhibition for Autistic Children in 2011; many experts launched a furious debate centering on Zhang Na’s son attending the art class. Soon the “smell of gunpowder” became a bit too much for her to bear. One expert sincerely encouraged her to let Fangzhou drop out of school and paint at home for fun. The expert emphasized that she should not seek a teacher for him. “It’s all too far away from the reality. There are difficulties that you can see; but what about those that can’t be seen?” Compared with other moms; Zhang Na had spent more than ten years fighting on the front lines of special education and now more resembled as a person live in their own ways.In 2004; Zhang Na resigned from the university and founded the first autism rehabilitation school in Nanning under the name of her son; Fangzhou. Helpless mothers came from all directions; bringing their similarly helpless children; in search of support and answers. These children all behave differently from other children. What’s worse; shit was strewn about everywhere. Their eyes reflected the past of Fangzhou. After ten years of hard training; Fangzhou has become quite sensible in his actions. He could take care of himself and often help his mother to buy groceries; and share the housework.
Chen Jiakai, male, born in 2002, Autism, Hebei 陈嘉铠 男 2002年生 自闭症 河北人 Jiakai, along with his parents and infant sister, lives narrowly in a school for migrant worker families in Beijing suburb. The dilapidated classroom is his “home”, and the mottled blackboard is his “canvas”. For the past ten years, in order to cure their son’s illness, Jiakai’s parents have been doing part-time works to cover their expenses. Their income is unstable and, apart from spending money on simple foods and household expenses, all of their remaining income spent on their son.His family can not afford the expensive rehabilitation fees for Jiakai, so that his rehabilitation is desultory and the effect is not ideal. Jiakai will soon be an adolescent, and his mother is very nervous for the future. When he is quiet, he softly leans against his mother. Sometimes, he will suddenly rush to grab her hair, making her in discomfiture situation. In situations where he would like to express himself but can’t find the words to do so, he will scream. Other times, he begins to hurt himself or hit his little sister.
Liu Xiujie, female, born in 1990, mental retardation, Shanghai 刘秀洁 女 1990年生 智力障碍 上海人 Grown up in a single-parent family, Xiujie yearned to communicate and interact with other people. She doesn’t like when it is too quiet, and enjoys creating things in places where many people play or gather. As a result, all of her works are created after chatting with her teachers, friends, or classmates. After more than two years’ practice, she has made great progress. Because she participates in various different activities, she has become more self-confident. Upon hearing that she would be interviewed, she immediately picked up her cellphone and excitedly called her mother to tell her the good news. Her mother does not know the reason why Xiujie’s hair is slowly shedding, each time she leaves home, her mother fixes the wig to make sure she looks good. Even in the unbearable hot summer, but inevitably because girls are concerned about face-saving when they grow up, she still insists on wearing it. In her paintings, it is not uncommon to find a girl with long, flowing hair.
Chen Meng, male, born in 1992, Autism, Lanzhou, Gansu 陈萌 男 1992年生 自闭症 甘肃兰州人 With dark cheeks, and gentle face, Chen Meng just completed a great feat with his “teacher” Dou Yixin – they travelled all the way from the northernmost Mohe County to Sanya, Hainan Province, and a whole journey of 7000 km. This time, he is participating in an event titled “Alone Walking”, which is a fundraising activity initiated for poor children with Autism. Chen Meng’s mother was born into a military family, and in the hope that her son would become a real man soon, she gritted her teeth and let Chen Meng set off. Upon first glance, Chen Meng’s works seem just like his personality with good behavior. But, upon closer inspection, they all reflect some distinct personal characteristics of the artist. Each block of color and each image is a small composed of dot, very small and dense, changes subtly and mysteriously.
Xiao Jingkang, male, born in 1998, Autism, Beijing 肖靖康 男1998年生 自闭症 北京人 Kangkang is a gentle and pure boy. Except for drawing, what he does best in and takes interest in is baking. He can make delicious chocolate cake muffins according to recipes. It is his mother who takes care of him full-time at home. And comparing to many other children with autism, Kangkang is comforting enough, for he is able to communicate with others in a simple way, even to go shopping in supermarkets independently. But as all other parents, Kangkang’s father and mother still hope there will be some eligible care facilities to ensure the special children live with dignity without parents.
Bao Liping, female, born in 1983, Autism, Shanghai 包丽萍 女 1983年生 自闭症 上海人 Liping is a girl who loves to dress up. She doesn’t usually talk much; but she possesses an amazingly acute sensitivity to colors. As a Gemini; she exists in two different tenses: one is characterized by a very reasonable and restrained use of fine colors; while the other is characterized by uncontrolled; fluctuating lines. In her daily life; Liping is very sensible. She lives with her parents in an old one bedroom unit. Painting is her hobby; but she hopes to be able to find a job and earn some money to do some help to support her family. Seeing her for the first time; she was seated with a group of students; more like a teacher than a student. Underneath a calm appearance; she tried to restrain herself. She said that she is afraid that other people will see that she is different from them; so she does her best to keep quiet and almost never smiles.
Qian Chen, male, born in 1988, Mental retardation, Nanjing 钱辰 男 1988年生 智力障碍 南京人 Qian Chen’s paintings have only one theme: construction sites. From a young age; he enjoyed playing in construction sites amongst his beloved cranes and excavators. If his family; classmates; or even if the paper; mention that there is a building under construction; he will have a look for himself. Even as the roar of the machines kicks up dust; he still continues to sit there in the corner; watching all the afternoon.At home; he loves to imagine his hands as suspension arms; moving rice to and fro within its jar. This is the happiness that others are unable to appreciate. He often breaks out into laughter by himself; and if you ask him what he is laughing at; he won’t say. Qian Chen’s paintings are not merely “copies” of what he sees. He paints buildings on a grander scale than they appear in real life; both taller and narrower. No matter what paper his mother buys for him; he always feels the paper is too small to paint.Qian Chen is the cultural backbone of the Nanjing Boai Disabled Person’s Services Development Center; where they call him “Little Andy Lau”. In addition to singing; he does great in robot dance; which he performs in a hat with all the fanfare of a true star. Qian Chen is typically obedient and sensible; but occasionally; when feeling out of control; he will quarrel with his parents. Whenever his mother mentions the time he was refused to participate in art class during primary school; he beats his chest and says; “Don’t let me see that teacher, or I will hit him whenever he appears in front of me”; . On December 13 of each year; when Nanjing blows the air defense warning to commemorate the victims of the Nanjing Massacre; he is always excited and spends a long time on cursing the Japanese.
Gu Wen, female, born in 1979, Mental retardation accompanied by schizophrenia, Nanjing, Jiangsu 谷雯 女 1979年生 智力障碍伴随精神分裂症 江苏南京人 Gu Wen’s mother has attributed her daughter’s illness to herself. As a child; Gu Wen was refused by school; there was no place for her. Her helpless parents had no choice but to lock her at home; for more than three years. Gu Wen was alone with herself; and her medicine; putting on more and more weight with each passing day. Until one day; when her mother came home from work; to see her daughter beating her breast on the balcony; and she was facing downward; spitting and cursing relentlessly; and also yelling; Awful!; Her mother brought her to the hospital; and only received a diagnosis for schizophrenia.Later; her mother began to let Gu Wen participate in the outside activities; but because she was too fat; she fell down from the public bus several times. She could only walk for about 30 minutes to the rehabilitation center where she would paint. She did not talk much; but always carried a shy smile; quietly writing and painting. Gu Wen was in love with the simplest objects; animals; fruits; etc. In the robotic repetition with slight nuances; her paintings reveal the hidden active thoughts behind her extrinsic rigidity.
Xiao Man, male, born in 1995, Autism, Beijing 小满 男 1995年生 自闭症 北京人Xiaoman has no concept of “obedience”. If he wants to go somewhere, he just goes. His life teacher has to not moving a step from him. He often wandered back and forth and his physical activities were great. But he has his own style of portray characters, casual and free, especially the performance of the characters’ facial expressions. The mouths and eyes of each character show that they are engaged in conversation, conveying powerful undertones of mystery, restlessness, and extreme panic.
Zhu Ziqian, female, born in 1995, Autism, Beijing 朱紫芊 女 1995年生 自闭症 北京人 Unwilling to speak, ignoring the people around her, and turning a blind eye to her surroundings, even the most intimate parents are unable to understand. These are characteristics that most children with Autism share, and Zhu Ziqian is no exception. Her mother, Lin Jie, says that many people who know her say that she has the patience of a saint! To this she replies, “You just don’t see what I look like when I get crazy and be hysterical.”As the Director of Beijing Association for Rehabilitation of Autistic Children, and a doctor at the Beijing Tiantan Hospital Department of Cardiology and Internal Medicine, Qianqian’s mother can be regarded as one of the first practitioners to attempt various rehabilitation procedures and emerging treatments. In her opinion, though, these children received too much instruction and constraints during the training. Only if the children do not feel pressured to draw perfectly straight lines or perfectly round circles will they feel safe and are willing to continue to paint more.
Lu Cheng, male, born in 1995, Autism, Nanjing, Jiangsu 陆诚 男 1995年生 自闭症 江苏南京人 Even Lu Cheng’s mother cannot be certain when exactly he became interested in traditional (Chinese) Opera. “I only remember; as a boy; he often sit in front of the TV fervently watching those boring episodes of the drama education program. He can sit there and watch for more than hour each time.” In 2008; Lu Cheng attended the theater for the very first time to listen to the Kunqu Opera. His love for the music was instantly palpable; and he soon found himself completely overjoyed by the experience. He downloaded all of the performance time for the Kunqu Opera House from the Internet; and told everyone in his family all of the shows that he liked. In addition to watching live performances; Lu Cheng usually spends his days watching video recordings of past performances on his tablet computer; which never seems to leave his hand; singing while watching with the utmost exhilaration; Although he does not have the same self-care abilities as many of his peers; his mother says that it is due to his being “special” that Lu Cheng is free from participating in the rigid; examination-oriented education prevalent in China. As a result; he is free to enjoy the release of his own nature; a kind of blessing in its own right.
Cheng Cheng, male, born in 1998, Autism, Beijing 澄澄 男 1998年生 自闭症 北京人 Chengcheng has never attended a school for the mentally disabled. His mother believes that although the children there learn slowly, they still are able to follow the teacher’s instructions. Chengcheng, on the other hand, is not in the same situation as the other children with Autism.His mother is a naturally competitive person, not wanting to let Cheng Cheng lose at the starting line, sent him to ordinary primary school, only to quickly discover that he was unable to adapt. His headteacher scolded Chengcheng’s every bad behavior in front of Chengcheng and his mother and other teachers of various subjects. What’s more, the teacher let Chengcheng’s mother to sign a responsibility paper. Watching her son crouched in the corner trembling, she had to hold back her tears and anger. “Fighting with the teacher, the result is only going to hurt him later. Children like him have decided that you will be unable to lift your head in front of other people in this life.”Initially, studying painting was meant as a way to make Chengcheng calm down. After three years of just blowing on rubber cement, he picked up a brush for the first time. Slowly but surely, the more he painted, the more he loves painting. In order to give him a better artistic environment, his mother as an English teacher abandoned her post as the headmaster of a key city-level middle school in their hometown, and chose the life of a migrant worker in Beijing, expending all of her energies for her son.When Chengcheng is not graduated from middle school he begins to learn by himself. Everyday, his mother arranges 4 hours of musical instrument practice. He also practices drums, vocals, painting, writing composition, and ping pong, etc. In the eyes of others, Chengcheng’s life seems to spend in planning and execution, but he is having a good time for himself.
Xu Bocheng, male, born in 2001, Autism, Beijing 许博丞 男 2001年生 自闭症 北京人 While others paint, Bocheng takes more of a “grafitti” approach, but never uses a palette; he can paint several paintings one day. He has been dubbed the “high yield painter”. Life is like a kaleidoscope. Gorgeous use of color and accented by bold brush strokes were originated from his life, fills his work with a sense of warmth, fullness and self-will.At the age of 4, when Bo Cheng was diagnosed with autism, his parents divorced. He shows an attachment to his mother that is rare in children with Autism. Their relationship is characterized by the tender, intimate butterfly kisses. His mother is majored in Law and originally knew nothing about medicine, but soon gained great related knowledge in the field, in an attempt to help her son. Bocheng became a “laboratory rat” for various therapies including sensory integration training, acupuncture, and dietary therapy… even biological detoxification only existed in Hong Kong and the United States. For three years, his mother works during the day and, in the evening, feeds medicine and gives the injections regularly, but with little effect.”If I could do it again, I would not go the way of medical care. It can not solve the core problems of Autism. Education should be the primary treatment method.” Through multiple “public relations” actions with various parties, Bocheng’s mother was lucky enough to secure her son a place in kindergarten, and later, in primary school, where his teachers and classmates are all very caring of him. From skidding of the wheel to swimming, and going to concerts, his leisure time is rich and colorful. In an effort to find a productive means of channeling his emotions, Bocheng’s mother brings him into the world of painting.
Kang Rui, male, born in 1999, Autism, Beijing 康睿 男 1999年生 自闭症 北京人 At the age of 5, Kang Rui picked up a paintbrush for the first time and became suddenly quiet. From then on, the naughty boy painted and drew on the door, the wall, and the covers of books. He was always particularly fond of copying comic books. He paints a new painting on his father’s book frequently.Kang Rui doesn’t like Nunchucks or Gangnam Style, but enjoys military salute, loves immemorial myths, revolutionary songs of the last century, and classic communist tales. The most mysterious thing about his paintings of Buddha or the Red Army is that each character he paints all has eyes like a laughing deer. Kang Rui also has a very unique habit whenever he paints; he never creates a draft firstly. It’s almost as if all of the elements are already completely formed in his mind before starting. From every nook, he constructs each neighboring element into a complete, seamless work at his convenience, where both the proportion and scale appear to exist in his mind. His favorite content to paint is complicated classical architecture, as well as places of interest, and important revolutionary sites.
Lijie Zhang, born in 1981 is a photojournalist based in Beijing, China.
She is currently working on a number of long-term projects, which include “The Innocent: mentally disordered artists”, “The Rare: rare diseases in Mainland China”, “Sequelae of SARS”, and many more.
Her work has been featured worldwide including New York Times-Lens, Newsweek, and CHINA DAILY. Additionally, she is involved in multiple exhibitions in New York, Guangzhou Photo Biennial, LianZhou International Photo Festival, and PingYao International Photography Festival.