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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.
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.