To Be Seen

To Be Seen

Colette Fu

Colette Fu; Photo: Chris Crisman

Photographer and pop-up book maker Colette Fu documents the diversity of China’s Yunnan Province.

Colette Fu was thinking recently about all the time she’s spent in China and why she loves being there so much.

“I realized I just like the idea of blending in,” says Fu, 46, a photographer and maker of pop-up collages, who grew up the daughter of Chinese immigrants in New Jersey, has done residencies all over the United States, and now lives in Philadelphia. 

“Even though I’m American, in a lot of places I’ve lived I noticed or felt some sort of – not necessarily racism, but unwanted attention for looking different,” she reflects. “I know I’m guilty of it, too. I will look at somebody if they look, I guess, exotic.” As many times as she has visited China, Fu still relishes the feeling: “Even when I was in Shanghai just last year, I loved that I could just walk around and nobody was looking at me.” 

Maybe it’s her empathy with the outnumbered that lends a special soulfulness to We Are Tiger Dragon People, a striking series of pop-up photographic collages Fu has been making since 2008, celebrating the diversity of Yunnan Province in southwestern China, home to 25 of the country’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. Open these oversized book forms and beautiful, surreal scenes rise up, depicting festivals and folklore, clothing and crafts, dances and deities. Each is a portrait of a way of life unchanged for centuries, but now disappearing, as Fu has seen firsthand. 

“In the early ’90s, there were hardly any foreigners, no Western food,” she recalls of her first trip to Yunnan, where her mother was born a member of the Yi, the seventh largest of China’s minorities. Fu had just graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in French, and, feeling aimless, signed on for a youth study tour to China. The group stopped at a university for minority students in Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, where the school’s director welcomed Fu and told her something that astonished her: Her great-grandfather, an army general named Lun Yung, had once been governor of the province. When the director offered her a job teaching English at the university, she accepted, figuring it would be an adventure. She ended up staying for three years – the first as teacher, the second as a student herself, focused on minority studies and Chinese language. The third year she traveled solo throughout the province and started taking pictures, mostly of people, members of those different ethnic groups, in their traditional dress. 

“It was different from what I was used to seeing, so it attracted me. It was a glimpse of the exotic. But it was part of my culture, my mother’s culture.”

Back in America, Fu decided to become a photographer. She got an MFA from Rochester Institute of Technology, and began collaging images into detailed, hyperreal fantasy scenarios. Eventually she looked for ways to give these visions more depth and intensity. One day in 2003, in a bookstore, she happened on the pop-up section. “I immediately thought, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ ” She bought damaged pop-up books on eBay and took them apart to study the mechanics. Once she had a grasp of paper engineering, she started cutting and folding her collages into small sculptures, which became more complex and artfully chaotic over time.

By 2008 she had formed the concept for We Are Tiger Dragon People and was awarded a Fulbright research fellowship to return to Yunnan for the first time in a decade. She was struck by how different the place seemed, the Western influences everywhere – McDonald’s, Wal-mart, Prada. “In the city, you didn’t see minority people anymore, wearing their traditional clothing,” she says. “I worried that life had changed so much.” Out in the rural areas, however, she found villagers still living as they had. With a redoubled sense of mission, she spent nearly a year documenting them. 

“Colette is fearless in the way she photographs,” says Sally Blakemore, a book artist who has traveled with Fu in China. “She gets in the middle of the action and yet remains in the background while she records the people and their culture. It’s amazing to watch her at work.” 

Fu doesn’t see herself as fearless, just determined. “That’s just a thing I’ve tried to do in my everyday living,” she says. “Dealing with fear. Traveling to China. Going to an unknown place with a backpack and not much money, hoping everything will work out.” She learned a thing or two about perseverance from the people of Yunnan. “The poverty is a given there. But I wanted to show that within that poverty, there is joy and happiness.”

Radiant and reverent, the Tiger Dragon pieces were a departure from her earliest pop-ups, which dealt with heavy themes of modern consumerism, addiction, and obsession. Her series Haunted Philadelphia explored the psychology of fear in some nightmarish pieces based on supposedly spooked places around the city, such as Byberry state hospital, an abandoned psychiatric institution. For that one, Fu took confronting fear to an extreme, sneaking alone into the decrepit asylum with her camera, a tripod, and Mace. For now, she’s moved on from using fear and anxiety as inspiration for her art, though she does hope to one day “start making weird things again.” 

Connecting with her roots, Fu says, has given her peace of mind, a sense of pride and identity that’s reflected in her daily life among Chinese people in her Philadelphia neighborhood, known as Chinatown North. Through various residencies, grants, and commissions, she’s been working nonstop these past few years, creating pop-ups (including stop-motion animation for commercials) for such clients as Vogue China. She’s also still making editions of We Are Tiger Dragon People and wants to produce a more in-depth pop-up publication about the minorities of China. Right now she’s planning an interactive installation of pop-up and kinetic elements “that makes you feel like you’re walking into a pop-up book fantasy.” 

A believer in the power of art therapy, Fu also reserves time to teach and engage with others, especially the disadvantaged and the marginalized. “I’ve always had this interest in working with communities,” she says. In China, she held art workshops at an earthquake settlement camp in Sichuan and at an AIDS-afflicted village near the Myanmar border. In Philadelphia, she’s done projects with seniors, young men on probation, and people who are homeless. The work can be wearing, but for her, it is a necessary part of her practice. “I believe in, you know, karma.” 

She simply has a way with people, says her friend Blakemore. “Colette’s manner of speaking is very subtle and almost shy, but her personality is huge. She doesn’t want to take center stage. Instead, she lets her work speak for itself.”  

Much as her books come to life when they open up, revealing magic and wonder inside, Fu has emerged as a unique and passionate artist by consistently venturing out of her comfort zone. Happy to blend in, she shines reaching out.