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Tradition and Identity in Ink Art

Zhang Huan (Chinese, born Anyang, 1965). Family Tree, 2001. China. Nine chromogenic prints; Image (each): 21 in. x 16 1/2 in. (53.3 x 41.9 cm). Lent by The Walther Collection; Artwork © Zhang Huan. Photo: © Yale University Art Gallery

In Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, we came across many pieces of artwork that exemplify the contrast between contemporary and traditional art. One of these pieces was Family Tree, a series of nine photographs in which the artist Zhang Huan's face gradually becomes covered in ink and traditional calligraphy.

The text on the artist's face, written by three different people, consists of words, names, and stories related to his cultural heritage—words with personal meaning to him. The dots on his face in the first photograph represent moles and their connection to one's fate. In Chinese cultures, it is said that having moles in certain areas on the face symbolizes good luck and fortune.

By the last picture, Zhang Huan's face is completely covered in ink. Though the words on his face are about his character and fate, they ultimately obscure his entire identity. The piece seems to say that traditional words and ways of thinking can erase the things that make us individuals.

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