Connecting present with the past: PhoPa Gallery features Chinese transplant’s images

CHINA TO MAINE “In America,” features photographs by Ni Rong. CHINA TO MAINE “In America,” features photographs by Ni Rong.

PhoPa Gallery in Portland is showing the exhibition “In America,” featuring photographs by Ni Rong, who was born in Beijing, China, and now lives in Rockport.

“The invitation from PhoPa Gallery for a solo show was truly an honor and highlight,” she said, having first met Bruce Brown (co-curator with Jon Edwards) about two years ago at the Photo A Go-Go. Connie Hayes, her friend and a well-respected contemporary Maine painter, suggested she make a donation to the annual auction by the Bakery Photo Collective in Westbrook. At the auction, right in front of her donated image, a photo from the “In America” series, she met Brown, also the Center for Maine Contemporary Art curator emeritus.

“Bruce’s understanding of the image and later on, the series, left me with a deep memory,” Rong said. “Not only does he have a keen eye photographically, he truly understands the ideas and emotions behind the series.”

Brown made a poignant observation when commenting on two images, Winter #11, walking in snow toward birch trees, taken in Rong’s front yard in Rockport, and Winter #10, standing in a snow-covered corn field, taken in Jefferson, Maine.

“For Winter #11, you were here in the States; for Winter #10, you were in China,” he told her.

“That was so true. It was exactly what was in my mind while making those images. It was remarkable, especially for someone who did not know much about the turmoil of my upbringing in China during the Cultural Revolution. There’s a generation of people like me, who lost their education and chance to learn their own culture heritage”.

Brown’s observations sent her reeling back in time, and helped connect her present with her past.

“The corn field took me back. For three years after high school, I worked hard-labor work” – character building, she said. Life started in a remote village north of Beijing. “I didn’t know anything about the real world. I worked there until the Cultural Revolution ended and we had the chance to take college exams, along with 10 years of accumulated students. I felt very fortunate to pass the exam and go back to college. The three-year period had a big impact on my life.”

Rong feels like she is speaking for a lot of students from her generation who came from China and had a similar experience.

PhoPa Gallery decided to use three photographs taken in Beijing to introduce the show. The photos are of Rong on a three-wheel bicycle delivery cart, taken on instinct when she was traveling back in her homeland.

There were no cars; everything was rickshaw, those three-wheeled vehicles reminded her of the old rickshaw. So there was the first shot.

When she got a chance to upload the images to her computer, she noticed something very authentic about the shots, and then spent a few days in Beijing looking for more three-wheeled vehicles.

“It was really insightful of Bruce to use these images to introduce the show,” she said.

Rong was first introduced to photography by her father, when she was 13 and he worked in the Chinese Embassy in Moscow. She was in high school in Beijing, all by herself.

“It was not a serious camera, but it was serious enough for a 13-year-old. He was self-taught, and takes beautiful photographs, but never went to school for it,” she said. “The first really good photos I saw were taken by him.”

A series of displacements, including coming to America in 1985 for graduate school and awakening to the importance of roots, were all built on top of the first displacement: being sent away from home after high school to work in the remote countryside.

“Coming to a strange country, leaving family behind — it was a very challenging experience,” she said. “Life needs challenge. When you have challenge, it brings out the best you have. But that feeling of displacement is still familiar.”

Rong moved to Rockport in 2005, and finally found the home she’s been searching for since leaving China 30 years ago.

“I became more aware of my identity after I came to the U.S. There was this identity that came with me,” she said. “Once I picked up a camera, it was obviously the project I wanted to explore. I didn’t do it because I didn’t have a model. And I never thought of using myself as the model.”

An epiphany of sorts came when working with Cig Harvey, the noted photographer who lives in Midcoast Maine. Rong attended one of Harvey’s workshops when she realized the project couldn’t be done with anybody else.

“It’s amazing when putting yourself in front of the camera what you have to face. You go deep. Inward. I felt I made a lot of connections,” she said. “It made me be aware of who I am, where I came from, what really makes us so unique. It made me think everyone should have a project.”

Rong hopes that visitors to the exhibit will be able to connect with her theme, no matter their own personal journeys, and reactions to her work at smaller exhibits so far have borne out her expectations.

“Whether they are men or women, Asian or American, a lot of people have an emotional response. They feel like this person is going through a transformation. Make them reflect on their own life, whether they have physically been displaced or not, we all change and grow. I hope people continue to feel that,” she said. “I didn’t do this project for anyone else. I didn’t do this to make art, to sell or have a gallery show. It was a project I really wanted to do. Once I started, I could not stop. The journey continues.”

“In America” | Photography by Ni Rong | Through Dec. 19 | PhoPa Gallery, 132 Washington Ave., Portland | Opening Reception: Friday, Nov. 13, 5:00pm to 7:00pm |

Gallery Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5:00pm, and by appointment | FREE

Gallery Details: PhoPa Gallery is a collaboration among photographer Jon Edwards, independent curator Bruce Brown, and Maine Media Workshops + College. PhoPa features (pho)tography and works on (pa)per by emerging to established Maine artists, not often shown in Portland. The gallery divides its schedule between showcasing MMW+C students, alumni, and faculty and exhibitions organized by Brown and Edwards. A percentage of all sales at PhoPa Gallery are donated to MMW+C, a 501c3 nonprofit educational organization.