Heavenly lakes blue as the wings of a halcyon wild, untamed rolling grasslands escorting the winding creeks on their way down like chartreuse tapestry, rambunctious embroidery decorating homes and hemlines… We’re talking Xinjiang Province–ya know, that place on China’s western côté. We don’t do political snafus here, but we sure do like our polychrome snapshots. Enter: photographer Hailun Ma.
Hailun Ma (马海伦| Mǎ Hǎilún in Chinese) moved to New York in 2013 to obtain her BA in Photography and then an MA in Fashion Photography at the city’s School of Visual Arts. She graduated in 2018 and that same year decided to make her way back to da mothership, aka China.
Originally from Xinjiang Province, Ma today blends into the hustle and bustle of the megalopolis that is Shanghai, where she continues to pursue her unique take on photography: fusing fashion with culture and lifestyle.
In stark contrast to many of her (professional) peers, Ma remains completely au naturel and even shuns the showy sass of her residential area to capture the colorful palette of another Chinese culture…
Growing up, Ma never really felt like she fit the typical Chinese beauty standards–to be blunt, we’re talking white, big eyes, pointy chin–as she never saw anyone who looked like her in the media. She was too tanned and her face was “too big.” Though she simply, by all accounts, never minded that. As a child, she began toying around with photography by taking pictures of herself acting out all sorts of fantastical characters. And over the years, she managed to go pro.
Ma shines a light on people most don’t get to see on the 8 o’clock news, let alone on a daily basis, like those from her mountainous homeland in rural China. These people often hail from local Uyghur and Kazakh cultures–remember, Xinjiang is home to all 56 of China’s ethnic groups. The country officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities within China in addition to the Han majority (making up over 92 percent of the population as of May 2022). There are, for example, 10 million Uyghurs and 2 million Kazakhs nationwide. #TemperTeachings
“That is what photography is all about: sharing moments and stories, getting others to see and feel the uniqueness and beauty in the unexpected and unknown,” Ma in an interview with Gaotai Gallery
Born in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, the subjects in Ma’s “Hometown” series all seem to be Central Asian-looking Uyghur and Kazakh locals sporting bright outfits, shiny make-up and sparkling accessories, which the artist has once revealed “captures her fond childhood memory of her neighbors.” Take a look:
“Hometown” series, 2019-now
“When I was growing up, and especially when I came to New York, I learned that the most important thing is to embrace my own beauty and think for myself rather than follow the beauty standard,” Ma in an interview with Metal Magazine.
Let’s throw in some Xinjiang fashion facts. Well, Uyghur fashion facts, to be specific. The traditional dress of the Uyghur people is deeply intertwined with both their history as traders along the Silk Road and their Islamic faith. In particular, two pieces of clothing have become symbolic of the Uyghur ethnic minority: the chapan and the doppa. The chapan, a play on the all too well-know caftan, is a long coat that is worn over the clothes during the winter months. It is typically worn by men and comes in a variety of colors, from muted blues to fiery reds. Intricate patterns are embroidered on the exterior and, instead of buttons, the chapan is bound by a large cloth band around the waist.
The doppa is a square or round cap that is worn not only by the Uyghurs but also by the Kazan Tartars, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks. The cap itself is usually black or white, although other color variables do exist. It is traditionally embroidered with vibrant patterns, much like the chapan. Older Uyghur men are known to grow long beards and wear a much taller version of the doppa, one fringed with fur at the bottom.
While men sport the chapan, women wear exquisitely embroidered long-sleeved dresses that billow out at the waist. Popular embroidery motifs include vines, pomegranates, moons, arabesques, and geometric patterns. Golds, reds, and blacks are the most popular color combinations, though pinks, greens, blues, purples, and even tie-dyes also feature. To complement these luxurious dresses, Uyghur women don plenty of jewelry, including large earrings, bracelets, and necklaces. Shimmering satins to rich silks, theirs is a story of fashionable opulence.
“As a photographer, I want to use fashion as an element to tell a story or show a place, a culture, or a group of people that other people have never seen before or don’t know about.” Quote, Ma. #wedig
Ma’s “Xinjiang Fashion Guide” questions the unnaturalness and awkwardness of posed photos, as well as recurring typical notions used in fashion photography.
It further reflects the artist’s own questions towards fashion photography: on the one hand she finds herself drawn to fashion styling and how fashion photography is an tailormade platform to show off one’s aesthetic and vision. On the other, media can be confusing and Ma is still experimenting how to best approach and use this platform to bring her ultimate vision of fusion to fruition. See for yourself:
“Xinjiang Fashion Guide” series, 2020-now
When in doubt, wear red.