Tell a Hundreds of Stories, Massachusetts and Shanghai-based Visual Artist Michelle Sijia Ma

Michelle Sijia Ma (b. 2001 in Shenyang, China), is a visual artist based in Shanghai and MA. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in Studio Arts and Quantitative Economics at Smith College, MA. She also studied Graphic Design at Yale University and Photography at Amherst College in 2020. Sijia has worked to develop image-based projects and used the language of photography to explore the complexity of today’s Chinese identity in a subtler way.

Sijia has her solo and group exhibitions in the US and abroad, including the International Center of Photography in New York, Houston Center for Photography, New Era Research Institute of Photography in Beijing, Glasgow Gallery of Photography in Scotland, and Millepiani Gallery in Rome. Sijia’s images have been included in publications such as American Photography Annual Award Book, China Souhu News, Vanderbilt University’s Nashville Review, Glass Mountain Magazine, F-Stop Magazine, and Lenscratch.

In 2020 Sijia co-founded China’s first junior art investment firm 1CM Inc. in Shanghai. She is currently working on the marketing team at Universal Studio Beijing.

Gone, 18 x 12 in, Digital Photography, 2021

We’d love to learn about how you got started. Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

I am Sijia Ma. I am a rising junior double majoring in quantitative economics and studio art at Smith College. I started working in photography when I took my first photo class at Smith. There is an interesting saying in China that, if you pursued photography you will remain poor for three generations. To break this curse, I started exploring disparate industries. During my undergraduate years, I worked at galleries, public relations, museum retails to media. I am currently working on the marketing team at Universal Studio Beijing. While exploring consumer insights and marketing is fascinating, as a junior artist myself, I realized the difficulties to make a living as an artist. To solve this problem, I co-founded a junior art investment firm with a Bank of America trading analyst. I hope our firm can grow and allow more rising artists like myself to establish a presence in the digital art market.  

Symphony, Xingxin Town, Jiaxing, China, 18 x 12 in, Digital Photography, 2021

What brings you to art? What ideas are you exploring in your image-based projects? 

 “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their child a right to study art, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

I was inspired by former US president John Adam’s quote. As a young Chinese, I have the privilege to study art because of how my parents had fought for a secured life through studying engineering and commerce. What brings me to art? I guess the ultimate answer is Chinese history —— generations of labor and economic hardship. 

In my photography project, I am interested in exploring Chinese individual identity under contemporary media in relationship with our socialist past. From the Down to the Country Side Movement to the rise of super-tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent, how is my identity shifted? My past project, Scan It, explores how my ideals of race and identity were shaped by and linked through social media content. Though collaging distorted images with QR codes, I unravel my experience of being abused, marginalized, and dismantled on social media. These images were produced in September 2020 during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak and during United States’ political upheaval. I investigate the ways our identities have been connected to societal expectations by combining self-portraiture with QR codes. From scanning, connecting, and alternatively isolating, I regard these QR codes as a representation of the unsearchable status that was not afforded equally to those I loved.

Scan It, 18 x 12 in, 2020
Scan It 02, 18 x 12 in, 2020

What are you working on for your art practice? Is there any topic or theme you’ve been particularly interested in?

I was inspired by Zengxin Li, Caixin Media’s senior reporter, who advised me to think about the economy and photography under one roof. Coming from a quantitative economic and studio art background, I am interested in exploring China’s macroeconomic policies and their impact on an individual’s life through image-making. To further pursue my interdisciplinary interests in economics and art, I worked at Caixin Global, one of China’s most respected macroeconomic investigative journalism media, I conducted research exploring China’s labor market in connection with international trade. What does a policy change discussed at the G20 forum meant to you? Perhaps a shift in a carbon neutrality policy toward, let’s say, a distant African country is unrelated to our life, but it will impact your parent’s retirement wage, the price of pork you consume, and everything around you. 

My current project, A Hundred Stories, is an exploration of China’s current labor conditions. While old rules continued to dominate society. in some places, traditions were fading away and being supplanted by modern dreams. When I was born, series of economic and social reforms transitioned the country away from Maoism and toward market capitalism. While the coastal regions grew, not everyone abandoned the old ways of living. This resulted in a paradoxical presence of popular culture elements and ambiguous symbols of globalization, mixed with our mundane lives. 

In A Hundred Stories, I photographed dwellers, strangers, and family relatives living in Southern China to regions of north bordering Russia. Taking photographs of my hometown has given me a chance to reflect on people whom I have not valued. The process is a discovery of people who held different values, dreams, and economic conditions, which only a hundred stories can reveal.

Lateritic Land 02, 18 x 12 inches, 2020
Portrait of Yulan, Xincheng Town, Liaoning, China, 18 x 12 in, Digital Photography, 2021

What does “community” mean to you? How do you see yourself in a community?

Community is a form of nostalgia when I enter a new place and realize every fragment surrounding me ethos what I had memorized of the past. Yet everything is new and different. New came from the saturated image world, full of western pop culture elements. As a millennial, I see myself as a bridge in this community, constantly embracing fresh ideas and contemporary fast cultures while renouncing the old rules of our society.

The other Side, 16 x 12 in, 2020

As young creative, you have been very active lately. Do you have any advice that you would offer to others?

I would love to share a quote from artist Adam Levine, who is also my photography professor at Amherst College, “you should be getting rejection letters every day, that shows how hard you are trying.”

Grief, Xincheng Town, China, 18 x 12 in, Digital Photography, 2021

text & photo courtesy of Michelle Sijia Ma

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