Douglas Stockdale on Carolyn Drake “Wild Pigeon” – Exploring China’s Western Province

Carolyn Drake works on long term photo-based projects seeking to interrogate dominant historical narratives and creatively reimagine them. Her practice embraces collaboration and has in recent years melded photography with sewing, collage, and sculpture. She is interested in collapsing the traditional divide between author and subject, the real and the imaginary, challenging entrenched binaries. Drake was born in California and studied Media/Culture and History in the early 1990s at Brown University. Following her graduation from Brown, in 1994, Drake moved to New York and worked as a interactive designer for many years before departing to engage with the physical world through photography.

China – 

‘Wild Pigeon’ by Carolyn Drake incorporates an allegory story of the same name, Wild Pigeon, written by Nurmuhemmet Yasin who is a Uyghur author. This story narrates the Uyghur experience in this remote region of Western China (XinJiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). Like most of China the Western region has been undergoing extensive changes to “modernize” the country, huge scale dismantling of the pre-existing structures. This dismantling/rebuilding process was very evident to me while working in Eastern China even six years ago and from what I learned, was occurring simultaneously across this huge nation. The Chinese reactions to the modernization process is extremely mixed across China, but in the Western region of the Uyghur, it takes on another layered meaning, as the Uyghur besides being physically different as compared to the Han Chinese are also predominantly Muslim. The underlying conflict is palpable.


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The resulting photobook is a mix of her photographs, found photographs, photographs that have been altered by her subjects and a meandering text from the story. The sequencing of the photographs are pared to reveal the region’s contradictions; a photograph of fully concealed women across the gutter from the photograph of unabashed men bathing, a lush oasis resplendent with amusement water-toys facing a photograph of an arid and dry desert landscape, a woman who sits in a pose that appears to be in prayer and whose photograph is across and facing a man who leans over his motorcycle’s handlebars, fingers intertwined and illuminated by the evening light, as might be coming of a lion on the prowl, and whose gaze is directed across the page back at the girl in the opposing photograph. Drake in an attempt to help facilitate communication with her subjects and bridge cultures provides opportunities for her subjects to creatively interact with her photographic prints. They in turn create personal and layered messages by means of drawings, text and collages, the results of which remind me of Jim Goldberg’s photobook Open See.

Drake’s narrative is perhaps similar to the story line in the novel Animal Farm written by George Orwell; that in modern China, not all equals are in fact equal.


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The hardcover book has sections of irregular sized pages and shifting photographic image orientations (horiztonal and vertical images) and includes a smaller stiff-cover booklet, sewn binding, that is glued to the inside of the back cover. The Wild Pigeon story is by Nurmuhemmet Yasin and translated into English by Dr. Dolkun Kamberi and interspersed throughout the book, with an Afterword by Drake. As in her pervious self-published photobook, Two Rivers, she has teamed up with the talented Dutch photobook designer Sybern (-SYB-) Kuiper as her collaborator. Carolyn Drake’s Two Rivers was previously reviewed on the The Photobook and was selected as one of my Interesting Photobooks for 2013 published in the annual photo-eye Best Photobooks listings. Note: Carolyn Drake states that Yasin, the author of this story, was imprisoned ten years ago for “inciting separation” (subversive or ideologically corrupting) in the publication of Wild Pigeon and currently his fate is unknown.

Douglas Stockdale is a photographer, author and writer when not working his day job.

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