Hailun Ma

‘I want people to shed their preconceptions about Xinjiang and it’s capital Urumqi, I want to show the cool side of Xinjiang, a side I’m calling Urooklyn.’

In December 2019, Chinese photographer Hailun Ma finally returned to her old neighbourhood, Xinjiang, for her solo exhibition Hometown.

Prior to her show late last year, her creations were shown by Gaotai Gallery at the 6th edition of PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai, where her work garnered attention by the public, curators and collectors alike.

Leaving Xinjiang at just 18 years old, Ma completed her BFA & MPS at New York’s School of Visual Arts, New York. Since finishing her studies she has become a successful fashion photographer, with clients such as Burberry and Nike responding to her innovative, distinctive vision.

Ma’s talent was evident during her undergraduate studies with her Pink Bikini series. A collection of self portraits where Ma wore a pink bikini and a rubber ring on the crowded streets of New York drew attention to her quirky style. Her ingenious spirit and preference for bright, vivid color we see in her early works have continued into her contemporary style. Perhaps it is the character of her hometown Xinjiang that has influenced her distinctive aesthetic.

In New York, Hailun Ma witnessed how superficial the fashion world appeared to be. She found the juxtaposition of the luxury haute-couture clothing and poorly paid models challenging. Instead she wanted to photograph real people with real emotions and authentic looks. Shifting her lens towards the men, women and children of Xinjiang, she started to turn fashion photography into her own branch of cultural anthropology by focusing on what the people on the street were wearing. Her portraits subvert people’s perceptions by showing spirited Xinjiang girls and melancholy Xinjiang boys as well as the emerging post-00 group.

© Hailun Ma, Hometown, 2018. Courtesy of GAOTAI Gallery (Urumqi)

Hailun Ma: I was born and raised in Ürümqi, Xinjiang, and went to New York to study photography and fashion photography. During my degree, I had some questions about myself and the genre I was studying. Although I’m not tired and do not reject the high fashion style for the sake of it, I realised this world was far from my life. Therefore I wanted to re-establish my relationship with the subject and to create my own approach, my own language.

© Hailun Ma, Hometown, 2018. Courtesy of GAOTAI Gallery (Urumqi)

Hometown is a group of works. In ten days, I went to Shaya, Akhoqi and Kashgar in southern Xinjiang with the big fashion brands from New York magazine to rebuild my relationship with fashion and my memory of home. It has been eight or nine years since I’d left. In my memory, Xinjiang was the same as when I was child. Shaya is where my father grew up so I chose to go to Shaya, go to the southern part, because in a way it retains the hometown in my memory as well as in my father’.

© Hailun Ma, Hometown, 2018. Courtesy of GAOTAI Gallery (Urumqi)

During the summer in my hometown, the sun shines brightly. Everything becomes more colorful. Sisters and aunts of the Uighur ethnic group wear kinds of Etles silk, glittering skirts, colorful scarves and carefully painted eyebrows. They are not afraid of the color at all. The change stuffed in stockings and the nails dyed by Hai Na flowers exude a seemingly noisy but real, warm and humane beauty. They don’t have much, but everyone can make good use of their things, mix a very personal style, and at the same time create a strong vitality. This is what I think of fashion. And those clothes that I borrowed, after showing off the runway, there was no sense of disobedience in wearing by them.

© Hailun Ma, Hometown, 2018. Courtesy of GAOTAI Gallery (Urumqi)

In this series, the most impressive work is the Mother Holding a Lamb. That day was the last day of my project. I had already decided to go back home because I could not find a suitable subject but then suddenly I saw my aunt cleaning the sheep pen and a sense of familiarity arose. The experience was full of magic. I took just one shot and it was the only shot I took that day. The sky, auntie’s eyes, lamb’s eyes, everything was perfect.

© Hailun Ma, Xinjiang Cowboys, 2019. Courtesy of GAOTAI Gallery (Urumqi)

I hope my work can open doors and let people know the real Xinjiang from a new perspective, the beautiful scenery in the pictures or the kind Uygur grandpa or aunt that you can Google on the Internet. At the same time, it also enables the native Xinjiang people to have a deeper understanding of the beauty of it and discover those things that we take for granted but are not so common. I want to build a bridge in the communication and exchange between ethnic groups. The people living on this land are not people of Han, Uygur or Kazak, but people of Xinjiang. Recently, I went to northern Xinjiang to shoot a series of works about Kazakh herdsmen and their lives. I think, I will stick to it, with my way of expression to interpret the ethnic minorities and Xinjiang.