© Hou Bou

Hou Bou: Chairman Mao in Henan Province

Hou Bo & Xu Xiaobing
Mao's Photographers

At the end of July 1966 Western newsagents published a picture of Chairman Mao Zedong, then 73 years old, swimming in the Yangtze River. Viewed with suspicion by journalists, who predicted his imminent death, Mao was to confound the cynics by, in the final 10 years of his life, carrying out one of the most significant political campaigns in China's history: the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The photograph was taken by Hou Bo, who worked with her husband Xu Xiaobing at the heart of the Communist Party's propaganda machine.

They worked close by Mao from the heroic Yan'an period between 1938 - 49 until the outset of the Cultural Revolution and their images continued to circulate for many years after this time. This exhibition includes over 60 photographs of the most notable political figures of these years. Several of these widely disseminated portraits of Mao along with intimate shots of him with his family, have rarely been seen. Brought together the works offer an unprecedented insight into the life and times of one of the most significant political figures of the 20th Century.

Born near Shanghai in 1916, Xu Xiaobing worked as an assistant cameraman in the 1930s, before joining Mao and his army based in Yan'an where he was to immortalise the Communist leader in photographs that took the world by storm. Hou Bo, who will be 80 this year, set off at 14 to join the revolutionaries as a teacher. It was her future husband, but also Japanese prisoners of war, who taught her the craft of photography and Mao was greatly impressed by her photographs.

During the years of the Cultural Revolution the personality cult that engulfed Mao came to a height when his "Little Red Book" of quotations and images of him were distributed in their millions throughout China. Hou Bo's portraits appeared in nearly every office, factory, classroom, shop and home and showed Mao as a charismatic leader, a teacher, a strategist and an internationalist.

Many of the political figures in the earlier photographs were to suffer different, and in some cases tragic, fates during the tumultuous years that ensued. Hou Bo herself was also to be accused of, ironically, taking unflattering pictures of Mao and was imprisoned at a work camp. Despite these experiences both Hou Bo and Xu Xiaobing remain immensely proud of what Mao achieved. Present on 1st October 1949 when Mao proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China, in front of thousands in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, they recall the atmosphere and historical significance of this moment when after years of oppression "The Chinese people stood up and held their heads high in the world. They had been liberated".

Exhibition curated by Claude Hudelot and Margo Renisio. Co-produced and presented by The Rencontres d'Arles, International Festival of Photography.

Programme Organiser: Camilla Jackson

Exhibition: 8 April - 30 May 2004
Gallery hours: Mon-Sat 11 am - 6 pm, Sun noon - 6 pm

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