Laura C. Vela, Como la casa mía

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Dalpine (here). Softcover, 176 pages, with 45 color reproductions, 6.4 x 9.25 inches. Includes texts by Xirou Xiao, Minke Wang, and Laura C. Vela. Edited by Laura C. Vela and Gonzalo Golpe. Designed by Underbau. Translations by Deidre B. Jerry. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Across the Manzanares river, just outside the city center, lays one of Madrid’s most diverse neighborhoods: Usera. First the home to prosperous ceramic industries, Usera was eventually designated to the working class and underwent major expansion and redevelopment in the 1960s, when Spain’s rural population migrated to the city, searching for a less strenuous urban life. Hopes for economic opportunities prevailed and were eventually joined by other desires, including personal freedom and cultural curiosity. Since the 1980s, Usera has continued to attract increasing waves of immigrants, many of whom arrive from China and Latin America and have transformed the neighborhood into a buzzing landscape of small shops and eateries. Today, over a fifth of Usera’s population is foreign-born and at the core of Madrid’s co-existing microcosms. Within these smaller and larger ethnic bubbles, the younger Chinese generation adds a particular layer to the neighborhood’s complex cultural fabric: old enough to be rooted in the traditions, cultures, and customs of their country of origin, they are also young enough to choose from and embrace those of their adopted home. One of the things that inevitably happen when living-in-between-two-cultures is a changing perception of self, a shift in identity: one that isn’t (culturally) fixed; that doesn’t comply with notions of “here” and “there”, but that continually weaves and undoes elements of different worlds. It this delicate, often difficult, process that is at the heart of Como la casa mía.

In 2015, the Spanish photographer Laura C. Vela knew little about Usera and its cultural intricacies. Pursuing a master’s at Madrid’s Blank Paper School, a new project brought her to neighborhood:

“At that time, I became interested in portraying young people living in my city. Young people from subcultures, different cultures, of different nationalities . . . I would walk down the street with my camera and talk to strangers, or I would search for them on the internet and meet them. I discovered Usera, a small Chinatown in Madrid, and I fell in love with the neighborhood. I began to make friends with some young people of Chinese origin, among them was Xirou.”

Xirou Xiao first learned Spanish because she loved Chavela Vargas’s music and was captivated by the aesthetic spell of Pedro Almódovar’s movies. After graduating in Fine Arts from the University in Guangzhou in 2013, the young woman decided that it was time to see the world – and Spain in particular. Convincing her parents that she needed to learn more about performance, or as she describes it, “the body and its movements in relation to creativity and diversity”, Xiao left China to first live in Burgos, and then moved to Madrid a year later. Enrolling in a master’s in Arts Education at the city’s Compultense University, she settled in Usera.

When Vela describes her first encounter with Xiao, there is something in her words that conveys a deep sense of reciprocity – a quality that is equally present in her artistic practice. “What interests me when it comes to art” she says, “[is] joint-creation, that we learn together, that [both sides] want tell something” – instead of one documenting the other. Vela became close to many of the young people she met in Usera, but meeting Xiao was different. What quickly emerged, as she describes it, was “this possibility to build a story with her – and not about her.”

A tender dialogue between words and images, Como la casa mía corrals moments of Xiao’s daily life that Vela witnessed and participated in, over the course of three-and-a-half years. Arranged mainly as single-page spreads, some of which are hidden underneath (or rather between) the book’s uncut pages, Vela’s photographs unfold as a succinctly intimate sequence. A few depict the neighborhood. We see buildings and facades, neon-sign advertising in Chinese and Spanish, dramatic skyscapes and night skies, a tree bending under the weight of its mandarins. The photographs’ tight framing reveals little about the places they depict, but emphasizes these places’ atmosphere, or what it felt like to look at them. Mostly, however, we see photographs of Xiao – inside and outside: at home or on the street, sitting in a car, leaning against a wall, and walking in a yard. Her varying clothing indicates the changing seasons; her hair grows with the progression of time. Many of these images live from Xiao’s extraordinary face – her exalted or withdrawn expressions; and her gestures, such as the graceful movements of her hands. There is an affect and bodily awareness to them that might suggest a performance for the camera, but it isn’t really, because it has little to do with acting and everything with the slowly evolving collaboration, and friendship, between Vela and Xiao:

“At the beginning,” Vela says, “we would meet to make photographs and work on the project. I went with sketches of what I wanted to photograph. Then we became friends, and the photos started appearing in different moments. At the cinema, having dinner, at concerts, going for a walk . . . and when I saw an image, I captured it. I think if you look carefully, you can see that Xirou is less and less aware of the camera, calmer, as if she was forgetting about it, but at the same time more self-aware, with a greater presence. As a photographer and as a friend, I am part of the same process. At first, I approach [her] with curiosity and fascination, with surprise, playing, and as I get to know her better, I am more aware of the part that I project of myself onto her . . . It isn’t easy to photograph the same person for years!”

What we witness, then, within these atmospheric color photographs, is the portrayal of an internal landscape that reveals itself through small gestures – that Vela captured with an attuned eye: whether it is the fine lines of a smile, the way to lace a shoe, or an oblivious flicking the tongue while perusing supermarket shelves. There is a moodiness to Vela’s photographs, that, along with the images’ soft grain and color palate, recalls the films of Wong Kar-wai or the photographs of Motoyuki Daifu’s Lovesody. Formally, Vela’s photographs are interesting because they don’t adhere to a definitive style, a set of photographic rules or theories. Instead they encapsulate the essence of what it means to see and to be seen, that is, to be recognized.

As beautiful as Vela’s photographs are, they wouldn’t be as impacting and insightful if it wasn’t for the small texts that accompany them – something that Vela noticed herself after looking at the photographs as a whole. “I felt that something was missing, that I wasn’t fully convinced,” Vela recalls, “[and] that something wasn’t photographs, it was Xirou’s voice and, specifically, her way of speaking, which is so beautiful and special.”

At first, Xiao didn’t know what to write. To take the pressure off, Vela suggested meeting at a bar, where they began to talk about their daily lives, their worries – and Xiao’s experiences as a Chinese immigrant. A few weeks later Vela received several pages of text that she had permission to cut and select with the help of the book’s co-editor Gonzalo Golpe.

It is through these fragments that we hear Xiao’s voice, her thoughts, feelings, and history. We learn why she first learned Spanish, the origin of her name, that she likes to be called “señora” because it makes her feel respected and mature. We learn about the smells she misses of home, the rituals she shared with her grandfather, that she feels lonely when she’s sick or tired, wishing for someone to make a dinner, of the difficulties when she has to deal with Spanish bureaucracy. These small texts are moving not only for what they tell, but how. It is difficult to describe the metaphors and images Xiao uses, or her way of aligning words – partly because it takes away the intimacy of reading them; partly because her Spanish is so neat yet filled with mannerisms that only emerge when one is at home, but not rooted in a language (and which the English translation can only render to a certain extent). This sensation is enhanced by the texts’ layouts – parts of which are printed not on the surface, but behind the thin pages. They shine through if you read them in just enough light. Equally rich is Vela’s short note at the end of Como la casa mía. Addressed to Xiao, it provides tender insights into their relationship and the book’s symbolic elements – the mandarin being one, in China a symbol for peace and good luck.

I admit that I am easily moved by tenderness. Perhaps because it is such an essential need for living beings. Perhaps because it seems to increasingly disappear from our public spaces. There are only a few photobooks, though, that have brought me, repeatedly, to the verge of tears. Como la casa mía is one of them. And part of its magic, its intricate layers, resides in the book’s beautiful design: the note from Xiao’s diary, printed on the mandarin-orange cover; the texture of its uncut pages; the small visual and verbal surprises that are hidden in between; the book’s small size and light-enough weight; the golden cover-font, which makes it feel festive or celebratory, like a gift or found treasure.

I read that Vela found the book’s title in a Facebook post by Chinese girl: “From my window I can see the boys playing basketball, like my home (“como la casa mía”) in China.” What I adore about this sentence (apart from the feeling of longing and belonging it communicates) is its missing proposition, because without it, two different spaces collapse into one. In Vela’s book, Como la casa mía is translated “Like My Own House”.

Personally, I would prefer “Like My Home”. Because home is a place made of people and experiences. Because it can be lost, found, regained, and owned, but it can never be acquired. Because, right now, “home” can be taken away so easily. In a moment, when many countries across the globe try to cleanse themselves of cultures and people they consider alien, Como la casa mía feels like an embrace, one we have to hold on to.

Collector’s POV: Laura C. Vela does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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