Dual Lives: Chinese Opera in New York City

Photographs by Alan Govenar


Nationally Touring Exhibition:
February 24 - March 27, 2011, Beloit College Wright Museum of Art, Beloit, WI
June 1 - September 17, 2012, Carlsten Gallery University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, WI


In the exhibition Dual Lives: Chinese Opera in New York City, Alan Govenar’s life-sized photographs show members of the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company costumed as characters from the epic story cycle The Journey to the West. In full makeup and character specific poses, the actors portray general types (hangdang) as well as individual characters. Each portrait is presented side-by-side with a companion portrait of the same performer in casual dress.

Balance emerges as a major theme in the photographs of these eighteen Peking Opera performers. In costume, the actors appear to pose effortlessly before the camera. Yet behind each gesture and expression lies years of tireless application: theirs is a highly practiced poise. The same poise, or balance, informs the portraits of the actors out of costume, for here too all of the performers are just as much “in character.” Out of costume, we gain a sense of how the performers see themselves, as they might pose for each other, or perhaps standing alone before a mirror.

Through Govenar’s photographs the viewer can imagine how each pose, facial expression, and hand gesture is part of the everyday life of the performers. Many of the people in the company must also work in unrelated jobs to supplement their income and support their families and loved ones. In Govenar’s portraits we see the pull of tradition and the tug of modernity. We also see the effort and the grace required to inhabit the duality of multiple roles, whether on stage or off.

Dual Lives: Chinese Opera in New York City was made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Freeman Foundation.

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