Artist of the week: Tong Zhou Annie Lafrance

Tong Zhou in their studio. Photo by Paulina Bereza
Tong Zhou in their friend’s studio. Photo by Paulina Bereza

The artist’s work engages with Chinese culture and aesthetic

I first met Tong Zhou Annie Lafrance in an art history class in 2019 where we were seated beside each other by chance. I remember being fascinated by the proportion of little drawings in their notebook compared to the small quantity of notes. We ended up working together for the whole semester on a project about artist Françoise Sullivan. The project gave us the chance to discover each other’s artistic styles. Now that we have both graduated, I was interested in learning more about where their artistic practice had taken them.

Living between Montreal and Quebec City, Tong Zhou is a multidisciplinary artist. They graduated from Concordia’s Studio Arts department in 2021. As a Chinese adoptee, they now nurture the dream of pursuing their studies in China. Our discussion revolved around their desire to explore the traces left by adoption through the different projects they are involved in.

The Concordian: How would you describe your artistic practice?

Tong Zhou Annie Lafrance: I am a multidisciplinary artist. That means I really enjoy doing more than one discipline, it is stimulating for me. I’ve been doing performance, installation, drawing, and fibre arts. Currently, since I’m learning Mandarin full-time, I’m trying to put this type of learning into my visual explorations, such as how I learn the language, and then put it into codes or symbols that I can refer to in my visual language. For example, now I’m doing mostly photo weaving [relating] to Chinese culture.

TC: Why did you choose to focus your work on Chinese culture?

TZAL: I think it’s a very personal choice for me because I was adopted from China. I’ve always been fascinated by Chinese culture and its visual aesthetic. However, I think there is a cultural and linguistic boundary that is really present in how I can understand the visual language. And since I’m visibly Chinese there’s also this pressure of performing “Chineseness.” For me, that is something that is quite fascinating to explore in fine arts, to explore my identity and how it expresses itself in the space with coherence and incoherence that makes it more diverse and truer to who I am.

UP CLOSE, a work by Tong Zhou and An Laurence

TC: Can you tell me about your experience with performance art?

TZAL: I got into performance when I started university. I felt like I needed to explore something that goes beyond the visual space, the two-dimensional space. Most of my classes were painting, drawing, fibres, and textiles, but I wanted to work with the gesture. Emphasizing the gesture would emphasize my search for identity. Through the body you can really do that, and it’s clearer, it’s rawer. I got into performance because I was not satisfied with the medium I was working with. Coming from a visual arts background, that’s not something we are necessarily pushed towards.

TC: You mentioned the gestures in your performances. Do you also think about those gestures when you create? For example, when you work on photo weaving? 

TZAL: Definitely. I think photo weaving is a simple gesture, but what makes it complex is the result at the end. Sometimes, I feel like through repetition, through simplicity, we can highlight more complex results at the end. Through repetition, there is also this sense of meditation that I’m really trying to think about creating. 

TC: Can you tell me more about your photo weaving series?

TZAL: What I love about photo weaving is this idea of deconstructing an image, and then trying to redo the same image, just like a puzzle. I always really enjoyed doing puzzles, so for me it is this simple task of redoing what has been undone.    

TC: How do you choose the photos you are using?

TZAL: A lot of the pictures were taken by my mother. She was always very interested in capturing the steps of our childhood, but also the process of adoption. So for me, it’s a mix between my pictures and her pictures. I think that if I want to tell my story in the right order, I need to start with the pictures of my mother first and include mine after. My pictures are more about my own subjectivity and how I see the world, which is different from my mother, but it very much replicates some angles that she used. She was doing this more as a hobby, but for me it’s transforming this hobby into an actual arts practice. 

TC: What about the zine you have worked on recently?

TZAL: It was a really nice collaboration I did with An Laurence. There are so few artists that are interested in exploring the theme of adoption. What An Laurence and I have in common is that we want to show a different aspect, an aspect that hasn’t been told yet. That’s what we were doing in our zine. We were trying to make our two art practices collide, and see what the similarities are, what are the differences between our practices. An Laurence is a performer, she has a music and multimedia background, where I am more into visual arts, so then it was really interesting to collaborate on this little piece.  

TC: Can you describe the zine a little bit more?

TZAL : The zine is really short. It is a small booklet of around 20 pages, with […] excerpts of interviews. We did a cross-interview, so we were asking questions to each other. I chose some pictures that could fit coherently with what we talked about. So, I was responsible for the design and An Laurence was responsible for the narrative that it would have.

TC: What place would you say collaborations occupy in your practice?

TZAL: The zine highlighted the fact that I needed to collaborate more in order to understand the precise visual language I want to use to talk about adoption. Since there are so few artists that are talking about this subject, it’s really important to collaborate with other people in my community. Now, I’m more interested in seeing how my own community can express themselves. I think that one of the good things that the pandemic has done is that we are more aware of the important aspect of sharing feelings with others, of understanding ourselves through others. Right now, I am collaborating with other Chinese adoptees, and we are working on a collective of researchers and artists that are based in Quebec. This collective called “Soft Gong” will be about creating a community between Quebec, Canada and China as well as seeing how it can bloom into other collaborations. We also hope to [help improve] the post-adoption services, including learning the language, learning the culture, learning the biological background. So, it’s a mix between community, arts, and research. 

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