What happens when Chinese street artists draw a foreigner’s portrait

So what is going on in this photograph, which comes from my China portfolio?  When I was in Kunming on assignment for the New York Times (the piece can be read here) I spent a lot of time in Cuhui park — the name means Green Lake — because it was a tranquil oasis in the center of a now-bustling city and a sanctuary for its citizens (most of them elderly) who were even more disoriented than I was by how quickly the city had been rebuilt.  In the park, they would practice ballroom dancing — aging friends holding each other delicately like awkward teenagers — or gather in groups to sing opera they remembered from their youth.

The park is also thick with artists so I chose one, a bit older, who was whiling away his time on a strikingly good Mao portrait.  He wanted ¥15 ($2) to do a portrait of me and said he could do it in 15 minutes.  Soon, though, a younger, longer-haired artist gathered alongside so I commissioned him, too.  There was some modest novelty to having a foreigner do this, I guess, because we soon drew a crowd of about forty bystanders and two more artists — along with a police raid later on that sounded quite tense but was resolved, without issue, by us moving about twenty feet away.  The crowd really got into the drawing process, peering over each artist’s shoulder and comparing the renderings.  I laughed, both because it was fun and because I was self-conscious.  The end results bore scant resemblance to me and this was interesting, too, in its way.  If they had simply been incapable artists the outcome would have been no surprise but they were quite competent when drawing subjects — Mao, Canto-pop stars, etc — whose features were familiar to them.  But my features were sufficiently foreign that their versions of me bordered on unintended caricature.  I bought all of the portraits anyway and took photos of each artist with his particular version of me.


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