Sirui Ma’s Loving Portraits of Asian Diaspora Women in London

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Little Things Mean a Lot by Sirui Ma
Photography by Sirui Ma

Photographer Sirui Ma’s debut exhibition explores the unspoken solidarity among women of Asian descent navigating multiple cultural identities in a new city

“As a photographer, I feel like my job is that of a ‘professional noticer’. Even if I’m just walking with friends, I’m constantly scanning my surroundings and finding small bits of beauty and intrigue,” Chinese photographer Sirui Ma tells me ahead of her solo exhibition at Hackney Gallery in London. “It’s in the quiet moments where we finally see the minutiae that gets overlooked. Those are the vignettes of real life I want to share.”

In her new exhibition, Little Things Mean a Lot, presented by the Asian community-led platform Peach/pages, Sirui brings together a collection of photographs shot over the course of a year that extend a warm and woozy welcome to introspective moments of her life in London. Romantically lensed, she conveys her way of viewing and moving through the world by way of the beauty she finds in fleeting moments of quiet connection and the details that often go unnoticed in the rush of everyday life.

We encounter many of Sirui’s subjects suspended at intervals of reflection; wandering quiet roads, having paused on a park bench, picking mushrooms or resting supine among grassy fields of dandelions. Captured with gentle intimacy, each photograph reflects the relationships Sirui seeks to cultivate with her sitters and their shared surroundings. “A lot of the time my work serves as a love letter to what I’m photographing; people, animals, plants, a sunset,” says Sirui. “The objective is to be able to share the beauty I see, so that next time, when someone else sees something like my photo in real life, they recognise that beauty too.”

Sirui is no stranger to the city. She first found herself in London at the age of nine, around 20 years ago at a time when there was little conversation around embracing your heritage, and the social climate was often marked by hostility towards those from different countries. Sirui recalls desperately wanting to assimilate into British life. “It was as though I was willing to erase my own identity to take on this new one,” she recalls.

After spending many of her formative years in New York, Sirui moved back to London to study, possessing a better sense of who she was and where she fit in. She questioned and challenged her perceived notions of identity and belonging, giving herself permission to find joy in her differences and consider the ways in which they could foster connection. 

Little Things Mean a Lot reflects this delicate intersection of culture, identity and nature that lies at the heart of Sirui’s practice. Here she casts her friends – other young Asian women – channelling vignettes of their everyday lives into a collective narrative. In this sense, Sirui sees the series as a self-portrait, a prism of perspective that explores the unspoken solidarity among women of Asian descent and highlights the unique challenges and shared experiences of navigating multiple cultural identities in a new city. 

“As Asian women in the West, there are so many experiences that we all share, almost an unspoken level of understanding,” the artist reflects. “To turn my gaze on ‘myself’ is powerful in that a lot of the time in the West, we are not in control of how we’re looked at. This series is a love letter to us.”

Despite being set among cityscapes, Little Things Mean a Lot displays an exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, establishing her subjects as inhabitants of something bigger than their immediate surroundings. “No matter who we are, we always belong to and with others. That can be a community, and it can be nature,” Sirui continues. “The fact that we are all experiencing life subjectively in our unique way but are always in relation to others. Our interconnectedness, that’s what I’m interested in. Being able to see yourself outside of yourself.”

Little Things Mean a Lot by Sirui Ma is on show at Hackney Gallery in London until June 30.