Holly Chang How to Disappear When No One is Looking

    Holly Chang, How to Separate, from the series How to Disappear When No One Is Looking, 2024. Courtesy of the artist
Holly Chang, How to Separate, from the series How to Disappear When No One Is Looking, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

How To Disappear When No One Is Looking continues Holly Chang’s investigation into her identity, family history, and community knowledge. This public art project is rooted in recently found photographs that had belonged to and were taken by the artist’s late uncle during a trip to Hong Kong and China in 2003. Upon scanning the negatives, the artist saw city- and landscapes unfamiliar to her. The only image she could tether herself to was that of her Popo, whom her uncle was travelling with. 

As with many folks living diasporically, it has been challenging for Chang to gather a fulsome understanding of her family’s past, as intergenerational familial displacement often erases history and cultural practices, and severs ties. Chang knows that her Popo is from Canton, that she lived in Hong Kong for a time, and that her family eventually emigrated to Jamaica and that their last name was changed at some point along the way. 

Spending time with her uncle’s photographs, it was difficult for Chang to parse out which images were taken in mainland China and which in Hong Kong, or to pick up on any of the nuances of the places she was looking at—familial spaces she is tied to but has yet to visit physically. Without the ability to ask her uncle or her Popo, she found herself questioning and speculating upon the images, her uncle, and her history. Was this photograph taken in Hong Kong or in China? Had my uncle been to Hong Kong before? Did it look, and feel, different to him because of the handover five years prior? Was my uncle alone when he looked through the viewfinder to take this image, or was he with family, or a friend? What drew him to this location, and what drew him to frame and capture this moment in the way that he did? What was it like being there with Popo? Why had the photographs from this trip remained as negatives, and not been printed as photographs to see and to share with others? 

Holly Chang, How to Focus, from the series How to Disappear When No One Is Looking, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Chang turned to her community to collaboratively read, watch, and understand the photographs together. She asked folks who have been to Hong Kong and China themselves to each choose an image, and to write down their thoughts and notes directly onto the photograph and coloured construction paper with a ballpoint pen. The resultant objects bring forth a constellation of responses that oscillate between the entanglement of the poetry of the everyday and the effects of geopolitics. In How to Separate, the reader was able to identify the image they chose as being from Hong Kong, and confirmed that it was taken after 1997; the mini-bus and the bauhinia petals on the giant incense monument provide a sense of place and time. This is noted alongside a memory the reader shares from after the handover, of having witnessed a group of adults who had travelled from mainland China weep upon seeing and being in the presence of a similar statue, “because Hong Kong was finally home,” they write. In How to Focus, the artist’s friend provides a very sensorial response, describing what they smell, feel and love about the image and its familiarity. In another, an atmospheric photograph of a body of water set against an abundance of green trees prompts the reader to consider his own diasporic family, intimately sharing and speculating on what his father’s life could have been like had he not left China, and muses on his financial hardships and happiness in the life that he ended up living. 

Holly Chang, How to Recollect, from the series How to Disappear When No One Is Looking, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Together, Chang and her collaborators reach into the past to bring forth the present. They remind us that the personal is political by sharing the often intangible effects that governing powers have on individual lives, and make them tangible through writing and through photography’s objectness. Further, by working with her community, Chang’s queries into her own identity and relationships to places and spaces reveal that they are not tied to borders or nationalism, but to relationality, collectivity, and culture.

Chang’s gesture of collectively reading her late uncle’s photographs extends beyond herself and her collaborators with their public placement on outdoor advertising billboards in Toronto, a city richly steeped in diasporic immigrant communities. The now large-scale personal photographs carry a broad familiarity—most often seen intimately in family albums, also with handwritten notations that act as a private key for understanding and decoding their meanings. Presented as public artworks, Chang’s images generate a soft entry, inviting viewers to contemplate their own personal readings and responses, reflecting on notions of home, family, lost loved ones, and the politics of place and space.

Holly Chang, How to Point Towards, from the series How to Disappear When No One Is Looking, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

The artist’s ambiguously poetic title for this project—How To Disappear When No One is Looking—can perhaps be read as an homage to her late uncle: “to disappear” is to cease to be, to pass out of existence, but it also has a less permanent meaning: to pass from view, like the waxing and waning of the moon. In looking at these photographs together, Chang’s community helps her to see her uncle, and herself.

Curated by Heather Canlas Rigg

Presented by CONTACT. Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising.

Special thanks to Brendan George Ko, Chiyi Tam, Justin Ming Yong, and Yi Lucy Lu

Holly Chang is an interdisciplinary artist based in Toronto/Tkaronto. Chang makes use of a variety of artistic mediums including textiles, photography, ceramics, and natural dyeing. Her practice is rooted in intersectionality where she often explores her mixed-race Jamaican-Chinese and white Canadian and queer identity. Her overall artistic work explores the themes of her second-generation identity. She has recently exhibited her work in her first solo show with Gallery 44 in April 2022 and participated in the Banff Artist in Residence program in Spring 2022. Holly was the recipient for the Middlebrook Prize for curation in 2023, a prize which aims to foster social innovation and curatorial excellence in Canada. She has a forthcoming group exhibition with the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre in 2025.

Heather Canlas Rigg is an independent curator and writer based in Toronto.