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Jeff Fuchs—The Ancient Tea Horse Road

June 15th, 2011 by David Hicks
Tea Horse Road —Exhibition Poster

The Ancient Tea Horse Road—Exhibition Poster

As an artist it is all too easy to fall into the romance of being a stranger in a strange land. Our occidental eyes delight in the colourful curios and anthropological question marks of a far-off and very foreign country. Wanderlust for epic distance and exotic locales bear the hallmarks of the Victorian grand-adventure and all the colonial mores that attend: taking delight in the mysterious and unknown because we don’t understand them with our Western eyes. Market bazaars full of blazing spices, silks, and carpets all pander to the photographer’s lens and our preconceived notions of Central Asia: a buffet of empty visual calories and cliches to gorge on while the history and presence of its people and culture remain little more than shadowy figures in the blurry background.

Fortunately, Jeff Fuchs’ The Ancient Tea Horse Road is none these things. There are no panoramas. Not a single mountain landscape. No prayer wheels.

Instead Fuchs gives us the people of the Tea Horse Road in roughly a dozen pieces of predominately sepia-tone and black and white photographs. As Fuchs, now a resident of Tibet’s Yunnan province, explains, “I walked off the plane and it was all ready,” so much of the credit for the look of the show is shared with Dave Andrews’ print work while curator Patrick Gordon has done a great job in mounting a show that is both broad and disciplined.

The Tea Horse Road is treacherous route to bring fermented tea to Tibet: over 5,000km and 6 months to traverse on foot with mule teams through disputed border territories and dizzying elevations. A conduit of commerce and migration for 800 years. Through this narrow ribbon of rock passed all the races of Asia: Persian, Mongolian, Pashtun and on. Traders, nomads, people united—perhaps uneasily—by a harsh traverse across rooftop of the world. Through this journey, each culture contributing to the soupçon of the region’s genetics: a 6’3″ Abhor woman, smooth-featured Tungusic elders, threads of Persian DNA reveal themselves through unexpected blue and green irises. These portraits are not people that Fuchs met along the road, they are the road itself manifest.

Fuchs’ portraits are raw and intense, his subjects diverse and complex. Shooting with combination of digital, 35mm, and large format [a venerable Pentax 67, for those so inclined to ask].  His framing is tight-cropped and intimate, most set against the darkness of a tent interior to produce pictures that are subtle, textured, and delicately toned—some photgraphs barely rising out of the inky darkness to reveal the faces within.

His subjects range from a young girl, the great grand-daughter of a great trader, to a 23-year-old muleteer beaming youthful insouciance and confidence, to the furrowed face of a trader’s widow now deceased. Each one is connected to the road not just by geography but by the bindings of history.

In The Ancient Tea Horse Road, Fuchs is not telling the story of his journey (you can find that in his book), but rather the story of thousands of journeys over the centuries. The flow of ancient trade may have shaped the now-faded route but the flow of lives remains bright and indelible. The Tea House Road is a path defined by the people Fuchs shares through his lens: there are no maps, there are no books, there are only faces to tell its story.

Jeff Fuchs’ The Ancient Tea Horse Road is showing at Exposure Gallery, 1225 Wellington Street West (2nd Floor, above Thyme & Again) June 9-August 2, 2011.

Jeff will be attending an Artist Talk and Tea Tasting at the Museum of Nature June 22, 2011. Tickets are $20 and available at Thyme & Again. For more information visit exposuregallery.info

For more information on Jeff Fuchs visit jefffuchs.com

David Hicks—Ottawa dweller. Marketing consultant. Dad. Dog owner. Handyman. Gadget guy. Photographer. Coffee Drinker. Scotch sipper. [Not necessarily in that order] Blogs at davidhicks.ca and spends too much time on Twitter.

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