POVERTY



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Rufina Wu & Stefan Canham - Portraits from Above

Rufina Wu & Stefan Canham
Biography

Rufina Wu was born in Hong Kong in 1980. She studied at the University of Waterloo in Canada where she completed degrees in Environmental Studies and Architecture. She was a CCSEP Visiting Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China from 2005 to 2006. Beijing Underground, her graduate thesis, focuses on migrant housing found in Beijing’s underground air raid shelters. This body of research won an AIA Medal and was exhibited in Canada, United States, and Germany. From December 2007 to February 2008, she was artist-in-residence at Hong Kong’s Art and Culture Outreach, collaborating with Stefan Canham on Portraits from Above. The project won the 5th International Bauhaus Award 2008 and was published by Peperoni Books, Berlin, and MCCM Creations, Hong Kong. It has been exhibited in Asia, Europe, and North America, including solo exhibitions at Goethe–Institut and Lumenvisum Gallery (Hong Kong, 2009), Kunsthaus (Hamburg, 2009), and Harbourfront Centre (Toronto, 2010). Her research interest focuses on informal housing tactics associated with rapid urban development and population mobility. Rufina currently lives in Vancouver. Stefan Canham was born in England in 1968. He studied Film at Hamburg Academy of Fine Arts, Germany, and has been working free-lance on documentary photo and television projects since 1995. He is interested in the amazing and beautiful things people create even under adverse circumstances, and in their photographic representation. In 2003 he was artist-in-residence at the Schleswig-Holsteinisches Künstlerhaus in Eckernförde, Germany. His photographic record of the mobile squatter culture in Germany was short-listed for the 3rd International Bauhaus Award 2004 and published under the title Bauwagen / Mobile Squatters by Peperoni Books (Berlin) in 2006. He has exhibited in Germany and abroad and contributed to journals like An Architektur (Berlin), Critical Planning (Los Angeles), Sarai Reader (Delhi), MONU Magazine on Urbanism (Rotterdam) and Arhitext (Bucharest). From December 2007 to February 2008, he was artist-in-residence at Hong Kong’s Art and Culture Outreach, collaborating with Rufina Wu on Portraits from Above. The project won the 5th International Bauhaus Award 2008 and was published by Peperoni Books, Berlin, and MCCM Creations, Hong Kong. It has been exhibited in Asia, Europe, and North America, including solo exhibitions at Goethe–Institut and Lumenvisum Gallery (Hong Kong, 2009), Kunsthaus (Hamburg, 2009), and Harbourfront Centre (Toronto, 2010). Substantial parts of the project have been presented in themed exhibitions, including Informal Cities at the Coomaraswamy Hall, (Mumbai 2009), Breda Photo (Breda, 2010), High-Rise – Idea and Reality at Museum für Gestaltung (Zurich, 2010), Rapid Change at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts (Auckland, 2011), and The City that does not exist at Museum Ludwig Forum (Aachen, 2012). Numerous magazines have published excerpts of Portraits from Above, including European Photography
Rufina Wu & Stefan Canham
Project Statement

Portraits from Above

There is no elevator. We walk up the eight flights of stairs, hesitating on the last one, looking at each other, out of breath: we have no right to be here.

The roof is a maze of corridors, narrow passageways between huts built of sheet metal, wood, brick and plastics. There are steps and ladders leading up to a second level of huts. We get lost. Our leaflets in hand, Rufina knocks on a door. There is an exchange in Cantonese. Stefan stands in the background, the foreigner, smiling, not understanding a word. They hear us out, smile back and invite us into their homes.

Later, we look down at the building from a higher one across the street. The roof is huge, like a village. There must be thirty or forty households on it. From the outside there is no way of knowing what is inside. Whether they have Internet or not. Whether they have a toilet. And there is no way of knowing their stories.

Who makes a picture of this? Who keeps a record? Sometimes a newspaper will print an article, or an NGO will launch a campaign. Various government departments keep files on so-called “unauthorized building works”, coding the huts with permanent markers and photographing them. The files are not on public record, but residents may look at them to learn why their homes are to be demolished. Very rarely do rooftop residents document their own spaces: the family pictures we saw were taken standing in a field of sunflowers, or in a village in the mainland, or down on the street beside someone else’s car, smiling.

We walk up the stairs again. We no longer get lost in the corridors. We learn how residents modify and maintain their homes. There are people who have been living on the roof for twenty or thirty years who have helped to build the city. The new immigrants from Mainland China, from Southeast Asia, from Pakistan, continue to do so. In the seventies, they built the underground, and now they are working on the new tower blocks. Hong Kong’s older districts are being redeveloped. Some buildings are crumbling because they were built with salt water concrete. Others have to make way for taller ones that yield higher profits. Few rooftop residents would mind living in the new towers, but they cannot afford it. All are afraid of being resettled to the remote satellite towns, where there may be few opportunities and limited social networks.

We walk up the stairs again. The rooftop settlements are an urban legacy, telling the story of Hong Kong, of political upheavals in Mainland China, of urban redevelopment, of people’s hopes and their needs in the city.