In pictures: Sirui Ma captures the women of London’s east Asian diaspora

In pictures: Sirui Ma captures the women of London’s east Asian diaspora

Arriving in London from Beijing by way of New York, the photographer’s tender portraits explore the recent history of east Asian migration to the UK

London’s green spaces were one of the reasons why photographer Sirui Ma decided to make the city her home. After leaving Beijing for the UK capital (following a stint in New York), the photographer has been capturing both the Asian diaspora and the city’s surrounding natural landscapes.

She’s fascinated by the little things, hence the title of her debut show, Little Things Mean A Lot, opening June 21 at Hackney Gallery. The exhibition has been a developing body of work for over two years, Ma tells Dazed. “The work looks at the quieter moments of everyday life in London, through images of my friends and the nature that surrounds us,” she says.

The life in these photographs is hardly still, but it is slow – a reflection of the “communion with nature” (as Ma describes the exhibition). In one image, for example, a small black lizard sits on the face of a woman with her eyes closed, a loving interaction between the human and non-human worlds. Small mushrooms, lichen on a branch, and verdant woodlands are juxtaposed with London’s buildings and cityscapes. For Ma, nature is a source of healing and grounding. “[London’s green spaces are] so accessible,” she says. “They help me process and filter out all the noise of living in a major city when I need to re-centre.” As well as being a city full of greenery, London’s abundantly diasporic nature makes any global community feel quickly at home. 

Living in the UK apart from her family, it was important for Ma to find a sense of home through the east Asian community in London. After spending time in the city at the age of nine, Ma moved to New York, before returning to the UK capital in 2017. As Ma reminds us, the US has a longer history of east Asian immigration, specifically Chinese Americans, and in New York she was able to find “a lot more” community elders. “That can feel very comforting because I can see my family in them,” the photographer says. “[In the UK] the history is more recent and I’m finding people closer to my age. There’s not one that’s better than the other, it’s just different.”

Ma describes her work as “a self-portrait through the women in my life”. For her, photography is an exercise in both mirroring herself, and magnifying the minutiae of quotidien life. The photographer sees hints of herself in each of the women she’s photographed. “The same goes for the images of nature in this series,” she explains. “In every image there is a bit of me, a bit of how I see and care for the world around me.” In this sense, the work is also almost entirely autobiographical. “The way I experience the world, how I see my peers, how I as an Asian woman want to be perceived, how I find small bits of beauty in mundanity.”

Photography Sirui MaPhotography Sirui Ma

There is an affectionate gaze to her images, which Ma says was a guiding principle of this body of work – a way of “looking at the world with love”. Aside from the orange and teal colour palette, which pops out most strikingly in an image of a young girl foregrounding an ice cream van, the images have a quiet and deeply intimate effect. Sirui says she achieves this intimacy by how she relates to her subjects. “It’s about having real relationships and feelings towards who or what I’m photographing,” she says. “It gives the images emotion and meaning.”

The show is also presented by Peach/pages, a platform supporting Asian artists through exhibitions, shows and printed matter. Their previous exhibitions include Story of an Egg at Nunnery Gallery (2024) and Homecoming at Studio 59 (2023). Ma hopes her debut show will make people appreciate the small things around us: “I hope my work can encourage people to pause and take stock of the beauty in the little things.”

Sirui Ma’s Little Things Mean A Lot runs until 30th June 2024 at Hackney Gallery.

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