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Art Photobook Reviews

The Town by Stefan Canham

Cultural identity and commerce, a fine balancing act.

Stefan Canham's study of the northern Vietnamese town Sapa, highlights not only architectural details of this city on the rise, but also his personal fixation with the small pieces of handmade cloth that have inadvertently been an integral part of the community's transformation.

At first inspection the focal point of the book seems to be the slender shops and houses that line the streets of Sapa. 

Products of a burgeoning economy, these unusual structures (which due to established tax laws are constructed on long narrow rectangular footprints to minimise costs to their owners) are a combination of commercial ground floors with living accommodation above.

Endlessly inventive, the colours and architectural details seem to carry subtle (and maybe not so subtle) variations, rendering each building unique. 

However, appearing at points through the book are smaller pages, each containing a single image of a small piece of fabric. In many respects these textile squares are entitled to claim some responsibility for sheer existence of the aforementioned buildings.

The fabrics are individually handmade and originally woven for use in traditional jackets. Intricately detailed, It would seem that rather like a Scottish tartan, the design and pattern of the fabric denotes the village from which its wearer comes.

When the jacket is worn out the patches are removed and sold, very often finding their usefulness extended in the construction of bags and other such items which are sold in local markets.

And it is from such auspicious beginnings that empires and economies grow. This historically poor farming province has seen a huge influx of tourists largely due to interest in the area’s cultural heritage.

As Canham states in his own essay.

"Everything in Sapa is a dilemma. The women in the market sell us textiles to earn money, but by buying their textiles we might be causing a sell-out of their material culture. Tourists come to see the women from the villages in their traditional attire, but most of the money goes to the owners of the new houses with their hotels and restaurants ..." 

My partner is from a small town in the Philippines, in many respects not dissimilar to Sapa. I tell you this because on any number of occasions he has returned from a visit home with many tales to tell.  Stories of how quickly the landscape is changing, how much bigger, brighter (and in many ways, western) the towns and cities are becoming. As he tells me of such things, he is glowing and rightly proud of how his country is raising itself up.

However, these observations are also tempered with memories of his childhood. The simplicity of a life before commerce and technology began to intrude.

Tales of families farming the land, existing without electricity, performing many arduous manual tasks such as grinding rice and generally living a much closer existence with nature. The longing for a way of life, now rapidly disappearing.

In many ways it does sound bucolic - and at a time when many westerners are opting to escape their personal rat races and actively pursue such lifestyles - also idyllic. 

However it is also worth remembering that these are lifestyle changes pursued by choice. 

Ask the people recently liberated from the necessity of such arduous tasks however, if they would rather return to those purer more innocent times and they would probably laugh in your face. 

Pose the same question to my other half and he would probably get all misty eyed about those bygone times, as he removed his designer trainers, retrieved his popcorn from the microwave and grumbled that the wifi had gone down again.

It seems nostalgia is a wonderful thing, as long as it is on our terms. 

Sapa (like many similar communities) may ultimately have some regret regarding the direction in which their fortunes may evolve, but those are decisions that are ultimately theirs to make, and who are we to stand in their way.

The Town by Stefan Canham is self published in an edition of 350 copies.


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