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Four photographers find humble homes worth recording.


Both exhibits meld aesthetic quality with an understated humanism, directly engaging the world of flesh-and-blood human beings in a manner that is unfashionable in today's art world. The shows are both on display at the Hand Workshop Art Center at 1812 W. Main St. through Dec. 22.

"Burma: Something Went Wrong" documents — in a series of beautiful, compelling portraits — the trauma and tragedy of modern Burma, which was thrown into bloody chaos in 1988 when a nonviolent, pro-democracy movement was ruthlessly suppressed by a military junta that still rules the beleaguered nation. Chan Chao, a Burmese-born American, took these photographs on the Burmese border between 1996 and 1999. In them we see Burmese rebels and refugees hiding out in remote border camps. The visually lush photographs were shot outdoors and are suffused with natural light. In each, Chao's subjects stand or sit, looking directly at us with stoic reserve.

We can only imagine what they have seen.

Two of the photographs mirror each other. In each, two young men stand side by side — like brothers - before the sheltering jungle. In "Thuang Huan and Myat Soe, May 1997," they seem proud to have their picture taken. One wears a Che Guevara T-shirt, the other a checkered cloth wrapped around his forehead like a Palestinian kefiye — accessories that evoke other peasant-based struggles against brutal powers. The pair look idealistic, committed to their cause, youthful and na‹ve. In "Sein Win Tin and Nay Htoo, June 1997," another pair of young men pose for the camera, but these two — their faces marred by scar tissue, their eyes damaged, their bodies missing limbs - look badly shaken and grateful to be alive. The photos soberly remind us that violent resistance, no matter how just the cause, will still cause carnage and death.

In Richmonder Taylor Dabney's photographs, Southern teenage mothers pose proudly with their babies in cluttered, humble homes. "Caryn and Jonathan, Stokes County, North Carolina, 1994" shows a plain-looking young woman in a bedroom crowded with necessities — a microwave oven, an oscillating fan, kitschy knick-knacks, stuffed animals and unicorn art — shyly holding her small son up for the camera. This gesture and her expression make clear that the child is both the center of her world and what makes her daily struggle worth enduring.

In Zwelethu Mthethwa's work, unemployed South African blacks sit in shanties beside walls pasted over with images of expensive furniture and glamorous fashion models from Western magazines. These are bitterly ironic decorations for such substandard dwellings, but it is also striking that these people - who brim with personality in their portraits — took the time to cover their homes with such colorful makeshift wallpaper. The photographs subvert stereotypical images of the poor by celebrating their spirit and resourcefulness rather than (condescendingly) eliciting our pity for them.

London-based photographer Tom Hunter's comical "Traveler" series documents the dwellings of modern nomads — British do-it-yourselfers who have converted various vehicles into cramped but cozy improvised homes. The images indulge "dropout" fantasies of an unattached life on the road, but also sketch ambiguous portraits of the sitters by cataloguing the eccentric objects — a fake crystal chandelier, a feather-crowned silver tiara, a nude action figure in a bottle — that decorate their bare budget homes.

Like Mthethwa, Hunter treats his marginalized subjects with respect and affectionate humor. In curator Ashley Kistler's notes for the exhibit, Mthethwa makes this idea explicit: "I have been able to restore some of their dignity," he says, "by acknowledging the spaces in which they live as homes worth recording. S

Photography exhibits "Burma: Something Went Wrong" and "In Situ: Portraits of People at Home" are both on display at the Hand Workshop Art Center at 1812 W. Main St. through Dec. 22. 353-0094.

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