Family Opera Stills

Family Opera Stills
Kira Wu, 2022
Material: ALL Images on Dura-trans LED-Firebox

Title 1 (group portrait): For Ancestors
Dimensions: 48 in. W x 74.5 in. H

Title 2 (individual portrait): Scholar
Dimensions: 36 in. W x 48 in. H

Title 3 (individual portrait): Poet
Dimensions: 36 in. W x 48 in. H

Title 4 (individual portrait): General
Dimensions: 36 in. W x 48 in. H

Title 4 (individual portrait): Matriarch
Dimensions: 36 in. W x 48 in. H

In Summer 2021, I received a Explore and Create: Research and Creation Grant from Canada Council for the Arts. This kind of work began during my MFA graduate studies in 1995. I documented my parent’s immigrant-settler stories and worked with personal archive, family portraiture in my thesis work called: Translation. 1998. Last year, I researched at the City of Vancouver Archives and found inspiration from the work of Yucho Chow, an early 1900’s Chinese photographer whose work on mixed-race, multi-racial family portraiture transformed the way I thought about history of settlement in Vancouver, BC.

During the pandemic with the rise of Asian hate-crimes, disparities in racial injustices, several conversations to my children about navigating cultural identity, acceptance, living in Canada. The research and creation of this new family portrait series emerged, considering families in sprawling suburban settlements along the Fraser Valley. Images came from studying portraits from personal archives, family photo albums, and modern poses found in every day suburban homes. My work in family portraiture and exploration of constructs of identity started in the early 1990’s with rise of identity politics, reading bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Homi K. Bhabha, among other cultural writers. In my latest work, I use the family portrait to speak about the suburban veils, the unspoken narrative of ancestry through costume, play and pose. Dressing up my family in Cantonese opera make-up, bright and colourful head-dresses adorn my family as models in their stoic poses.

The life of an “idealized” nuclear family is depicted in Family Opera Stills (2022), a five-portrait series that explores the performance of identity in a suburban setting in western Canada. As a first-generation settler of Chinese descent, I have been taught that family is about being together, being confident in knowing my heritage. However, my personal history of growing up on the prairies, processing internalized racism and the push for assimilation into Canadian culture led to me to study identity politics in the vernacular realm of the suburban home.

What can family portraits tell us about the people captured, as individuals or as a group belonging to a specific culture? In Family Opera Stills, the drama and spectacle of everyday family life is represented by the mask of Chinese opera make-up. The veil of the make-up obscures the identity of each individual and depicts a stoic and colorful family with assumed roots in Chinese ancestry. The series is reminiscent of familiar studio-sitting portraitures or the “old western” staged photographs at community fairs, in which, through costume, families slip into another time, a past culture.

Family Opera Stills reaches into the tradition of Cantonese opera to invite curiosity and speculation. Is the artifice embraced by the camera a feature of suburban family life? Is our performance of shared heritage through Chinese opera make-up representative of our everyday lives, or a new fluid transcultural form performed in the spaces of suburbia?


Artist, Kira Wu works with digital media, installation art, and photography. She completed undergraduate studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary (1990-1994) and received a Master’s in Fine Arts degree from the School for the Contemporary Arts, at Simon Fraser University (1995-1998). Wu’s art explores personal narratives, intersectionality within the Chinese diaspora, identity and cultural politics. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions including New Canadian Video, Museum of Modern Art, NYC, USA (1994), Interferences, Multi-media and Digital Art Festival in Belfort, France (2000), Re-dress Express, Centre A, Vancouver (2007), Views from the Southbank II: Moments, Reflections, Intervals, Surrey, BC (2015) and a solo exhibition curated by Paul Wong at On Main Gallery for Capture Photography Festival, Vancouver, BC (2020). A tenured faculty member with over 20 years of teaching experience in the Fine Art Department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Wu lost her battle with metastatic breast/brain cancer in July, 2022.

The artist, Kira Wu would like to acknowledge and give thanks to:

Rosa Cheng and the Vancouver Cantonese Opera Society, Make-up & Head-Dress Costume
Paul Wong Projects, On Main Gallery, Mentor, Studio/Gallery
ABC Photo Inc., Printer
Lily Cho, Essay
Wei Chen, Camera Assistant
Paulo Majano, Limited Edition
Jane Watt, Writing Consultant
Dana Claxton, Mentor
Mo-Ling Chui, Production Assistant

Special thanks to:

Richard Cole, Model
Kaiden Cole, Model
River Cole, Model
All my relations, family and ancestors
Canada Council for the Arts: 2021 Explore and Create – Research and Creation Grant