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Watch Paper Masterpieces of China’s Forgotten Tribes Unfold in Pop-Up Books

Artist and photographer Colette Fu uses the pop-up book to tell stories of minority tribes in China.

When you open the cover of a pop-up book, components of the story spring to life. While they may often be associated with children’s books about monsters and fairy tales, artist and photographer Colette Fu uses the moveable, three-dimensional elements of pop-up books to capture the life and culture of forgotten minority tribes in China.

“My pop-ups are a way for me to speak and inform,” Fu writes on her website. “Constructing pop-ups allows me to combine intuitive design and technical acuity with my love of traveling as I try to understand the world around me.”

Since 2008, Fu, whose mother is a member of the black Yi tribe, has ventured throughout China photographing the unique culture, food, folktales, and lifestyle of minority tribes. The Philadelphia-based artist returns to her studio where she edits and prints photos, and cuts and folds them into one-of-a-kind single-spread, pop-up books. She uses up to 20 photos to create one scene.

In the animated video above from her pop-up book series titled “We are Tiger Dragon People,” you can watch colorful scenes unfold of minority tribes in the Yunnan Province, China’s most southwestern Province. At the 12-second mark you can see an enticing spread of food cooked by the Dai people, and the Wa people in the midst of their Hair Swinging dance at the 29-second mark. Some of the covers of the books have a motif that symbolizes the photograph and the story inside.

Below is a close-up view of Fu’s 8 1 Village pop-up book. She explains that the unmarried Yao women of 8 1 village wear black turbans, while the married women wear red conical-shaped hats. In earlier times, the leader of the group would wear a red plantain flower on the top of their head.

While learning more about her Yi ancestry in her mid-twenties, Fu got the idea to craft a pop-up art series inspired by the minority cultures of Yunnan Province. The region, dotted with snow-capped mountains in the northwest and tropical rainforests in the south, is home to 25 of the 55 minority tribes in China. These tribes make up only 8.5 percent of the nation’s population, Fu explains.   

Currently, Fu is expanding her collapsible book series to feature more ethnic minority groups, traveling to other regions including Shanghai, Mongolia, and Hunan Province.  

“While I am directly unable to help these groups preserve their identity and ways of living, I can use my skills as an artist to spread knowledge and provide just a brief portrait of their existence,” Fu writes.

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