Indigenous Ciphers

by Philip Diller (December 2006)

I-Jiang - Continuity 愛戀排灣笛

In the Paiwan 排灣 tradition handed-down through countless generations, a father teaches his son to play the nose flute while the mother weaves the families clothes. The young man's flute playing skill will later enable him to woo his wife. But, this Paiwan family, portrayed by I-Jiang in his sculpture Continuity 愛戀排灣笛, are not of his own people.

I-Jiang Kadadepan 伊將‧卡達得伴 is Puyuma 卑南族, another of the twelve currently officially recognized indigenous peoples of Taiwan. I-Jiang was born to the Chi-Ben tribe 知本部落 of Puyuma near the hot springs resort area outside of Taidong 台東, near the southern end of the east coast of Taiwan.

As we continue to explore I-Jiang's works on show at the Ketagalan Culture Center 凱達格蘭文化館, we notice that all of his pieces are of Taiwanese aborigines in their traditional settings — singing, weaving, hunting or farming; but paradoxically the media of his artistic expression, cast copper sculpture — is not an indigenous technology.

At the age of 29, I-Jiang abandoned a seven-year career in print advertising after meeting Huang Senyi 黃森義, an accomplished bronze sculptor who took on I-Jiang as his apprentice and taught him the techniques of bronze casting. Driven by a strong will to express his inner feelings, I-Jiang was soon able to use this new medium to express his sense of the world as a Taiwan aborigine. Over the last few years I-Jiang has become recognized for his unique ability to express Taiwan's indigenous myths through bronze sculpture.

I-Jiang explains that Continuity was created through his exploration of how culture is transmitted from generation to generation without writing. But, the style he has chosen for his work is arrestingly modern and surreal — some of his figures are missing limbs, they hold expressions that hint at complex emotions, expressing what we have come to expect from self-conscious modern art but which we are surprised to discover in art from a "primitive" culture.

I-Jiang - Forsaken Hunter 勇士的落寞

Perhaps these inconsistencies are beginning to inspire doubt in the visitor. All of I-Jiang's works bring to life people with rich emotion. As we get to know his subjects better, we begin to sense that the indigenous people he portrays are bitter over the oppression of their culture. This is epitomized by the Forsaken Hunter 勇士的落寞: a man holding his head in his hand, knife sheathed to his side, disheartened that there is no longer space to hunt in the modern world.

Waking from our reverie, we return our focus to the gallery, to realize that we have been under the spell of the work of a new creative generation, discovering a design nestled in the vigorous emergent confluence of Taiwan's cultural renaissance with the rise of indigenous self-awareness. We stand witness to the turbulent creativity of Taiwan's aborigine inspiration engaging modern culture full on.

Asked about the interaction between indigenous culture and design, Bunun tribeswoman Alice Takiwatan 亞磊絲.泰吉華坦 concisely explains that "indigenous motifs inspire new modes of expression." Continuing, she explains that when she realized that aborigine children were being lumped in with her classes of challenged children merely because they demonstrated poor math skills, the urbanized Bunun 布農 teacher switched careers to focus on promoting Taiwan's indigenous cultures, becoming a rare and respected spokesperson for all the different indigenous peoples of the island.

When she had the inspiration to invite leading wood sculptors to make woodcarvings outdoors at a public venue in 1998, Taipei officials dismissed the idea, fearing that wood chips and shavings from the carvings would create a mess. They expressed that these primitive performances would be more appropriate back in their tribal homelands than blemishing the image of the new and aspiring Da-an Forest Park. The city ultimately relented. The public visiting the park were deeply moved as they witnessed huge pieces of wood come to life under the hands of the master carvers and were so touched by the performance and works that they demanded that the sculptures be left in the park, where they remain to this day.

Alice explains that Taiwan's design is heavily influenced by western aesthetics, so islanders are especially moved when they discover such richness in their native culture. The flowering of democracy in the 1980's punctuated local culture's rise to a new found island self awareness. Taiwanese were free to reimagine their sense of history and culture and began to realize that they live on the island together with indigenous peoples. As anthropologists inform that the indigenous people of Taiwan were the fountainhead of the Austronesian dispersal which populated the island nations of the pacific from Madagascar to Easter Island and was the most broadly disseminated culture before European explorations, so the current residents of Taiwan become even more curious of their own indigenous origins.

I-Jiang - Blue Note 情聲

I-Jiang's Forsaken Hunter saddened by the encroachment of modernity exists only in I-Jiang's copper casting, and came to life to transmit a message through his form. His message is not that the indigenous people need to be preserved and saved, but rather that we are actually all original people, that we all share the hunter's sadness and the hunter reminds us to remember our origins. It is this essential message encoded in the art which raises it from an aesthetic work of art to a sublime expression connecting us to our origins.

In the 90's, the Taiwan government discovered the power of using indigenous design in promotion. Visiting VIP's were regularly treated to aborigine song and dance, taken to visit tribal villages and then offered gifts of clothing, jewelry and other handicrafts upon their departure. These activities in turn brought more attention to the island's indigenous make-up. Aborigine artists refined their presentation of singing, dance, weaving, wood caring, pottery making, handicrafts and food. Today industries once opportuned by non-indigenous entrepreneurs are increasingly being reclaimed by native artisans from Taiwan's many tribes.

Alice continues to work to bring together groups from all of Taiwan's tribes across the island to perform and present their arts to audiences on Taiwan and on the world stage. Working with such a creative resources, she often brings to light new designs. Meanwhile academics criticize non-traditional motifs, established artists dismiss avant-garde design and officials shy from innovation. I-Jiang also notes that being aborigine is a significant barrier to getting his show into museums and galleries. But Alice reminds all the skeptics and critics that they are witnessing the present manifestation of "new tradition" — creative expression that does not stand still but is forever evolving. Indigenous tradition continues into the present. She also reminds aspiring artists around her that authentic design that carries forth the indigenous message endures beyond the vehicle of its form, while designs that have lost the connection to their original meaning become dim shadows adrift in popular culture. New traditions continue to evolve but endure because they remain connected to their roots.

Philip, Alice, I-Jiang and Huang Senyi

With its rich heritage of many different indigenous peoples and cultures, a complex history of colonial rule, coupled with political relaxation which has allowed the rise of self-identity, Taiwan is a treasure chest spilling forth the recently recognized scattered jewels of its indigenity.

Philip, Alice, I-Jiang and Huang Senyi at the Ketagalan Culture Center, October 2006.