2010 / 1月
Kuo Li-chuan /photos courtesy of courtesy of Liu Siu-mei /tr. by Scott Williams
For the last several years, the so-called Civilian Arts Movement has been encouraging people without any training in the arts to take up painting. These budding painters include gray-haired senior citizens, divorced victims of long-term domestic violence, young prostitutes, workers disabled by occupational injuries, and immigrant brides from Southeast Asia.
These economically and socially disadvantaged artists have escaped the bounds of traditional painting to give direct expression to their own feelings and experiences. Their work depicts a variety of subjects: the terror of an air-raid at the end of World War 2, childhood memories of a grandmother making offerings to the spirits of the dead, a disabled worker's pain at the loss of an arm, and even a woman bathed in blood during her menstrual period. Their realistic portrayals of subjects we've seen before or see now in the world around address topics historically overlooked by Taiwanese art while simultaneously helping their creators heal themselves and reclaim their right to interpret their culture for themselves.
Liu Siu-mei, who became involved in Civilian Art education in 1992, argues that art makes people strong. Having herself benefited from the arts, she continues to sow their seeds around Taiwan, in the process earning acclaim from both the art world and society at large.
Artist Liu Siu-mei, who founded the Podong Dance Company in 2008 and Taiwan's first art school for girls in July 2009, traces her notion of Civilian Art to her mother, Chen Yueh-li, herself a renowned painter.Searching for a color
Liu was born in Taipei's Wanhua District in 1951 to a once-wealthy family effectively bankrupted by the Nationalist government's abrupt enactment of currency reform after World War 2. (The reform converted Taiwan dollars to New Taiwan dollars at a rate of 40,000:1.) The political handover of Taiwan to the Nationalists made her father's Japanese education virtually worthless overnight. When he elected to withdraw from the world rather than face the prospect of learning a new language and culture, the family ended up in poverty.
Liu's mother, Chen Yueh-li, cared for her four children while also keeping the family afloat by mending stockings and writing letters in Japanese for small business owners. In spite of the demands on her time, Chen did her utmost to provide her children with a variety of aesthetic experiences. One activity involved taking them to Keelung Harbor to see the ocean, then suggesting that they try to find a particular color. Games like this one, which revolved around Keelung's fabric consignment shops, provided the family with a momentary escape.
"The search let us forget that we were hungry," says Liu. "Training to detach from suffering in this way usually occurs in childhood." Liu well remembers the many times the family's rice bin was empty. When hunger had the kids feeling down, their mother would cheer them up by putting on a big black suit and rain boots, picking up an umbrella, and doing a Charlie Chaplin routine. Liu has loved Chaplin's work ever since.
Liu's two older sisters started school when she was five. With her mother busy caring for her younger brother, Liu wandered the streets alone, collecting empty soda bottles and old newspapers to scrounge money for tickets to Chaplin movies.
"Chaplin was born poor and his empathy for the poor permeates his comedies," says Liu. "He placed his destitute characters in situations that were much like my family's real life, and his films enabled me to realize that as long as you don't give up, poverty can encourage you to live more vigorously."Mother and daughter
As a child, Liu was often laughed at by classmates for the mismatched socks that her family's poverty compelled her to wear. She even used to slip out during lunch to "wash her face," using her moments out of the classroom to guzzle water to assuage her hunger. But these hardships hardened her resolve. She made a habit of dropping by a printer's after school to collect scrap paper to practice her drawing, and when her work won prizes, she earned respect she didn't get in other areas of her life. She also had an art teacher who made a point of teaching her oil portraiture.
After graduating from middle school, Liu went to work for an ad agency as an art assistant, then into its cartoon department as a cartoonist. Animation training helped Liu, who had long been an autodidact, strengthen her foundation in the arts. She later went on to design knitting patterns, toys, and purses.
Liu married the son of a factory owner at the age of 24, but, unable to bear her overbearing widowed mother-in-law or her drunken, philandering husband, she divorced him only a year later. As a single mother too financially strapped to provide her daughter with much in the way of entertainment, she emulated her mother, taking her daughter on train rides and whiling away the hours playing games around identifying scenes along the tracks. Sadly, she was to have only nine years with her daughter, who died young of what was likely a brain tumor.
"I first came to understand 'death' when my child passed away," says Liu. It was years before she emerged from the dark valley of depression to paint Playing House Like Mad, a seemingly festive piece memorializing her little girl.
Liu's second marriage brought her to Danshui, a town whose winding alleys, mysterious shops, sea scent, blind minstrel Jinmen Wang and journalist Pan Hsiao-hsia, the "teahouses" and johns, songs and antique stores became rich fodder for her life and work. She established a studio with her mother, who had returned to painting at the age of 50, and, in 1990, held an autobiographical exhibition at Taipei's Caitian Gallery.
The work on display at that exhibition interwove her childhood memories and feelings. For example, at a time when her mother didn't even have enough money to put food on the table, she bought a blue vase that went on to survive unscathed their many moves into new digs. "Even when life's hardships can't be avoided, you can face down Fate by taking pleasure in the moment," she says.Painting what you feel
In 1992, at the invitation of the Taipei County Cultural Center Liu, her mother, and Zhou Qiu Yingwei set up a mobile arts school for senior citizens that brought art education to 29 of the county's townships. It was Liu's first experience with taking art education to the community, and made her aware of the potential vitality of the arts among the masses.
In 1995, Liu initiated a senior arts education experiment in fine-arts-friendly Taipei City. She began it by lecturing on the Quanjing Community radio station and accepting call-in registrations for what became the Quanjing Seniors Art Class, the nation's first public painting society formed in the spirit of Liu's Civilian Art. The following year, the society changed its name to the Laughing Painting Society and, at the invitation of the Department of Social Welfare, moved into the Minsheng Borough Activity Center. The society is still active today.
Though the seniors painting have had very little prior training in the arts and in some cases had never even held a brush before, Liu stresses that "art is technique." With that in mind, she uses a number of pedagogic techniques, including having them study their faces in a mirror and make comparisons, e.g. comparing the nose to a head of garlic or a wax apple, and the eyes to grapes; using a clothes hanger to explain the proportions and structure of shoulders and the torso; using a sculptural approach to observing thick and thin, broad and narrow; using camera-shutter "persistence of vision" techniques to develop image memory; and training them in rapid sketching.
Liu also encourages her students to paint their experiences. For example, after using a clothes hanger to explain proportions and structure, she asks her students to paint the three most important items of clothing in their lives, then has them take turns telling the stories behind them. The old men are typically proud of their military uniforms, while the women tend to paint their middle-school uniforms, maternity dresses, or the clothes they were wearing when they were first introduced to their spouses.
"If there's emotional force within," says Liu, "they'll bring it out naturally in a painting." She says that her Civilian Art is a humanistic art. Over the last decade-plus, her seniors have shared the pain, sorrow, joys, and secrets of their lives with one another through their paintings. In the process, they've become closer to one another than they are to even their families.Depicting lost culture
She also noticed that the artworks of her elderly students also contained images of many trades that have disappeared. For example, Zheng Jionghui's grandfather ran a mine in Jinguashi during the period of Japanese rule. By illustrating every step of the waterwheel-driven gold extraction process, Zheng has filled in a bit of Taiwan's mining history missed by field surveys and the photographic record.
Similarly, Madame Lin Hongqi's paintings include detailed depictions of everyday activities from the Japanese era, including techniques and devices for soaking rice straw, twisting rope, and weaving grass bags and mats. Meanwhile, Xie Zhaozhi has painted sumptuous scenes of a wealthy family welcoming a new bride in the Japanese era. Xie's work details everything from the prospective couple's first introduction to one another at the finest department store in Ximending to the parading of the dowry through the streets for the neighbors to see. In so doing, her work makes it easier to understand why poor folk unable to pay a dowry sometimes hanged themselves.
Other pieces depict different ethnic groups' experiences of war via scenes of the Chinese civil war and Taiwanese soldiers in the Japanese army, images suggestive of the sense of rootlessness of those compelled to relocate to a strange island in 1949, and portrayals of the pain and difficulties that island residents had adjusting to the rapid regime change.... Together, these works make plain both the diversity and vitality of Taiwan.
In addition to rescuing lost histories, some seniors are using art to express their erotic fantasies, providing an important new window into understanding elderly communities.
Liu laughs and says that there have been elderly men asking her whether they could paint racy images ever since she began the Quanjing call-in registrations. Some seniors have never forgotten their wedding night, while others remain filled with desire for "teahouse girls," betel-nut princesses, or immigrant brides but they are afraid to say so for fear of being labeled "dirty old men." When these works are unveiled, the elderly women in the class cover their eyes or lay their heads down on their desks, amused but embarrassed by the brags and laments of their male classmates.An artistic harvest festival
Civilian art, which is characterized by its non-academic foundation, developed in conjunction with the "liberalization of knowledge" trend kickstarted by Taiwan's community colleges in 1998. In fact, it was these community institutions that opened up a dialogue between Civilian Art and the academy, and Xizhi Community College that first incorporated Civilian Art into its curriculum.
"Civilian Art is like a harvest festival in which participation is collective," says Pan Ing-hai, former director of Xizhi Community College. "Liu Siu-mei has established painting clubs in the community, built a collective memory, and enabled people in the lower socioeconomic strata to collectively give expression to repressed feelings. For his part, Liu's husband, Danshui Community College director Chang Chien-lung, hopes to use the establishment of a "Civilian Art for Asian Women" class to grant more people the right to make art.
In 2001, Ludi Community College and the Taiwan Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries jointly invited Liu to teach a painting class for injured workers and their families.
In the past, injured workers were taught to paint with less-than-nimble mouths, feet, or prosthetic limbs. They pretended all was well by copying model paintings of carp and landscapes that bore no relationship to the bitterness they felt, producing pieces that were sold at charity bazaars. Liu took a different approach, encouraging them to be bold and paint what they felt. In 2002, she established the Occupational Injuries Painting Society and held an Occupational Injuries Art Exposition. Her endeavors were the first in Taiwan to encourage injured workers to use a brush to relate their own stories and produced actual historical evidence of working conditions on the island.
"Prior to joining the painting society, I thought of art as something remote, something that those of us who can't even provide food and shelter for ourselves could never play at," says Zhang Ronglong. Zhang, whose right arm and left leg had to be amputated after he received a high-voltage shock on the job while in his 20s, expressed the desolation and hardship he has felt as a result of the loss of his limbs in the painting A View of a Back. Unwilling to be pitied, he took to the corridors of the hospital in the dead of night to practice walking with his newly made prosthetic limb, gritting his teeth and bearing the chafing and impacts of the hard plastic of the limb on his just-healed wounds.
At the age of 18, Lian Tingyu lost her right arm below the elbow to a machine in the fabric mill in which she worked. Some 20 years later, she painted A Crushing Mood, which shows a woman in transparent clothing holding a prosthetic limb in her left hand and wearing chains on her legs calmly and resolutely writing "I will not bleed" across her waist.A way forward
Whether as a result of the older generation's "have a family, build a career" ideology or the younger's "love knows no borders" mentality, the number of foreign brides coming to Taiwan has been on the rise in recent years. Unfortunately, domestic violence has been increasing as well, and linguistic and cultural barriers make foreign brides among the most vulnerable to it.
To better serve the women it aids, the Taiwan Women's Development Association adopted Liu's notion that "the disadvantaged should receive artistic welfare." In 1997, the association offered the nation's first art class targeting primarily Southeast Asian women to students that included immigrant brides from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and mainland China.
In the first class, Liu broke the ice by having students share their family nicknames and recall their childhoods in their hometowns. She then had them relate the New Year's customs of their hometowns. "It was only after hearing their descriptions that I learned that Vietnamese put out a big watermelon for the New Year, and that foreign brides often bring sanitary napkins with them as gifts when they go back home on visits."
After "A-shu" came to Taiwan as a bride four years ago, she became subject to daily verbal lashings and physical violence. Painting offered her a way out of her desperate situation. So nervous the first time she picked up a brush that she shook and even cried as she painted, she nonetheless felt as if she'd recovered her long-lost self-respect and self-confidence when she completed it. Painting even gave her the courage to tell her husband, "No!"A revolution inside
Liu also accepted an invitation to teach in an Aboriginal village from the Hualien branch of the Legal Aid Foundation (LAF). In that class, she had her female students use words and images to vent as fully as possible the anger they felt towards their abusers. Baguacao, a Saisiyat woman, and her three children had been physically and verbally abused by her husband for years. In her introduction to a piece entitled Art Killer, Baguacao explained, "I hoped that one day 'he' would lower his hands. Or, better still, that I could end it, that I could close his mouth and stitch it up, that I could make him taste pain and powerlessness both physically and spiritually."
Liu argues that domestic violence isn't a question of size or strength, but of power. Moreover, she says, "Art makes people powerful!" Unlike psychotherapies that place victims in the passive role of a weak person receiving assistance from others, art is active; it awakens self-awareness, clarifies confusions, and through the use of the aesthetic sense, transforms and consoles.
"Taiwan's women's rights movement has always been relatively Westernized and elitist," says Liu. She notes that whenever her students who had suffered domestic violence sought to participate in the women's movement, they were given marginal tasks like sticking stamps on envelopes and handing out fliers, reinforcing their sense of uselessness and powerlessness.
"But Civilian Art education has enabled them to become artists," says Liu. Art gives them a completely new understanding of themselves, and they no longer accept being trampled upon by others. Instead, they seek outside help or even act entirely on their own to ensure that their husbands don't dare raise a hand to them again. Having freed themselves from domestic violence, some have gone on to use Liu's system to teach and offer guidance to other women in similar situations.
Cai Yunqing, the deputy director of the Hualien branch of the LAF and a participant in the arts program since its inception, says that students struggle and weep while painting their pain, but that every time they get angry, the lifeforce so long held in check by their wounds gushes forth like a spring. The process is turbulent, but isn't damaging. It's like a "revolution of dignity" that takes place inside them.Young women's mural crusade
Those whom Liu was most interested in helping with her variety of art therapy were young women and children who had been forced or voluntarily entered into prostitution. In 1998, she accepted an invitation from ECPAT Taiwan, an organization devoted to ending child prostitution, to hold a class at the Guangci Care Home. "Whether they entered into the business voluntarily or not, these girls have been trampled upon and had their values twisted by the adult world. Their perspectives on events and their physical experiences are very different from those of other girls their age."
Liu decided to "speak their language." Using a huge swath of canvas, she taught her students to create large portraits and murals, allowing them to free themselves from their flinching and the withering of their lifeforce. She encouraged them to develop "iron wills," to reclaim their autonomy, to resist pressure from family and lovers, and to not be constrained by poverty, lack of education, or notions of chastity.
"Those with enough skill work on their own pieces," says Liu. "Those without work with others." Their giant portraits and murals aren't just a declaration of life, but also evidence of the girls joining hands to help one another grow.
These young women established the Young Sex-workers Painting Society in 1999. Liu notes that few arts societies in Taiwan or abroad have young women members, making her young women's work something rare and marvelous in the history of art. In 2001, the society caught the eye of the art world with an exhibition entitled "Youth and Color Dance Together." The young artists made a point of inviting women from shelters in Taichung, Kaohsiung, and Hualien who had lived through similar experiences to attend. When they introduced their works, their recollections of the beatings they had received from their pimps and the injuries inflicted by their patrons brought tears to the eyes of everyone present.
Wuli, a Bunun girl, painted herself as an adorable, helpless child in A Girl in the Reeds. In Drifter in Da'an Forest, she used a sawn-off tree limb to suggest that she was as powerless and alone as a withered branch lying on the ground in an urban forest. Li Ping'er painted all of the internal organs on a T-shirt and titled it Still Naked, With or Without. In addition to helping her break free of the memory of her wounds, the piece makes an ironic comment on our society. "Only a truly proud spirit can calmly and openly face the injuries of the soul," says Liu.New arts movement
To help students break through their mental blocks and learn to treat painting as a game, Liu also takes them on "field trips" to observe how Taiwanese people live. For example, she has taken elderly students to the Yangmingshan hot springs or Dihua Street to better understand the customs and habits of other seniors, and has brought immigrant brides to dance halls, where they study "man-ology" and learn how Taiwanese men entertain themselves.
Community development efforts have implemented the Civilian Art concept across Taiwan for many years now, attracting the participation of people from all walks of life. These efforts have ensured that the arts are no longer the sole prerogative of a small portion of the middle class, but a tool that everyone can use to paint stories from their own lives. Civilian Art isn't merely a new Taiwanese art movement-it's become a new social movement!