Mental Image Studio's Aboriginal Origami


2019 / April

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

A desire to do good has pushed two Han Chinese lowlanders into action, plunging them head first into highlighting the heritage of Taiwan’s Aborigines through their detailed renderings of the clothing and adornments of Taiwan’s 16 tribes. Employing skilled hands to realize their marvelous concepts, they have been introducing the world’s people to the beauty and rich meaning of Taiwan’s Aboriginal culture.

With its “Back to Home Project,” Mental Image Studio has worked with indigenous communities to produce paper handicrafts, to train “seed teachers,” to foster a circular economy, and to spur a revival of Aboriginal culture. In 2016, it was ranked first in the “artistic and cultural applications” section of the Ministry of Culture’s iMatch competition. In 2017, its origami training course won recognition from New Taipei City’s tribal community college for its outstanding curriculum. In 2017 and 2018, it was nominated for Golden Pin design awards. Earning kudos time and again, its reputation is on the rise.


Heaven helps those on the right path

With a good idea, it is possible to create a beautiful vista using just a sheet of paper. Although founded only three years ago, Mental Image Studio has already borne prodigious fruits in Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities. “In my life, what creation can I leave behind that belongs to Taiwan?” That was the question that Ray Lee, the studio’s creative director, asked himself. Lee, who is almost 60, was determined to live his life without regrets and he thus created a line of recognizably Taiwanese products.

“When you are on the right path, Heaven smooths the way for you.” Lee was busy looking for an artisan to execute his designs and suddenly realized that he had long known the most suitable person: Coca Wu, a fellow volunteer at the Genesis Social Welfare Foundation. These working companions, whose relationship is much like a father and daughter’s, have similar ambitions and complementary skills. Together they founded Mental Image Studio in 2016.

New indigenous handicrafts

“Back then I was thinking: What is visually most representat­ive of Taiwan?” It wasn’t until he went to the tribal villages, and the gorgeous graphics, bright colors and dreamlike images were suddenly laid out before his eyes, that he knew the answer to that question.

“Every group’s clothing is completely different, and it’s important not to mix them up.” The more one delves into this cultural inheritance, the more one realizes how impressive it truly is. “We can’t let this beautiful legacy disappear!” Lee wants to use modern media to pass down traditional culture.

“Because paper is so light and flexible, it is easy to shape.” Yet Lee hadn’t expected that the folding of this purest of media into origami would be so problematic. “It’s because the lines in the designs are as thin as hair, and the number of colors can range from two to seven. What’s more, the paper is tough, with many fibers, and these often clog the rollers during printing. It has nearly broken the machinery.”

The traditional spirit

The youthful appearance of art director Coca Wu belies an old soul focused on preserving traditions. “I hope to use sheets of paper to display the spirit of Taiwan’s Aboriginal peoples and to capture their cultural memor­ies.” Holding on to this sense of mission, she demonstrates the living philosophies of Taiwan’s native peoples and their life trajectories with each crease. Through handicrafts, culture moves from the realm of empty ­theory into the art of living.

“Tribal motifs represent ancient legends.” Aborigines put history into their designs, unreservedly displaying their natural aesthetic sensibility on traditional apparel that conveys the ethos of humanity being at one with nature.

It wasn’t until Lee and Wu went to Tsou tribal communit­ies that they learned that delicate headdresses represent “Mama’s handiwork.” Taiwan blue magpies, meanwhile, are the Tsou tribe’s holy birds, and the people of the tribe use color in their clothing to symbolize that their ancestors are always present and providing protection. Amis women use two belts with their under­garments, one tied outside and one inside. Meaning is conveyed by whether a skirt opens on the right or left or by where an alufu (“lovers pouch”) is positioned. Lilies in the headdresses of the Ru­kai represent purity, and only virgins can wear them. Eagle feathers are the exclus­ive province of chiefs, nobility, and tribal heroes. By not paying heed to these details, one could reveal one’s ignor­ance or perpetuate misconceptions.

Giving back to the tribe

Origami of Taiwanese Indigenous People is the first book published about Taiwanese Aborigines’ origami. Featuring text in Chinese, English and Japanese, it introduces Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized tribes. It not only gets Aborigines to reflect upon their cherished cultural herit­age, but also serves as an excellent way for foreigners to learn about Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

Providing materials and step-by-step instructions, Origami of Taiwanese Indigenous People was published in conjunction with the launching of the Back to Home Project in 2017. A culturally creative product, the book is also a means of carrying the torch for a cultural legacy. It serves both as a versatile educational resource and as a means of giving back to the tribes.

Mental Image Studio has gained the trust of tribe members by paying them excellent wages to make value-­added products. Meanwhile, the indigenous commun­ity colleges of New Tai­pei City, Tai­chung City and Tai­tung County have all put on courses to train teachers in these paper arts. So far more than 80 people, 70% of whom are Aborigines, have taken these classes.

These seed teachers have already led more than 500 origami-­related activities at museums, libraries, schools and foundations, shining a spotlight on Aboriginal culture. With the assistance of the Forestry Bureau, they have even taught a series of classes in forest recreation areas, which were quite entertaining.

The Back to Home Project has garnered rave reviews, both in Taiwan and overseas. At computer expos, this DIY paper arts experience prompts exclamations of delight and surprise from foreign guests as they learn about a meaningful and representative part of Taiwan’s culture. The project was featured in the cultural curriculum promoted by the Mandarin Daily News, as well as at an exhibit in Australia, where the special character­istics of Taiwanese Aboriginal clothing were used to tell stories about lives in Taiwan. The stories particularly resonated with Amis immigrants there.

Taking a public-interest approach to its business, Mental Image Studio is finding door after door opening to new opportunities. Full of positive energy and sincerely working to pass down a cultural legacy, it is helping Taiwan’s Aborigines to lead happy, fulfilling lives.

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