When 50 Steps is Further than Taipei: Indigenous Contemporary Art and Temporal Orientation

Written by DJ Hatfield.

Image credit: Amis Tribe of Taiwan by Larry Koester/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Over the past ten years, images of Indigenous people have increased both in Taiwan and international representation. Indigenous people appear in depictions of Taiwan’s relationships to Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in promotions of Taiwan as a tourist destination, in discourses of sustainability, and images of environmental protest.

In relationship to these representations of Indigenous people, Taiwanese Indigenous contemporary artists maintain an ambivalent footing, aware that current indigenous visibility rearticulates Taipei (here referring broadly to settler power) rather than displacing it. Although they often create alliances with settler discourses of environmental and cultural sustainability, artists such as Rahic Talif and Iyo Kacaw (both Makota’ay Pangcah) and Hana Kliw (‘Atolan ‘Amis) also engage in acts of refusal. They disrupt settler appropriations of indigeneity as a cultural resource while remaining engaged with institutions for displaying and circulating art in Taipei and abroad.

Recalibrations of Settler Time

Today’s multicultural Taiwan grew as a recalibration of settler time, in the context of Taiwan’s remarkable transition to democracy.

Under martial law, Taiwan’s public culture and educational system induced citizens to feel the nation emerging out of poverty and backwardness into the status of a fully developed country soon to reunite all of China. In doing so, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) laminated monocultural nation-building with economic development, as it mobilised the populace in both processes. In the mid to late 1980s, political transition in Taiwan corresponded closely with the emergence of doubt concerning development. Although Taiwanese multiculturalism has often been understood as a straightforward valorisation of the local, it is notable that multiculturalism configures time: It places Taiwan at the cusp of looming cultural and ecological crises, such as the loss of local languages, decreased biodiversity, and global warming. In this context, indigeneity provides more than grounding for a post-Chinese national identity. If under martial law, indigeneity appeared as a token of unavoidable social pathologies accompanying development, now indigeneity reveals the semblance of a hopeful future.

Although settler investments in cultural and environmental sustainability often feature indigeneity, Indigenous artists tend to engage settler orientations to sustainability critically. As I argue, Hana, Rahic, and Iyo challenge how settlers conceive relations to land/ocean, the non- and more-than-human, and the future. Their work provokes non-‘Amis audiences to wrestle with a time not their own, with which they must negotiate.

Dance and Sovereign Assertion

These artists allude to dance or employ dance as a method in their work yet refuse to produce figures of dancing Indigenous bodies. To me, this refusal points out their engagement with dance as a form of a sovereign assertion that settlers often misrecognise. Dance, in their artwork, provides a counterpoint to settler time. It resonates with various other practices with which it shares gestures, such as agricultural work, gathering, and net fishing. Rahic dances across canvases applying paint with his feet. He also gathers sea plastics to construct installations that remind us that the intertidal zone, the “space of fifty steps,” may still teach us to become human. Iyo conjoins human and piscine seeing in ways that disrupt settler notions of marine species as a resource. His works draw on a temporality produced in net fishing as one aligns one’s senses with the ocean’s frequencies, rhythms that also inform Pangcah / ‘Amis dance.

Feeling into these frequencies takes practice, as I have found out in my ongoing collaboration with Rahic and everyday work with people who live in and around ‘Atolan, Hana’s hometown (and where Rahic has his studio). And if non-‘Amis people often misrecognise dance as a sign of a “carefree, simple people” when it maintains ethical relationships to the land/ocean and asserts sovereignty, how can contemporary artists provoke different modes of sensing, feeling, and knowing in the relatively limited context of an art gallery or outdoor installation? How might contemporary art teach us to adopt a different temporal orientation than those provided by the now conjoined discourse of settler nationalism or global environmentalism? Below, I try to illustrate these questions through a reading of Hana Kliw’s series of environmental installations, GiftBlessing.

Witnessing Relationships to the Land/Ocean: GiftBlessing

GiftBlessing witnesses to the lived presence of ‘Amis people in “the space of 50 steps.” A collaborative installation at Pacifalan, North ‘Atolan, and Fudafudak, the work intervenes in ongoing disputes over coastal land management. These disputes have riven ‘Amis communities internally as well as knitted ‘Amis activists with settler environmentalists against developers. In her work, Hana resituates these disputes, displacing settler temporal orientations that generally frame environmental debates. With a group of women residing in ‘Atolan, Hana knitted and wove long strips of multicoloured yarn, which she then wrapped around stones, standing tree stumps, and a large post. Typhoons toppled the stumps, and exposure bleached the yarn. Eventually, the entire work decomposed into the landscape. The works in GiftBlessing neither attempts to dominate the landscape nor situate human practices outside of it but witnesses ongoing Indigenous land practices.

Through their colour and medium (fabric), the installations allude to dance. A medium through which ‘Atolan ‘Amis interact with the land, receiving the land’s gifts and transforming them, in ritual, into blessings. Hana described ‘Amis dance as grounded gestures that index enduring relationships with the land in our conversations. Through her work’s allusion to dance, she suggests that the blessing is mutual, a blessing on the land but also the blessing of the land; the piece calls our attention to the land’s gifts and our responsibility to return these gifts in blessings and gratitude. In its collaborative production, unmarked witness, and eventual disappearance into the land, GiftBlessing asserts a temporal orientation grounded in the gift, refusing the time of ownership and development.

Hana’s installation also develops an ethics of ngodo (humility, consideration) through its unmarked witness. It points out how Pacifalan and Fudafudak are not lands awaiting development but partners in producing a way of life. In a sense, the pieces are still there, if now unseen. Hopefully, her work—and that of Rahic and Iyo—will provoke audiences critically to appraise how they see the space of 50 steps and, more broadly, the future of the island we now call Taiwan.

DJ Hatfield is Assistant Professor of History and Anthropology in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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