Two Young Indigenous Scholars are Promoting Indigenous artists – in Taiwan and Beyond.

Written by Fanny Caron

Image credit: Lin Guo-Ting at SOAS. Image provided by author  

As previous generations of scholars including Tung Chun-Fa 童春發(1946-, Paiwan), Sun Ta-Chuan 孫大川 (1953-, Puyuma), or Sasala Taiban 撒沙勒·台邦 (1965-, Rukai) did, an increasing number of Indigenous students from Taiwan undertake post-graduate studies focused on Indigenous topics abroad. Following in their Elders’ footsteps, they too advocate for the construction of “a historical consciousness based on Indigenous subjectivity”, sharing an emic approach to Indigenous studies on an international scale. Lin Guo-Ting 林果葶 (1983-), an Amis assistant professor at Ming Chuan University 銘傳大學, researcher, and musician, and Biung Ismahasan 彼勇·依斯瑪哈單 (1984-), a Bunun, Atayal and Kanakanavu curator, artist, and researcher, are two such scholars. In 2021 they defended doctorates dedicated to reclaiming their Indigeneity through artistic works (plastic and musical), putting forth tribal knowledge, ontologies, aesthetics, and ethics. By means of interviews, I conducted with them regarding their commitment to the promotion of Indigenous artists in Taiwan and beyond, I will illustrate the importance and relevance of their past, ongoing, and future scholarly and artistic outputs.

Lin completed her doctorate titled Music Culture and the Self-Presentation of Indigenous Musicians on Social Media in Contemporary Taiwanwithin the Communication and Media Institute of the University of Westminster in April 2021. The daughter of an Amis mother and a Han father, she realised during her undergraduate studies that she knew far more about her father’s ancestry than her mother’s and that the main narrative on Indigenous History and Peoples from Taiwan was still very much dominated by the etic non-Indigenous perspective. Those were the two main issues – one personal yet shared by many Indigenous people with mixed heritage and one epistemological in nature – she set out to address. 

Ismahasan, after attending the 2014 Riddu international Indigenous festival in Norway, decided to focus his master’s research on curatorial practices by working with Sámi artists. From there, he ascertained that, in Taiwan, non-Indigenous curators and academics (self)identified as experts in the fields of Indigenous Contemporary Art were controlling major publishing and curatorial contracts. Moreover, their misunderstanding, biased judgement, and appropriation of Taiwan’s Indigenous cultures betrayed the very communities who entrusted them with their art, thus perpetuating a history of hegemonic pillaging of tribal cultures and art. To rectify this decades – if not centuries-old – situation, Ismahasan wrote a thesis titled Indigenous Relational Space and Performance: Curating Together towards Sovereignty in Taiwan and Beyond. As a result, he received his doctorate from the Centre for Curatorial Studies at the University of Essex in January 2021. He became the first Indigenous scholar from Taiwan to obtain a PhD in Curating.

Lin and Ismahasan’s academic disciplines and the career path they have chosen to highlight a change in Taiwan Indigenous studies on an international level. These choices enable them to play a part in shifting the discourse on Indigenous Peoples from “objects” of study to active “subjects” of their own (counter-) narrative, supporting their affirmation of Indigeneity and tribal sovereignty. A role they take on willingly since they, like most Indigenous scholars who completed their PhD in universities outside of Taiwan, then came home to pursue their work with (and within) Indigenous communities. Benefiting from their time abroad, they have established international networks with other Indigenous Nations and with dominant societies to shine a light on Indigenous issues both in Taiwan and shared amongst all Indigenous Peoples. They raise awareness of Natives’ feelings of alienation from their territories and identity by introducing militant music and art pieces to a varied audience, be it specialised or general, Indigenous, and non-Indigenous, foreign, and domestic. 

Lin hopes her courses at Ming Chuan University and the National Taiwan University of Arts can help her (mostly Han) students better understand Indigenous peoples through art. She often introduces Indigenous music to discuss Indigenous issues in Taiwan (discrimination, loss or quest of identity, Indigenous movements). When modules are related to media studies, she addresses issues of representation and of self-presentation for Indigenous artists as well. As for Ismahasan, he curated many exhibitions throughout the island. Most notable, he was the first Indigenous person to be invited by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Taipei to curate an Indigenous exhibition. Titled Resurgence and Solidarity: Indigenous Women’s Art Across the Borders, in reference “to borders that divide nations but also those that separate urban tribes and Indigenous communities, different groups and cultures – in short, borders form the boundary within each individual,” it featured solely women’s art. In this show, Taiwan Indigenous artists Chang En-Man 張恩滿 (1967- Paiwan and Han), Idas Losin 宜德思·盧信(1976-, Truku and Atayal), Aluaiy Kaumakan 阿儒瓦苡·篙瑪竿 (1971-, Paiwan), Eleng Luluan 峨冷·魯魯安 (1968-, Rukai), Sámi artist from Norway Marita Isobel Solberg (1977-), and Ismahasan expand on the notion of “cultural loss” stemming from colonisation and a changing environment.

Therefore, what do these two young doctors’ work implies for the future of Taiwan studies, more precisely Taiwan Indigenous studies, and contributes in terms of broader trends and movements pertaining to Taiwan in 2022? With Indigenous artists and scholars making their voices heard, via militant works, on a globalised academic, political, cultural, and artistic scene, their tribal knowledge, long overlooked and ignored – or even mocked, especially by non-Indigenous colonisers – is now gaining in recognition. For instance, in conjunction with the Indigenous Culture and Education Programme of the Taiwanese Ministry of Education, National Tsing Hua University 國立清華大學 started construction in 2021 on a pavilion that will house, as of 2022, the first the Center for Indigenous Science Development founded in 2019. According to the University’s president, Hochen Hong 賀陳弘, the Center was created “in order to deepen [Taiwan’s] understanding of the traditional wisdom of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, and to find ways in which it can be applied to finding effective solutions for such pressing issues as global warming and climate change.”

These alternative organising models are also featured in Indigenous contemporary art and music. By questioning the skewed and once – or perhaps still – canon interpretation of Indigenous arts from Taiwan, young Indigenous scholars are reshaping how these productions are considered in the arts world and academia. They challenge preconceived notions in university conferences and seminars (e.g., in December 2021, Ismahasan presented his responses to global Indigenous curatorial practices at Normal Taiwan National University’s Department of Fine Arts). They highlight the various pathways Homo Academicus (to use Bourdieu’s term) can take in his disciplinary field (as Bourdieu hinted at) when rethinking in-depth the prevailing euro/sinocentric epistemologies and methodologies. In addition, Ismahasan and Lin’s contributions to the conversation on Indigenous arts transcend the academic sphere. They fit into broader conversations on the treatment of disempowered groups and marginalised communities or individuals in Taiwan, as well as on the crucial ongoing fights of the artists they represent and make known: Indigenous rights, land recovery and protection, ancestral knowledge recognition, community, and solidarity ethics – all imperatives of long-term Indigenous, human, and planetary survival.

Lin pointed out that the musicians she interviewed all understand their role in bridging tradition and modernity, older and younger generations, and even the dominant society and Indigenous communities. In their music, they advocate for change, including in the government’s treatment of their ancestral homeland, protesting against its pillaging and misuse. Likewise, Ismahasan’s curatorial practices imply a Bunun concept of coexistence with the land, maluskun mas dalah, which “also means humility and fear towards the earth and, like in many First Nations cultures, posits a grounded relationship both culturally and spiritually.” Hence, Ismahasan and the artists he works with create exhibits elaborated around Indigenous value systems of togetherness, rooted in a natural space, and grounded in a tribal identity bound to the people’s relationship with nature and each other. Their assertion of sovereignty not only arises from this ancestral connection with the land but from survival and resilience strategies developed after centuries of imperialist encroachment. Non-Indigenous people who will soon face unprecedented socio-environmental challenges and yet did not grow in resilience could benefit from engaging with these Indigenous concepts and values.

In 2022, Lin and Ismahasan will keep building bridges between Indigenous communities and academia by collaborating with artists to further the appreciation of Taiwan Indigenous knowledge. Whilst pursuing her research on Indigenous music, Lin, who stresses the importance of Indigenous studies taught by people with Indigenous roots – from an insider’s perspective – will redouble her efforts to integrate discussions on Indigenous experiences in her teaching modules. This is to arrive at a better understanding of the relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples through music. For Lin, “the arts are channels for audiences with diverse backgrounds to meet Indigenous culture.”

Ismahasan, for his part, is curating “Resurgence and Solidarity: Indigenous Taiwanese Women’s Art” (March 2021-March 2022), an ORIGINS Festival (a platform promoting First Nations art from all over the world) online exhibition, with partners from Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Guam. It displays pieces from Milay Mavaliw 米類·瑪法琉 (1962-, Pinuyumayan), Eleng Luluan, and Aluaiy Kaumakan, once more bringing to the fore Indigenous women’s social and environmental concerns. Kaumakan’s work, co-curated by Ismahasan, will then be displayed at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney (March-June 2022). In Sydney, Kaumakan will connect with her Indigenous international “family” by teaching members of the Dhurg community the Paiwan lemalik weaving technique. This transnational alliance is to continue during the 59th Venice Biennale (April-November 2022): Ismahasan will be working with the Sámi Pavilion, where, for the first time, Sámi artists will be presented exclusively and “recognised as a nation in a pavilion bearing their name.”

In sum, concerning the theme of this issue, in 2022, we can look forward to projects and courses fostering a more nuanced understanding of – and an (alter)Native discourse on – Taiwan Indigenous studies, notably in the fields of curation, visual arts, and music.

Fanny Caron-Scarulli 史法妳 is a current associate researcher of IrAsia research unit, CNRS-Aix-Marseille University (member of the research teams five: “Transmission of knowledge, orientation of social values,” and one: “Asian literatures and translations”). She defended her PhD, From ancestral Orature to contemporary Literature of the Dakotapi and the Paiwan: (hi)stories of trans-indigenous resilience, in 2020.

One comment

  1. What are colonisers doing? They co-opt some indigenous elite into their culture, they educate some indigenous talent in their culture, they brand their culture as ‘advanced’ and indigenous culture as ‘primitive’, they romanticise the indigenous culture as pure, earth-bound, community conscious, and whatever else is found lacking in their own societies. And those colonisers are still very much at work.

    Two indigenous persons are trained as scholars (a Western cultural artefact) at universities (ditto) in specific academic fields (ditto), thus becoming thoroughly embedded in Western culture. These scholars use the Western cultural concepts ‘promotion’, ‘art festival’, ‘exhibition’ on indigenous artists who are fashioned on the Western image of an artist.

    I see this as colonising indigenous art by way of culturally hijacked indigenous actors.

    Even the concept of ‘indigenous’ is Western. The Bunun, the Atayal, and all the others can’t speak in their own voice. They are relegated to the voice of their cultural overlords even in their art if they want to be seen and heard. Their art’s function is the satisfaction of their oppressor’s appetite for the romantic and the exotic.

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