This year’s TAIWANfest offers programming for music lovers, those interested in current affairs, film aficionados, and anyone with a hankering for Taiwanese cuisine. Plus, the festival is hosting the fifth of its annual Dialogues With Asia series, this time focusing on South Korea.
But for some, the greatest appeal of TAIWANfest is its visual-arts component. Last week, the Straight covered Taiwanese-born artist Lady Hao Hao’s playful yet exceedingly serious Just Taiwan series of graphic images, which lampoon the propensity of some to label this independent nation as “Chinese Taipei”.
This online exhibition appears alongside another exhibition on the TAIWANfest website entitled Cultures Fermented, by artist Cheng Chin-wen. In depicting a giant urn, Cheng likens the development of Taiwanese and South Korean culture to the process of fermentation, with Confucianism and historical occupation by Japan as two of the base ingredients.
“The evolution of culture is just like the fermentation of food,” an accompanying video states. “Through different chapters in history, various traditions, and social movements, the making of today’s Taiwanese and Korean cultures has been gradually accumulating and transforming.”
Taiwan and South Korea each performed the astonishing feat of transforming themselves from martial law to thriving democracies, which is also shown in the urn. And some freedom advocates in both countries paid a heavy price to achieve liberty for their compatriots.
These efforts to create new narratives have become a staple of TAIWANfest’s Dialogues With Asia series. But another way in which the festival has helped reinforce a new national narrative is by elevating awareness of one of Taiwan’s most famous painters, Chen Cheng-po (also known as Tan Ting-pho). He was influenced by a Japanese artist, Ishikawa Kinichiro, who was among those who introduced western watercolours to the island when it was colonized by Japan from 1895 to 1945.
Chen’s life story reflected the tumultuous history of his homeland in the early to middle part of the 20th century. He loved Chinese literature and moved to Shanghai, where he taught western art. But he was not welcome in China after hostilities broke out between Japan and China because he came from what was then Japanese territory.
After he returned to Taiwan, Chen then ran into trouble with the Kuomintang government, which took control of the island after the Japanese surrendered. The KMT under Chiang Kai-shek killed him in the notorious February 28 Incident in 1947 because he was considered part of the Taiwanese elite. He perished along with thouands of other Taiwanese people.
Chen’s eldest grandson, Li-po Chen, chairs the Chen Cheng-po Cultural Foundation, and he will be among those giving videotaped presentations at this year’s TAIWANfest. His is called Mountains, Seas, and Plains and explains how his grandfather’s many oil paintings reflected the landscape of Taiwan.
In an interview with the Straight through a translator, Li-po Chen noted that his grandfather was trained as a teacher under the Japanese education system and taught elementary school for four years in addition to his formal art instruction from Japanese painters.
“Despite this kind of training background, he was never shaped into conventional Japanese elite,” Li-po Chen said. “On the other hand, after he became famous, he devoted his career to fostering an identity that differs from the contemporary western or classical Japanese styles. He had always wanted to see if this search of identity could help his home of Taiwan establish her unique cultural perspective.”
According to Li-po Chen, his father “shouldered the strong and undeniable devotion to find the most truthful positioning of Taiwan’s history” through his work.
“Exploring all the scattered material facts to adequately interpreting his artistic visions is what we are dedicated to do—and the result is our ultimate responsibility,” he said.
He noted that there are also some parallels between Chen Cheng-po and Emily Carr, who is one of B.C.’s most famous painters. That’s because both demonstrated strong passion and empathy that were always felt beyond their frames.
“Their respect for the forest and the land, as well as for the Indigenous peoples and their traditions, is a generational contrast,” Li-po Chen said, “and a good reflection for the contemporary generations of artists who focus on expressionism or the modernity of the arts.”