Yosifu is a man who smiles warmly and frequently, and glows with an easy confidence. His self portrait, I Hear Myself (2011), in which he depicts himself smiling, eyes closed, hand placed across his chest, a wreath of flowers encircling his head, tells a story of self-realization and acceptance. In his other paintings, aboriginal women smile and laugh, decked out in the vibrant colours and intricate patterns of their traditional costumes; muscular young men adopt powerful stances and gaze directly at the viewer.
Yet, the bright colours and confident brushstrokes which are the signature hallmarks of his work belie a multitude of stories which are much darker and complex. Seeping through the shadows of his work is the private pain of a marginalized and silenced community, an ethnicity which continues to fight for its voice to be heard above the din of the majority.
A member of the Amis tribe, Yosifu is building an international reputation for himself as a contemporary aboriginal artist. He spends half the year in his adopted home Edinburgh, Scotland participating in a variety of international arts festivals, and the other half in Taiwan where he has recently opened the Yosifu Taiwan Aboriginal Contemporary Art Gallery in Taipei and frequently hosts and attends different cultural events around the island with different aboriginal tribes.
While his reputation now seems destined only to grow, his own path has not been easy and he well understands the challenges which aboriginals young and old face in Taiwanese society. By serendipitous turns of fate, Yosifu has found himself in the unique position of being able to be a voice and a shining light for his people on the international stage. He is taking this opportunity to reinvigorate the Taiwanese indigenous communities with a sense of pride in their cultural heritage, encouraging them to reclaim the right to represent their history and culture in an authentic way, and to stake their rightful place in modern society free of the outdated stereotypes and insensitive prejudices that have been imposed upon them.
THE UNLIKELY ARTIST
In his youth Yosifu never expected that he would become an artist, it simply wasn’t on his agenda. His first love was for music, and he is indeed a very talented musician with the rich timbre of voice which Taiwanese aboriginals are typically renowned for. He pursued his dream of becoming a musician until he could pursue it no longer; when a recording contract upon which he had pinned his hopes fell through, he was left heartbroken and lost. So he took the advice of a friend and moved to Edinburgh, to heal his heart, open out his horizons and find some fresh inspiration. And it seemed to work.
He started off as a decorator, painting walls and sleeping on his friends’ sofas until he’d saved enough money for a bed of his own. But while on holiday in Greece, three angels came to him in a dream, told him to start painting and guided his hand on the wall to paint a colourful flowing river. The veracity of this tale is impossible to determine, but nevertheless Yosifu picked up an artists’ paintbrush and started to experiment in his spare time. Thus began his journey into the world of contemporary art.
Although he had never received any formal training in fine arts (he playfully describes himself as a “feral” artist), the stars aligned when an organizer of the Edinburgh Arts Festival introduced himself to Yosifu at a party, asked him who had created the paintings on the wall and promptly invited him to join an exhibition he was curating three weeks later. Thus began Yosifu’s road to international fame.
A FRESH-EYED GAZE
It was at a friend’s suggestion that Yosifu started to take his own cultural background as his subject matter. Now he looked at his heritage with fresh eyes and realised that it would not only make for fascinating art for an outside viewer unfamiliar with his homeland, but could also become his means to draw attention to the issues which aboriginals face in the contemporary world. Thus, Yosifu’s work explores the nuances aboriginal identity, weaving together serious observations with social commentary, preserving stories, legends and traditions within his work for future generations to appreciate, and celebrating the unique aesthetic and symbolic language of indigenous culture.
For example, regarding a painting of two laughing women called Laugh You Two (2011), he explains at a TED X Taipei event that “our definition of beauty is different. Traditional Chinese will view beauty, especially East Asian beauty, as feminine, graceful with a shy laugh. But in our Amis perspective, this is true beauty: a radiant smile, energetic, and sporty.” In fact the Amis society in particular is known for being fairly matriarchal, with women having freedom to choose husbands as they wish and property being passed down through the female line. Amis culture is also very much about living in the moment – their dancing, singing, chanting and clapping allows them to enter an uninhibited state of freedom, and they love to joke and laugh. Thus many of Yosifu’s paintings reflect this innocent, joyous celebration of life.
Another beautiful painting which he keeps stashed in his gallery, one of several to which he is too attached to sell, is called Flying Fish Offering (2013) which depicts a woman (Yosifu laughingly told me this woman is his sister – his family members make for cheap models!) flailing her hair above her head and seemingly juggling fish. The connotations of this painting run deep; according to Yosifu the seasonal migration of the flying fish is an important event for the Yami tribe who live on Lanyu (Orchid) Island, and their arrival each year is greeted by a community festival. While the men head out to sea to fish for the bounty which is enough to feed the tribe for an entire year, the women perform a delicate dance to celebrate and pray for their safe return – they never cut their hair and use their flowing locks to emulate the waves of the sea.
A triptych called The Legend of the Peacock Pearl (2011) relates to a romantic tale from the Paiwan tribe of a peacock prince who fell in love with a young village girl. When her father refused to let him take her hand in marriage, the prince waited outside her house patiently each day until she finally consented to elope with him. Her tears which fell as they flew into the sky fell to the village and became a beautiful peacock pearl, which according to folklore is the origin of the peacock pearl beads for which the Paiwan tribe is famous. These beads traditionally served as signifiers of social status and wealth, and as protective talismans against evil spirits, passed down through generations of families.
Particularly striking is a portrait of a beautiful Amis woman, open-eyed with her hands locked over her mouth in horror. It is called The Face of Nature (2012), and the subtext read, ‘Mother Earth, what has caused the shock and sadness on your face? How can we make you smile again?’ This portrait clearly touches upon the environmental damage which the modern centuries have wreaked upon the land – changes which are acutely felt by the aboriginals, whose peaceful co-existence with nature has been brutally disrupted by the arrival of colonists. Land-grabbing and years of forced displacement continue to plague the native people, as well as trying to navigate their way through the complicated new legal frameworks in place. Currently the rapid development of the tourism industry is a particularly large threat, as well as the large-scale extraction of materials for cement production which has continued unhindered by legal restraints.
SPEAKING OUT OF THE SILENCE
Yosifu’s work doesn’t explicitly delve into the darker side of aboriginal history, but that’s not because he isn’t acutely aware of the struggles of his people. A long history of colonization has led to indigenous peoples being broadly stereotyped as “inherently lazy,” “unproductive,” “hooked on booze” and “lawless,” or else as “good at singing and dancing” and “natural born athletes.” Even today it is possible to encounter such attitudes, particularly among the elder generations, and the legacy of this discrimination still echoes in the social status of aboriginals today; their life expectancy is lower than the national average, as is their expected annual income.
Yosifu related some very personal experiences from his own youth, remembering that in school he was only allowed to speak Mandarin Chinese and suffered heavy punishments for speaking his mother tongue. Under Chiang Kai-shek’s regime of martial law, now known as the White Terror, a policy restricting the use of any other languages than Chinese in public spheres was enforced nationwide to ensure the hegemony of Han culture in Taiwan. source Yosifu was also bullied for his looks and his skin colour by his classmates, a trend which would continue long into his adulthood.
He bitterly remembers being labelled a shandiren 山地人, or ‘Mountain person’, an offensive term which carried connotations of being ‘backwards’, ‘savage’, ‘uncultured’ and inferior. Aware that his indigenous look would be a hindrance in job interviews, and feeling ashamed of his skin colour, he desperately tried to bleach his skin a lighter shade before applying for work. Ironically it was only when he traveled to Europe and through South America that he realised his “honey-brown” skin colour was actually highly sought after and idealised in other cultures, and he gradually learnt to take pride in his natural appearance. Realising the hardships of this long journey towards self-acceptance makes his painting I Hear Myself all the more poignant.
Such damaging stereotypes have long plagued aboriginals who are trying to forge their way in the cities. In fact, Yosifu explained that there is a vicious circle in place – older aboriginals who had little access to high quality education while growing up have found themselves locked into low-skilled manual labour work where pay is low and hours are punishing. And now with the rising influx of even cheaper labour from South East Asia, they struggle to pull together enough money to survive. Often ashamed to return to their villages, these workers are stuck in no man’s land, and turn to cheap alcohol to escape their miseries.
Yosifu is very sympathetic to the plight of such people, and insists that the alcohol-guzzling stereotype is both offensive and harmful – where programmes should be set up to help them build a more hopeful future, instead the issue is treated with light-hearted humour. Yosifu points out that the traditional sweet millet wine used to play a very special role in certain rituals amongst aboriginal tribes – since it was hard to make and highly valued, it was drunk with a sense of ceremony. These misconceptions have led to some very disrespectful behaviour amongst tourists, who march their way into aboriginal ceremonies and demand to join in the fun, expecting wild drinking and dancing with ‘exotic’ folk.
Aside from these intrusions into their ceremonies, Yosifu is frustrated with the government who likes to present them as simple, happy, singing and dancing folk and thus capitalize on their culture. Embarrassingly, Yosifu has known occasions when young groups of Han Taiwanese students sent abroad on educational exchanges have performed “aboriginal” dances for their hosts, confusedly blending different styles of dress and mixing individual tribes’ dances together. To Yosifu, this is absurd. Within the context of tribal ceremonies, these costumes and dance rituals are laden with meaning and stories. Stripped out of this context, they just become a hollow form with nothing to offer, becoming merely an exotic form of entertainment and a photo opportunity.
FORGING NEW PATHS
Yosifu knows that aboriginals have a rich culture to share with the world, and evidently the government knows this too. But Yosifu believes that the representation of indigenous culture on the world stage should be in the hands of the aboriginals themselves, to retain the authenticity of the voice that speaks and also to draw attention to the hardships and traumatic history which hides beneath the colourful outfits and vivacious determination to seize the day.
Yosifu, however, doesn’t discuss these difficult matters out of self-pity. Rather, he wants to help forge a new way forward for his fellow aboriginals. Thus whenever he is amongst different tribes around the islands, he tries to emphasize to parents the central importance of their children’s education. He firmly believes that indigenous youngsters need to arm themselves with the tools and knowledge required to navigate their way through modern life with confidence.
Yosifu does his best to inspire confidence and ambition on all the young aboriginals he encounters through his youth projects around the island. He wants to encourage them to aim higher than they might believe possible, and to realize the value of the unique skills, experiences and stories they have to offer. He’s not conservative or short-sighted enough to think that aboriginal culture should be held in stasis, or could return to what it once was. Times have moved on, and their culture will have to adopt. So he fiercely promotes the idea that young aboriginals should go out into the wide world and experience life, and when they come back, with a fresh, modern perspective, to use that acquired knowledge and business skills to shore up and support their hometowns. In Yosifu’s mind, the sky is the limit for aboriginals, and casting off the negative stereotypes of the past and forging new paths into the modern world is the most appropriate way to pay homage to the rich heritage that their ancestors bestowed upon them.
There are hopeful signs for the indigenous people of Taiwan, of which Yosifu is just one. There are a small but powerful group of young aboriginals like Yosifu forging careers in the creative industry – fashion designers, film directors, singers actors and other artists – who are reconfiguring their aboriginal identity to find new ways to express their cultural heritage to a modern international audience. Yosifu recently held a fashion show in his Taipei gallery for which he invited Wasang Show, an aboriginal fashion designing outfit, to create clothes inspired by his art. The show included vibrant performances from the Amis singer Suming and the Paiwan contemporary Tjimur Dance Theatre troupe, and featured an all-indigenous catwalk cast. Such a display of unity and a passionate celebration of their culture was very humbling to watch.
Away from the glamour of the entertainment industry, indigenous tribes are putting past differences aside and working together to form powerful units to lobby for their rights. Setting a unique precedent, aboriginals successfully blocked the continued development of a large five-star hotel complex near Taidong on the East Coast, which had been grafted directly onto the ancestral lands of indigenous families despite court orders to desist. They are also campaigning to redress other legal cases such as complex land disputes, and the ongoing case of nuclear waste which has been recklessly dumped on Lanyu Island, home to the aforementioned Yami tribe.
For the casual onlooker, the current aboriginal scene paints a complex picture, but nevertheless one in which authentic voices are fighting to be heard above the din. There’s a huge amount to celebrate and strive to protect, but there is also a lot of trauma and injustice to be addressed. Artists like Yosifu put their work in the service of this cause with an inspiring integrity and dedication that is yet one more cause to celebrate.