RamiS: Tracing Origins—Taiwan International Austronesian Art Triennial

| Reuben Keehan
 + Dalan (Road) Milay Mavaliw, 2023. Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre. Photo: Jing Dean Commercial Photography. Installation view, RamiS: Tracing Origins, 1st TIAAT, Taiwan, Pingtung.

RamiS: Tracing Origins—Taiwan International Austronesian Art Triennial

RamiS: Tracing Origins—Taiwan International Austronesian Art Triennial | Reuben Keehan

Hosted by the Taiwan Indigenous People’s Culture Park in the mountains of Pingtung County, the first International Austronesian Art Triennial marks a key point in the development, not only of Indigenous contemporary art in Taiwan, but also Indigenous curatorial practice, reflecting ongoing efforts to build meaningful connections beyond the island’s shores.

The inaugural edition’s title RamiS, an ancient Austronesian term for roots, signals the event’s transnational ambitions and taps into general enthusiasm for the linguistic and cultural links between Taiwan’s Indigenous people and the Austronesian world. Anthropological propositions of Taiwan’s role in Austronesian migration throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian and Pacific Oceans provides a template for dialogue between geographic communities that operate at a tenor distinct from art world globalisation. At the same time, the event seeks dialogue with other Indigenous peoples to address shared experiences of colonisation, dispossession, assimilation and intergenerational trauma, while strengthening Indigenous perspectives on care for land, air and water.

 + Nomads of the Sea Lisa Reihana, 2019. Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre. Photo: Jing Dean Commercial Photography. video. 17 min.


Featuring the work of 25 artists generously paced across the grounds and pavilions of the Culture Park, the Triennial is divided into two sections, respectively curated by Nakaw Putun and Etan Pavavalung. In the park’s Exhibition Centre, Nakaw Putun frames her section, Becoming Spiritual, around insights gleaned from the role of animism in Austronesian culture, proposing a shamanic role for artists. Rather than resolving into mysticism, however, this shamanism manifests in practical strategies for reparative justice. It appears variously in practices that propose the land itself as a victim of extractive traumas,  that challenge colonial narratives from the perspective of gender and sexual fluidities, or which derive from desire to harmonise human activity with natural and spiritual worlds.

For Iyo Kacaw and Lafin Sawmah, sculpture is itself a shamanic process. Kacaw wittily transforms a row of dead trees into a flurry of wooden objects and architectural supports as if they have a will of their own. Sawmah—who died tragically in the months before the project opened—is represented by lyrical carvings alongside documentation of his inspiring research and creation of Taiwan’s first outrigger canoe of modern times. Reretan Pavavaljung’s paintings invoke a play of human, animal and spirit identities, which extend to his work on the Triennial’s endearing visuals. The multi-channel video Nomads of the sea (2018) by Lisa Reihana—one of three international artists featured in the project—provides context for deconstructions of colonialism and gender in Idas Losin’s cheeky painterly inversions of Gaugin’s lascivious gaze, and the speculative  queer spaces of Ciwas Tahos (Anchi Lin). Shown here, Tahos’ photographs and video explorate an Atayal legend of a community of women impregnated by the wind.

 + Lafin Sawmah, 2023. Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre. Photo: Jing Dean Commercial Photography.. Installation view, RamiS: Tracing Origins, 1st TIAAT, Taiwan, Pingtung.
 + Poton, Si Jiazigat, Puhungan, Si Jinoboya Idas Losin 2023. Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre. Photo: Jing Dean Commercial Photography. Installation view, RamiS: Tracing Origins, 1st TIAAT, Taiwan, Pingtung.

Migration informs narrative devices for a number of artists, including the sculptural evocation of the role of millet in Austronesian journeys in the work of Tanivu Tapari (Zoe Wang), while Rawus Tjuljaviya (Chang En-Man) studies the interaction of the introduced African Giant Snail and native paper mulberry trees. Dondon Houmwm presents a stunning multimedia meditation of communities forced to relocate from mountains to planes, and villages to cities. Aluaiy Kaumakan and Labay Eyong propose art as a form of action through the embodied process of weaving. Eyong’s elaborate twist of iron rebar and shimmering fibres imagines rivers as the tracks of tears of a landscape tortured by exploitation. Kaumakan extends her Semasipu rubbing project—first presented at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney: rīvus (2022)—into an altogether more cohesive iteration. Semasipu incorporates rubbings taken by members of Kaumakan’s community from homes they could never return to, one of a number of Indigenous towns and villages destroyed during 2009’s catastrophic Typhoon Morakot.

 + Cevulj, Path of a Family Wu Yu-Ling (Aluaiy kaumakan), 2023. Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre. Photo: Jing Dean Commercial Photography. Installation view, RamiS: Tracing Origins, 1st TIAAT, Pingtung, Taiwan.

Etan Pavavalung’s section of the triennial Why We Are Us asserts an Austronesian identity indelibly marked by colonisation. With contributions from two further overseas artists, Malaysian kinetic sculptor Chee Wai Loong and Balinese carver I Made Sukariawan, the exhibition is housed in an around the Indigenous Lifestyle Exhibition House. The space is introduced by Kulele Ruladen’s cyberpunk metal sculptures, sitting somewhere between the shamanic and the post-human; and the fluid hues of the wood and fibre mobiles created by Tuwak Tuyaw and Chen Shu-Yen. These are followed by major textile installations by Yuma Taru, whose dynamic Sea Rise and Water Flow (2023) continue oceanic themes within the exhibition, and Milay Mavaliw, whose towering crochet works are afforded a dramatic presentation in the Exhibition House’s central hall. More customary practices are represented through the life-sized carvings of Ljaniljai Tult and a stunning display of Orchid Island canoe making by Tao artist Sya Man Misrako.

Etan Pavavalung’s selection is notable for positioning these senior figures alongside a promising emerging generation. These include printmaker Ali Istanda (Hu Chia-yu), soft sculptor Siyat Moses, and sculptor, photographer and performance artist Anguc Makaunamun (Kao Min-Hsiu). Particularly impressive is the collaborative multimedia work of Ljaljeqelan Patadalj and Sutipau Tjaruzaljum, weaving photographic paper to create mat-like constructions. These combine portraits of Tjaruzaljum’s Paiwan, Chinese and European ancestors with images of the unintentionally grotesque waxwork figures displayed in an earlier iteration of the Exhibition House, when Indigenous lifestyles were presented as exotic prehistory, rather than living culture. In this work and a related video, hybridity and rootedness are held in a kind of tension. The idea of resolution as an unfinished or ongoing process touches on a creative imperative apparent in much of the work in the Triennial.

Asked at the opening symposium what success for this first edition of the Austronesian Art Triennial would look like, the organisers answered that having happened at all was a success in itself. Emerging from land and cultural rights movements of the 1980s and flourishing through grassroots initiatives in the 2000s, Indigenous contemporary art is well supported in Taiwan’s south and east. But despite growing international interest it has received limited attention in the much larger institutional and market context of Taipei, particularly when compared with the success of Indigenous performing artists. Part of this stems from a lack of curators of Indigenous heritage in fulltime employment in Taiwanese museums, despite the presence of experienced organisers at the community level.

 + Ljaljeqelan Patadalj and Sutipau Tjaruzaljum, 2023. Courtesy of Indigenous Peoples Cultural Development Centre. Photo: Jing Dean Commercial Photography.. Installation view RamiS: Tracing Origins, 1st TIAAT, Pingtung, Taiwan.

The faith invested in Nakaw Putun and Etan Pavavalung, curators and cultural leaders deeply embedded in their communities, is of no small consequence. Of Amis heritage, Nakaw Putun is an active art administrator and co-founder of Makotaay Eco Art Village in coastal Hualien, while Etan Pavavalung, an acclaimed Paiwan artist, is an organiser in the Greater Sandimen region in which the Cultural Park is situated. Both have developed projects of scale before, including Nakaw Putun’s excellent 2018 Pulima Festival at MoCA Taipei and a series of exhibitions exploring Indigenous futurisms co-curated by Etan Pavavalung and Manray Hsu. Their selection for a project with such overt international ambitions signals their legitimacy as curators to a broader audience, while holding the potential for the Triennial to create a platform for further Indigenous curatorial voices.

The inclusiveness of Etan Pavalung’s section, with its generous definition of ‘us’, neatly complements the propositional character of Nakaw Putun’s, which identifies themes and strategies in the artist’s work as grounds for further discussion. Together they suggest very concrete ways of forging solidarities within and beyond the Austronesian world, and critical frameworks for engaging the compelling particularities of Taiwan’s contemporary Indigenous artists.  

'RamiS: Tracing Origins', 1st Taiwan International Austronesian Art Triennial, Taiwan Indigenous Culture Park, Pingtung, 17 October 2023– 18 February 2024.


Reuben Keehan was a guest of the Taiwan International Austronesian Art Triennial

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