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Migration Stories: Review of March Yaji

By Clare Tyrrell-Morin

It was an enticingly warm, spring-like evening when Yaji took over ThinkTank in Portland’s arts district in March. Lanterns were hanging at the main entrance in celebration of this being the final day of the Chinese Lunar New Year—a sense of newness permeating the air.

Our second edition of Yaji was called ‘Migration Stories’ and featured two Taiwanese artists who have lived in Maine for decades. They came to us thanks to the inspiring exhibition Somewhere Here: Visions from Chinese & Taiwanese Artists in Maine that Ankeney Weitz, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, had spearheaded with her class of students.

One of the reasons we launched Yaji last fall was exactly to find people like Ankeney Weitz—and all the artists that she was locating. We had a feeling that talents like this would be hiding in the woods of Maine, and we were right. Weitz is a scholar of Chinese art and history, who has quietly been living in Maine for the past 16 years. In 2016, she’ll be curating a retrospective of the master modern French-Chinese abstract painter Zao Wou-Ki at the Asia Society Museum in New York. It was a stroke of extraordinary luck that she decided to forge a project that located seven talented Chinese and Taiwanese artists in Maine during the exact time of our second Yaji gathering. We were thrilled to bring two of these seven artists into our intimate salon setting to tell their tales.

After tea was sipped courtesy of the Little Red Tea Cup, our audience settled into the back area of ThinkTank to peer into these artist minds. Ankeney Weitz introduced the Colby exhibition with Chrisbell (Jingwei) Ni, a first year Colby student by her side, who is originally from Beijing and worked on the exhibition. We also had two Bates interns, Yutong Li of Shanghai and Chialin Yu of Taipei helping us at the event (these events are revealing the myriads of East-West connections that already exist in Maine). After a video was shown of the Colby students spending time in each artist’s studio, we then moved onto the life story of Shiao-Ping Wang.

SHIAO-PING WANG 

I have to admit that I was intrigued to hear her story. I knew that Wang’s father was the executive editor of the Shìjiè Rìbào (World Journal) in New York, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the United States. So she comes from an intellectual family—and a strong conceptual mind was clear as soon as she started describing her radiant works.

“I grew up with a vague sense of uncertainty,” explained Wang as she took to the podium. “My parents being mainlanders, I was always called a mainlander even though I was born in Taiwan.” She then led us through the story of her life together with images of her art—of her migration to the US and the years it took to settle into her new identity.

In the maps that Wang creates, she begins with her Taipei childhood neighbourhood, then adds other maps on top—the map of Flushing, Queens in New York, where she has spent time and many of her family still live—to a final layering of a map of Berwick, Maine, the place she has called home for decades.

This perfectly speaks to the immigrant experience. It speaks to how the mind works as we build a sense of home. I have a similar series of layerings: my childhood home is in rural Lancashire in England, I grew up amid the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, and for the past six years I have called Portland, Maine, home. Wang’s maps show how the migrant experience isn’t a linear timeline at all, how it’s a “now” that has multiple entry points through space and time, and how home becomes a montage. Memory is like this, one sniff of the Old Port in Portland, and I am transported to the fishing islands of Hong Kong.

As she came to the end of her talk, Wang said that in recent years she has found peace in her practice. From her very early beginnings where she was labelled an outsider, she has come to a new understanding. “Accepting myself as a stranger has been very important in my life these days,” she said.  

After her talk, a young Asian-American man at the back of the audience stood up and shared his appreciation for Wang’s storytelling. “I’ve just come up from New York for the day, and I’m so happy I made it to this event,” he said to us all. “Listening to your artist talk was like hearing my mother’s story of her journey from Taiwan. We need to hear these stories.”

LING-WEN TSAI

The second artist to speak was the groovy and fascinating Ling-Wen Tsai, who is the Head of Sculpture at Maine College of Art (MECA) just across the road from ThinkTank. Tsai is also from Taiwan, but her story is different. Her family were not from the mainland, but were ethic Taiwanese—a people with their own language and history, quite different from that of the mainland. Tsai had traditional parents who encouraged her into nursing, but she couldn’t get rid of a burning desire to create. So she finally made it over to the US at the age of 25 to study art. “It wasn’t the American dream,” she said. “I just wanted to be expressive.”

As soon as she landed in art school, she launched into some truly punk rock projects that questioned who she was in this new land and played with the way people were seeing her. One performance piece, Made in Taiwan, saw her cover her body with “Made in Taiwan” mock tattoos. “I wanted to question this idea of made in Taiwan,” she explained. “Everything I picked up seemed to be made in Taiwan and at the same time, people were projecting a lot of stereotypes onto me. This piece was my response.” In another project, she recreated herself as “Ling-Wen, Asian Friend of Barbie”.

Fresh from graduating, Tsai was offered a job at MECA and she has been here ever since. As she led us through her intriguing body of work, that has become more subtle and refined with her many years of living in the US, she concluded—in a similar way to Wang—of how she is now settling into a sense of peace in her identity. It is a sense of acceptance, she said, of being different and actually being perfectly happy with this. “I don’t feel quite Taiwanese or American,” she concluded. “I feel like a new creature, a new being.”

Our next Yaji takes place on Tuesday, May 12, and is called ‘Language & Identity.’ It features Lady Zen, Frank O’Smith and Ni Rong. More info here