AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 475

[ Interarea/Border-Crossing Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 475: Tradition, Identity, and Ethnic Art in Modern Asia

Organizer: Ralph Croizier, University of Victoria, Canada

Discussant: Shelley Drake Hawks, Middlesex Community College, USA

For Japan the relationship between traditional folk arts and modern nationalist ideology has been thoroughly explored by Yuko Kikuchi in her book, Japanese Modernization and Mingei Theory: Cultural Nationalism and Oriental Orientalism and by Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk art in Imperial Japan. But the period covered is from the late Nineteenth to the mid Twentieth century and there is relatively little published on more recent developments of folk, or ethnic, art in other Asian countries. This panel will look at three instances of folk art being appropriated by nationalist ideology and modernized in the context of a globally interconnected art market. The examples come from three separate Asian societies, although the separateness of Taiwan from China is exactly the issue in one of the papers. The art is also quite different in all three cases— “peasant painting” in China, highly politicized and clearly a recently invented tradition; Mithila painting , a regional tradition in India, with deep cultural-religious roots but now exposed to forces of nationalization and globalization; Taiwan indigenous art , part of the international art market’s transformation of folk culture into high art and a proto nationalist movement’s use of discovered tradition for political purposes. Add to this the fact that the three presenters come from three different disciplines –anthropology, art history, and history – and we have a lot of border crossing, within Asia, but also connecting Asia with the rest of the world.

The Politics of Mithila Painting
David L. Szanton, Ethnic Arts Foundation, USA

Since at least the 14th century women in the Mithila region of Bihar have on major ritual occasions painted auspicious images on the interior walls of their homes. In the late 1960s the Indian government encouraged them to transfer their paintings to paper for sale as a new source of family income. Since then, the painters have resolutely maintained the aesthetics and techniques of the tradition despite a stream of government, journalistic, scholarly, ngo, and commercial interventions. The subject matter of the paintings, however, has expanded dramatically and now includes gender, class, caste, and environmental issues, dowry, terrorism, and autobiographies. These new images have led to an array of cultural and fundamentally political interpretations and debates about the rapidly evolving painting tradition. This presentation will sketch the various politics – imperial, national, caste, gender, identity, international, and personal – that are shaping the paintings and the debates they are now provoking.

Re-Framing Identity in Taiwan Contemporary Indigenous Art
Sophie McIntyre, Australian National University, Australia

Anthropological, archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests that Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are ancestrally related to the Austronesian family group encompassing Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. While this view is contested, it is embraced by Taiwan’s pro-independence movement which regards such evidence as crucial to its nationalist discourse underscoring Taiwan’s distinctive ethno-cultural identity. This cross-cultural connection was the central theme of a series of contemporary art exhibitions organised by the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art (KMFA) in which works by indigenous artists from Taiwan were displayed together with artists’ works from New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. The Great Journey: In Pursuit of the Ancestral Realm (2009), which is the third and most recent exhibition in this series provides the critical context for this paper’s analysis of the political and cultural significance of indigenous art in Taiwan’s shifting national identity discourse. This exhibition case-study probes ways in which the representation and interpretation of indigenous art in Taiwan, within a museum context, is critical to an identity narrative emphasizing cultural authenticity and tradition-dominated and rapidly changing society. As closer Taiwan-China relations are being forged, one must consider the extent to which indigenous artists can carve a niche for themselves within this competitive local and global arts mainstream.

Chinese Peasant Painting: From Cultural Revolution to Cultural Identity
Ralph Croizier, University of Victoria, Canada

Peasant painting leapt into national and then international prominence as one of the model “new things” of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. Unlike other socialist creations of Mao’s last years, it did not disappear after his death but was transformed into a market commodity during the Deng Xiaoping era and a nostalgic symbol of a traditional folk culture rapidly changing when exposed to the forces of commercialization and globalization. This paper looks at its origins in Hu Xian, a rural district in Shaanxi province not far from Xi’an, how the Communist Party trained local peasants in the largely Western artistic skills of Socialist Realism and publicized this as an example of how Chinese socialism was breaking down both bourgeois individualism and traditional Chinese societies’ age old distinction between physical labor and cultural creation. Painting, using the brush, emblem and instrument of elite social status, was the appropriate medium for this social-cultural revolution. The post Mao development of peasant painting , its spread to other localities in China, and its reappropriation of traditional folk culture as “tourist art” both in China and internationally through the internet, reflects many of the social and economic changes of the last three decades. It also raise questions about the authenticity and malleability of ethnic art in the global age.