Taipei-based artist Anchi Lin (Ciwas Tahos) creates work dealing with the impact of colonisation on the First Nations Atayal people of Taiwan while exploring the possibilities within her Indigenous culture for activating a queer space. Lin, now a permanent resident of New Zealand, has just spent a month in Aotearoa. Her current solo exhibition, Finding Pathways to Temahahoi, runs at Artspace in Auckland until August 6. Ron Hanson spoke with Lin near the end of her trip.
It took a circuitous route for Taipei-based artist Anchi Lin (Ciwas Tahos) to begin reconnecting with her Atayal culture. The Atayal, whose roots in Taiwan stretch back thousands of years, are one of 16 officially recognized First Nations peoples on the island. Lin’s mother is Atayal, while her late father was Hō-ló, Han Taiwanese. But growing up in Taipei, Lin says her Indigenous background was rarely discussed.
“I didn’t have that kind of cultural exposure growing up,” she says. “I have a lot of Indigenous friends from my generation. A lot of them are urban Indigenous, and they face a very similar experience to what I faced growing up. They didn’t have that exposure because their parents moved to the city for reasons of survival and job opportunities.”
As a child, Lin and her parents worked together in a factory labelling and packaging bottles of alcohol sanitiser. Her parents wanted to instill in Lin a strong work ethic. She would work at the factory after school and sometimes even on weekends. “It was hard,” she says, “especially in summer as we didn’t have air conditioning. But I didn’t mind.” She laughs, “It was a way to make pocket money.”
It wasn’t until after moving to Canada that Lin realized she needed to reconnect with her Atayal roots. In 2004, Lin relocated to Vancouver and began studying Computer Science at Simon Fraser University. She says she needed a change of setting. “I think it was the moment when I came out as queer, and I was having a hard time in Taiwan. My mother thought it was a good idea that I go abroad to restructure myself, knowing that her daughter is quite different.”
Though her focus was computer science, Lin’s university required her to take some art courses. This would turn out to have a huge impact. After two years at the school, Lin decided to switch her major to art, even though it meant two additional years of study to complete her degree. At art school, Lin learned of artists such as Marina Abramović and Yoko Ono. She became interested in the body as a material and artistic medium.
But it wasn’t until after graduating in 2015 that Lin would truly begin discovering the world of Indigenous and post-colonial art. After taking an administration job at a private First Nations art gallery in Vancouver, she began reading up on the work of artists including Rebecca Belmore and Dana Claxton. Lin also began talking to First Nations artists. “They were sharing their stories about their connection to their Indigeneity,” Lin says. “I was inspired as many of them came from similar situations to me.”
The artist reflected on her lack of Atayal consciousness growing up. “I started thinking, what’s going on?” she says. “Why is this Atayal identity never a highly mentioned thing? It was never highlighted or focused upon. Growing up, my parents were like, ‘Becoming financially stable is more important than talking about culture.’”
Lin determined that she would return home to Taiwan to reconnect with her Atayal culture. In 2017, after more than a decade in Canada, she moved back along with her New Zealand partner Julia. The two would marry in 2019, not long after the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Lin recently became a permanent resident of New Zealand.
After returning to Taiwan, Lin began learning her native Squliq Atayal language, one of two major Atayal dialects. Her teacher Apang Bway, who is developing a system to help people more easily learn Squliq Atayal, runs language camps at Atayal villages in the mountains. Through attending these camps, Lin began visiting Atayal communities and speaking with elders.
It was on a trip deep into the mountains of Nantou County on the way to Qin’ai Village that Lin had a particularly meaningful encounter. Pulling into a convenience store to grab some water, Lin struck up a conversation with an Atayal woman outside the store. The woman told her of a place called Temahahoi where only women lived but didn’t elaborate on its origins or whereabouts. That encounter sparked Lin to begin her search for Temahahoi.
The artist found confirmation of the story in the 2017 book Heng Duan Ji by Kao Jun Hong, about mountain culture in Taiwan and the impact of Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945) on Indigenous communities. Kao had recorded the oral history of Temahahoi while conducting field research in the mountains. Lin went on to find further records of Temahahoi in other books.
The stories tell of a community of women who lived self-sufficiently without men. Seeming to possess mystical powers, they stayed alive by inhaling smoke or steam. By lying on a sacred rock, they could become impregnated by the wind. The women were also able to communicate with bees, which protected their territory. To Lin, the Temahahoi stories sounded explicitly queer. She felt she had found a passageway into a past queer space that she wished to reactivate.
Lin began drawing on Temahahoi in her art. In her video installation “Perhaps she comes from/to__Alang”, which features in the Artspace show and was exhibited earlier by The Physics Room in Christchurch, Lin interweaves the Temahahoi stories with the tale of the brass pot from the Japanese colonial period. During that time, an oral story circulated among the Atayal that many of the tribe's women had become infertile after using a brass pot gifted to them by Japanese officials.
The installation shows the artist lying naked in a position similar to the Atayal funeral posture by a steaming brass pot, a jar of honey, and several stones. The artist scoops honey with a wooden spoon and drips it onto her body. She then wipes the honey off with the stones. The work extends into a 3D environment created from a scan of a black-and-red textile Lin has woven, inspired by the forests of Aowanda national park. Scattered through this virtual woodland are billboards addressing the impact of mining, the loss of bees, and the climate crisis. Later, Temahahoi women communicating in Squliq dialect worry that they can no longer be impregnated by the wind.
Lin’s newest work, “Pswagi Temahahoi,” features a self-invented wind instrument the artist has crafted out of yellow clay. Seven of the series of 12 ocarinas are part of the Artspace exhibition, while the others are on display in Germany and Indonesia as part of Documenta 15. The bulbous instruments contain multiple mouthpieces intended for communal playing. Lin says she created them as way-finders to discover the location of Temahahoi.
The new work, Lin says, is inspired by an Atayal elder who showed her how to track wild bees. “He has the ability to track wild bees through sunlight and shade,” she says. “It’s a very specific technique he learned from his father, who had learned it from his grandfather. They’re very good at tracing wild bees in the mountains. When we found the beehives, they were in these discreet spots you would have never imagined. It’s similar to how marginalized people like queer people live within the creases of society.”
When I spoke to Lin, she was preparing to return to Taipei, where she is completing a Master’s in new media art at Taipei National University of the Arts. It had been a fulfilling stay in Aotearoa where Lin found commonality with many Māori, Pacific, and Asian-diaspora artists. Highlights included visiting photographer Fiona Clark in her New Plymouth studio, and having dinner with Lisa Reihana. Lin had met Reihana briefly in 2018 when the artist exhibited her multi-media work “in Pursuit of Venus [infected]” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei. Lin also enjoyed attending Toi Te Kupu: Whakaahuatanga (Māori Arts Symposium) at Auckland Art Gallery. She travelled to the South Island with her partner Julia’s family where the mountains of Te Waipounamu left a deep impression on her.
“This trip to Aotearoa has been rejuvenating,” Lin says. “It’s my first overseas trip after three years of being in Taiwan during the pandemic. I definitely feel that I am getting familiar with Aotearoa, especially since I have been picking up many Māori words along the way during this trip. The most touching moment for me was seeing people use Te Reo on a daily basis.”
In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the ancestral links between Māori and the First Nations peoples of Taiwan. Lin is excited about the potential for further exchanges. Back in Taiwan, she is curating a residency through Taipei Performing Arts Center and has invited Māori artist Kori (Sean Miles). They will be arriving in early August.
“I was surprised by how many young artists from Aotearoa I met during this trip are interested in Taiwan,” she says, “just as many young artists I know from Taiwan with Indigenous ancestry are also interested in Aotearoa. If I meet anyone with a Māori background, they’ll say, ‘Kia ora Cuz’. A lot of Māori artists I met really want to come to Taiwan. They were telling me, ‘My dad said we come from Taiwan’. I can see great potential for more exchanges.
Anchi Lin (Ciwas Tahos)’s exhibition Finding Pathways to Temahahoi runs at Artspace in Auckland until August 6.
Banner image credit: Seb Charles
- Asia Media Centre