Mixed media artist YaWen Chou used the legacy of her family’s cultural heritage to create a collection of contemporary heirlooms that re-apply traditional Taiwanese patterns.
YaWen Chou graduated from the MA Textiles course at the Royal College of Art in 2012, specialising in mixed media. Before studying in London, Chou grew up in mainland Taiwan. Her family is from the remote Lanyu Island, or Orchid Island, off the southeastern coast of Taiwan, an area with a long history of indigenous traditions and cultural independence from mainland Taiwan.
Chou’s grandparents were adventurous archivists who documented Lanyu’s history through cultural and natural artifacts: “Back in the 1960’s and 70’s when Taiwan was the world’s largest butterfly exporter, designer YaWen Chou’s grandparents were intrepid explorers who set off to document the island’s unique biodiversity and indigenous crafts. They built up a vast collection of findings that included everything from butterfly and insect specimens to aboriginal handicrafts and exquisite paintings.”1 These specimens were later showcased in an exhibition at the Taiwan Science Museum after Chou’s family donated over 100,000 pieces.
Others are taking steps to preserve the endangered identity of these islands. In 2011 a BBC journalist made the journey to report on a culture in danger of dying out, where the key support comes from the Tao Foundation Office, a “grassroots effort to preserve Tao culture, traditions and language”.2 The foundation is faced with an exodus of young people to mainland Taiwan who don’t see the traditions as viable ways of living.
The collection, Precious Objects, is something of a re-discovery of Chou’s cultural and family heritage. She had always been surrounded by the artifacts that held such importance but never fully noticed them until she was removed from these cultural touch points and began experimenting with mixed media at the RCA: “Growing up in Taiwan, I used to visit my grandparents’ house all the time. It was full of handicrafts made by artisans but I never thought of it as anything special.”1
‘The thousands of specimens amassed by Chou’s grandparents provided the initial inspiration for a project that would re-connect her with her native Taiwan and the traditions and cultural beliefs expressed in the objects. “My thesis project, Precious Objects, started as an exploration of traditional patterns from native culture in my home country of Taiwan. In the past, natives believed that spirits inhabit everything, thus adopting the philosophy of a harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature — and the hope that in the afterlife they can become one of the sacred beings watching over their offspring. Today, as we live in an increasingly materialistic world, these traditions are dying. We’re now forced to rediscover beauty and restore our beliefs from a processed, synthetic reality.”3
The Precious Objects collection uses materials native to Taiwan including hemp, stone, bamboo, bone and wood, merged with modern materials such as Perspex, resin, glass and latex.3 Traditional Taiwanese patterns are painted, etched and built into everyday objects: a comb, a piece of jewelry, a key ring that Chou describes as “family heirlooms”.4
Text by Elena Kate Gifford. Images Courtesy of YaWen Chou.