IMCCI’s “Critical Ecologies”: the framing and re-framing of the Taiwanese aboriginals
By: David Agudelo Restrepo (艾達巍)
Frames are curious instruments: They encapsule a portion of the seen making it so that the observer can approach better what is being observed. The frame is rarely the focus of an art piece. Usually the frames that are noticed tend to be those that are not appropriate for the framed piece, thus dragging attention away from it. Similarly, windows also allow an observer to watch a framed view. Without windows there is no opening from the inside to the outside of the building on which the window is. As with frames, windows tend to be noticed only when something about them drags away the attention from the outside. Such as when it is closed, dirty or broken. Therefore, it could be argued that the intended focus of the observer is neither the window nor the frame, but what they encapsulate. Furthermore, frames and windows show perspectives, pieces of reality. When someone looks out of a window, they are looking at a vast reality that is beyond the wall that supports the window. In the case of frames, however, there is not an “out” to see: only what the frame contains. This is, however, not entirely restrictive, as the frame allows us to focus more on an object.
Now, the image of the frame can be also a metaphor for speaking about education. Classes also frame knowledge, thus allowing a more focused discussion and deeper study. The figure of the frame can be a metaphor to talk about the biases that students and teachers carry with themselves. Now, to achieve the goal of a more comprehensive —or at least nuanced—, knowledge of reality, the frames on which the classes operate, the windows from which knowledge is observed, should be noticed, and changed; studied, and expanded. As a student of the “Critical Ecologies: Bodies and Indigeneity” (In Chinese, “生態思辨：身體與原民性”) third edition class, I felt an expansion of the frames on which I perceive reality and engage with ecological, artistical and traditional knowledge.
“Critical Ecologies” is a seminar taught in English done by the International Master program in creative and Cultural Industries, IMCCI, of the Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA). This seminar is part of the Shared Campus initiative, a “cooperation platform for international education formats and research networks” (Shared Campus, n.d.). 2023 was the third edition of this class, with eleven students from: Austria (1), Colombia (1), England (1), Guatemala (1), Japan (1), Paraguay (1), Thailand (1), China (1), Macau (1) and Taiwan (2).
The “Course Facilitator” was Professor LIN Yatin. But as a seminar, and an exercise of cultural exchange and cross-cultural learning, there were several guest instructors: Bulareyaung Pagarlava (布拉瑞揚, founder of the Bulareyaung Dance Company), Cudjuy Isumalji (杜詩豪, Paiwan hunter from Mudan, Pingdong County and former Chairperson of the Kapanan Community Development Association), Huang Jun Ming (黃俊明, In Paiwan, Vikar Pakaljangua, a retired police officer, Hunter and esteemed member of the Paiwan tribe), Nathan Hsieh (謝政義Co-organizer of the Caucau Carnival南方草草節), Ruobin Wang (Lecturer at the LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore) and Yosifu (優席夫, internationally renowned Amis artist).
Class activities included: a field trip to the Kanalun Caucau Carnival（卡拿崙南方草草節）at Jinlun, Taitung County, Taiwan; assistance to the “Tiaen tiamen” production by Bulareyaung Dance Company, premiered in Mar. 2023 at the National Theater, Taipei; and a final showcase of creative work of the students in relation to the class topics. The curse aimed to teach students “about Indigenous ways of embodiment and the close relationship among the ecologies.” (LIN, 2023).
As a foreign (Colombian) student, the encounter with several instructors from aboriginal groups of Taiwan helped me break the frames that I might have been carrying about the “idea” of Taiwan and its people. The variety of instructors made each class very diverse, furthering the problematization of pre-conceived notions of the aboriginal identity. The content of the class was not entirely theoretical or pre-eminently academical, but also contained highly practical and very “vital” teachings. For “vital”, I refer to teachings that are related to the ways of living and subsisting, focusing on practicality and day-to-day existence. Thus, pertaining to the maintenance of life. For example, the class included teachings relating to the understanding, resilience, and transmission of traditional knowledge from aboriginal groups, the crossroads they face on the contemporary societies and how it has also impacted the singular persona of every instructor. These classes helped me notice, deconstruct, and re-make the frames of my understanding and perception of the contemporary issues of aboriginal peoples in Taiwan, originally influenced by the issues of the aboriginal peoples of my home country.
The first co-instructor was Dr. Wang Ruobing, whom through videoconference discussed her paper “Xu Bing’s cross-cultural fertilization: Ziran in transplanting.”. Her article talks about the “Forest Project” of Chinese artist Xu Bing (徐冰), on which the artist aimed to help the creation of forests by the local populations of the Mount Kenya National Park, Kenya; and Shenzhen, China, using the Chinese concept of Ziran (自然) instead the Western concept of Nature (Wang, 2016). “Ziran” is a traditional Chinese concept to refer to what the West has called “Nature”, but that, as Needham and wrote in the second volume of Science and Civilisation in China (as cited in Wang., 2016, p. 326) “has evolved from the early ontology of Chinese thinkers seeing themselves as consanguineous with their Ziran; therefore, they must make themselves ‘worthy of such a relationship’”.
This session was a very good introduction to the ways in which Chinese culture developed a relationship with the “Nature” or “environment” that differs from that of the West. A relationship that emphasizes harmony and the lack of the ontological division of The Self/The Other that separates humanity and the environment. As such, this class was a good first approach to notice and change the frames of pre-conceived notions Western-influenced students may hold.
The next co-instructor of the class was Taiwanese and Amis artist Yosifu (優席夫). His visit to the class was an opportunity to hear his history of re-discovery of his ancestry at Edinbugh, England, at the beginning of his career. Yosifu’s visit was spearheaded by the reviewing of the book “Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century” by James Clifford. In this book, Clifford argues “for an ethnographic and historical realism—recognizing that ideas of history and the real are currently contested and also inventively translated in power-charged sites from land-claims courtrooms to museums and universities.” (2013, pp. 7—8). Through the reviewing of the first pages of this book and juxtaposing them to the career of Yosifu, it could be observed how spaces like the Art Fairs, are also spaces for the contesting of the ideas of land and history in the aid of a new understanding (a reframing) of the Indigenous claims. In conclusion, Yosifu’s story shows a possibility of international relevance through the act of locality expressed in very ancestry-tied expressions of art, coinciding with the phenomena explored in “Returns”.
Yosifu’s visit was a great opportunity to learn the plights and views from indigenous artists now thrusted into a globalized world. Yosifu told us his own story of rediscovering his roots in Edimburgh, painting without a deep artistic formation aiming to voice his feelings of strangeness in a foreign context and relating to his own self. By exploring his own Amis heritage, and through his participation in 2005 “Absolute Art, Ocean Terminal” in Edinburgh, Scotland, Yosifu felt encouraged to start doing art and adopt his own voice. Putting his heritage in the forefront was the main driver of his artwork. This uniqueness helped him distinguish from other artists and made a true impact in the Art World, and the pop culture of Taiwan.
For this session of the Critical Ecologies class, Yosifu also explained some of the traditions of the Amis, the connection that Polynesian people’s share with Taiwanese aboriginals and how these elements find a place in his art.
Yosifu’s visit was a great opportunity to re-think the art world and their subjects. To go past the ideas of the Global North Hegemony on creative arts and re-frame it into a more eclectic and diverse space.
Next co-instructor was Cudjuy Isumalgi, a hunter from the Paiwan Tribe. Cudjuy explained the cosmovision relating to the activity of hunting in the Paiwanese Tribe. He taught that the vision of hunting in the Paiwan differs from the vision held by the West, that calls the activity and the prey “sport”. For the Paiwan, hunting is an activity that balances life. Hunters are known as “Sacemercemere”. The term indicates a person that picks what is already over abundant in nature, like a cleaner. Another term is “Tjinunan”, in the southern Paiwan, a person that knows the animals very well and it can share their knowledge with the people. Cudjuy explained that hunters in the Paiwan tribe see their duty not as “hunting for hunting’s sake”, but as a way of collecting what the Earth spirits find redundant.
Cudjuy explained that hunting is not self-taught and that there has to be moral teaching and guidance done by elders of the tribe to new hunters. The aim is to help young hunters to become a “true” or “real” human; a “Cau Cau” (草草). Once this is achieved, there is a connection, called “kimong” (j’imong) with nature that will make animals come to the tjinunan. This harmony with nature is what allows the hunter to catch the prey.
Cudjuy explained that there are several taboos that break this kimong, such as farting or burping during hunting, overhunting prey, not sharing the prey caught with other hunters encountered on the way to the mountain, not offering water and whine to the spirits before hunting, or announcing that one is going to hunt. Nowadays, hunters don’t hunt to get sustenance as the comforts of contemporary life made it easier for the tribesmen to get meat. Therefore, they hunt as a social ritual. Several of the challenges faced by hunters are the destruction of the ecosystems where a lot of their traditional prey lives, the strong regulations that force native hunters to use traditional rifles instead of more modern and safer rifles, and the wrong ideas about hunting based on the stereotypes held by non-aboriginals.
The visit of Cudjuy and the ideas shared helped reshape the images around hunters. The “frame” changed from perceiving hunters as being warriors or highly skilled “predators”, to almost “garbage collectors”, to keep the balance of communities and animal populations. This visit was one of the best examples of how this kind of pedagogical exercises reframe our knowledge, and how education helps to reshape our understanding of reality.
After the visit of Cudjuy, and from the 5th to the 8th of May, the class went to the Kanalun Caucau Carnival（卡拿崙南方草草節）at Jinlun, Taitung County. The Carnival is organized by members of the southern Paiwan tribe. 2023 was the third edition.
On the 5th of May, the class had the change to go to the mountains around Jinlun guided by the Paiwan hunter Huang Jun Ming (黃俊明). Here, we got a change to learn more about the local. Mr. Huang is a very well-known and respected hunter of the Southern Paiwan Tribe. He helped the class appreciate and see the species of the region with more detail, by explaining the history and diversity observable in the region. Through the telling of stories about the origin of some invading species, he helped contextualize what the labor of a “Sacemercemere” is; and how human actions change a landscape. For example, he explained how the activities done by the Japanese to import certain plants, such as palm trees to Taiwan, brought a lot of invading species whose presence had been prejudicial for other local species.
F1. Huang Jun Ming (黃俊明) at the mountains of Jinlun. (Photo by the author. 2023.)
On the 6th and 7th of May, the class visited the activities of the Kanalun Caucau Carnival（卡拿崙南方草草節）.se to import certain plants, such as palm trees to Taiwan, brought a lot of invading species whose presence had been prejudicial for other local species.
F2. Traditional sweet bread available at the Caucau carnival. (Photo by the author. 2023.)
On the Carnival, there were several performances done by various indigenous groups, and a small market done on a street of Jinlun, close to the beach and besides the Li.Ka Café. The café is the main hub of the carnival. We also visited the Jinlun Story house (“金崙【發生什麼事】故事館”), where we learnt about the symbolism of certain elements in the Paiwan clothing, the colors and uses of certain plants and the tattoo practices of the Paiwan. The market had several different stands selling food, accessories, and other goods. It also had a space for knife massage and fortune telling.
F3. Kanalung Caucau Carnival Market. (Photo by the author. 2023.)
At this market, there were stands of businesses of aboriginal peoples. It was a space for the whole Jinlun community to come together. The place was booming with tourists, and it showed a sense of communal effort that resonated with what Cudjuy, Mr. Huang and Yosifu had spoken about pertaining the aboriginal groups and the communities. Their previous sessions in class helped the students of “Critical Ecologies” to be more prepared to appreciate and enjoy the collaborative effort and joyful spirit of the Carnival.
It is also important to say that Jinlun is a small and beautiful village, located beside a beach. The beach was directly connected to the street where the Market and the Li.Ka café were. In consequence, the visitors could walk from the market to the beach immediately and then enjoy the view. The view that was now reframed in a new perspective for the students of the Critical Ecologies class, as it was part of the ecosystems that were so significant in the lessons of Mr. Huang.
F4. The Beach of Jinlun. (Photo by the author. 2023.)
On May 6th, the class had a cross stitching workshop that taught them the basic techniques of cross stitching used to decorate the Paiwan traditional clothing. The instructor, Nathan Hsieh (謝政義), explained the basics of cross-stitching. He also told that the Paiwan tradition of Cross-stitching was originally done only by women, but he decided to learn it in order to help his mother. A mother that, although originally reticent, decided to teach him because the tradition was facing extinction given the social changes of the tribe. In the afternoon, the class had the chance to talk with Bulareyung Pagarlava and his dance company. The dancers shared how they had gotten into the dance company and why they kept dancing. By doing this, the dancers also shared several of their personal stories and how it had affected them being of aboriginal origin and choosing to opt for a dancing career. It is relevant to mention that before this session, the Critical Ecologies class had also attended Bulareyungs’s new production: “tiaen tiamen”.
After the trip and at the end of the semester, the class produced several works of art based on their experiences at Jinlun. Some of the works included postal cards for the Caucau Carnival, seals for the different relevant places at Jinlun, a short video production showcasing and reinterpreting the “going to hunt at the mountain” experience, and even a VR reproduction of the Carnival. This session was a good closure and an excellent opportunity to reflect on the contents of the class and what had changed in the students over the span of the semester.
To conclude, a serious education requires the deep exploration of what it is seen and to try and to explore what is unseen. Coming back to the idea of frames and windows, to have a deeper study in class is to be able to identify what is in our frame and what is out of frame. What it is outside the window, in the landscape visible outside. Frames encapsulate the seen, thus leaving out anything that is not “relevant”. But to study is to be able to challenge and reframe the irrelevant into relevance, in the pursue of a complete knowledge or a deeper understanding of what it is studied. In that regard, the Critical Ecologies class, third edition, was a reframing exercise. The co-educators, class activities and visits to the Caucau festival helped the students be conscious and change what they focused on, or what they think about when approaching topics of indigeneity, nature and tradition in Taiwan.
In conclusion, and as it was shown before, the class gave the students tools to reconsider the way in which they approach reality and perceive members of aboriginal cultures. This class changed the frames and transformed the windows through which their students perceive a portion of reality and the Other encapsulated in the indigenous communities of Taiwan. This course was a great exercise in teaching, an exercise in noticing those that have been unnoticed by the hegemonic culture. Those that have been out of frame, became the focus. In Critical Ecologies, the students reframed the view, they changed the windows.
Shared Campus. (n.d.). About. https://shared-campus.com/about
LIN, Y., (2023). “Critical Ecologies: Bodies and Indigeneity” 「生態思辨：身體與原民性」（III）. Taipei, TNUA.
Wang, R., (2016). Xu Bing’s cross-cultural fertilization: Ziran in transplanting. Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, 3(1), 325–335. https://doi.org/10.1386/jcca.3.3.325_1
Needham, J., & Wang, L. (1967). Science and Civilisation in China, (vol. 2). Cambridge University Press.
Clifford, C. (2013) Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press.