An Ancient Chinese Art Form Inspires the Preservation of Taiwan's Indigenous Culture
Text: Cheryl Robbins
Photos: Maggie Song
Doriq Nisak of the Truku Tribe is the first indigenous lacquer artist in Taiwan. With his art he contributes to preserving his people’s culture. Travel in Taiwan recently visited him at his studio in Taichung.
The term lacquerware refers to decorative pieces and utensils made from wood, bamboo, metal, or other materials that are coated with layers of natural resin, with or without the addition of color pigments. After drying, this resin is extremely durable and waterproof. When layers of resin are carved, the lacquerware becomes a one-of-a-kind artwork.
Lacquering as a technique first appeared in China some 7,000 years ago, but more sophisticated techniques were not developed until about 3,000 years ago. By the Han Dynasty (206 BC ~ 220 AD), there were numerous centers of lacquerware production in China, and with the expansion of trade, knowledge of this process spread across Asia.
Lacquerware production in Taiwan dates back to the Japanese colonial period (1895~1945). With the establishment of the Taichung College of Industrial Arts, students were encouraged to make lacquered goods and souvenirs representative of Taiwan, including the use of indigenous themes. After the end of World War II, however, local lacquerware production nearly disappeared. It was kept alive by Lai Kao-shan, one of Taiwan’s earliest lacquer artists, and his son Lai Tsou-ming, who devoted his life to reviving this art form.
In 2001, lacquer art once again became linked to local indigenous culture, when Doriq Nisak (Chinese name: Zeng Yi-lang) became Taiwan’s first indigenous lacquer artist. Nisaq is from the Truku Tribe, and spent much of the first 30 years of his life in the place of his birth, Hongye Village in Wanrong Township, Hualien County.
About 30 years ago, he moved to Taichung City in search of a better-paying job. Although his primary career has been in education, teaching the Truku language at the elementary-school level, Nisak has long been interested in art. One of Nisak's colleagues was impressed with his talent upon seeing his work and, acquainted with Lai Kao-shan, brought the two together.
Nisak is now retired from full-time teaching, but is sometimes asked to provide guidance to current teachers of the Truku language. He develops his own materials, such as Truku children's songs, for which he creates illustrations using colored pencils. He also likes oil painting, noting that, "With oil painting you have an immediate sense of achievement, as an image quickly forms on the canvas. With lacquer art you have to add layers of resin, and each has to dry completely before the next can be added, which can take two or three days for each layer. Lacquer art thus trains your patience." He adds that one of his lacquer works took him three years to complete.
With lacquer art you have to add layers of resin, and each has to dry completely before the next can be added. Lacquer art thus trains your patience
Lacquering is a complicated process. At least two to three layers of the resin, which comes from the lacquer tree, are needed for each art piece, and some require many more layers. Following the application of the layers, polishing and grinding is required, and lines and patterns are created using small engraving knives. Materials such as eggshells, seashells, seeds, and fine sand can also be applied. Nisak makes his own adhesive for this, consisting of flour, sticky rice, and sweet-potato starch.
In the past, the process was further complicated for Nisak by the presence of an active ingredient in the lacquer resin that can cause allergic reactions such as itching and skin inflammation. He says this caused him physical suffering in the beginning, but over the years he has built up an immunity.
When asked what makes him so determined to continue creating new pieces given all these obstacles, he says that his motivation comes from the knowledge that a work of lacquer art can last thousands of years.
He originally made lacquered pottery, an art form Lai focused on. But his desire is to create works guaranteed to last, and if pottery falls to the ground, lacquered or not, it will break. Nisak thus made the decision to switch to wood. One of his first works on wood is also his favorite. Entitled Grandmother with Facial Tattoos, it features the wrinkled face of an elderly indigenous woman who is dressed in traditional attire and is smoking a pipe. Around her mouth and across her cheeks are black pattern tattoos.
Facial tattooing was long practiced by Taiwan’s Atayal, Sediq, and Truku tribes as a symbol of entry into adulthood. They had to be earned. A man had to prove himself a competent warrior, able to defend his family and village, and a woman had to prove herself a competent weaver, able to clothe and care for her family. The Japanese banned the practice of facial tattooing during their period of rule of Taiwan, and currently only a handful of very elderly people, all women, have them.
Traditionally, indigenous women used a simple horizontal backstrap loom to create woven textiles. They would sit on the ground with legs stretched out and feet up against a hollow wooden box. To this box was attached the weaving frame. A strap fit behind the back was used to adjust the tension during the weaving process. Nisak has created a lacquer artwork from a wooden box that was once part of a traditional loom. On each side are different themes, such as "the passing on of heritage," which depicts an indigenous warrior and an eagle, and "recalling the past," which includes fragments of hand-woven textiles.
Much of his artistic inspiration comes from his experiences while growing up in his village. He remembers his father taking him to check the traditional traps set for catching mice, and the songs sung and stories told to him by the elders. One of his favorite subjects is the human face. His grandparents had facial tattoos – they caught his attention as a child, and inspired him to observe faces closely.
When I recently visited him in his studio, he was polishing an artwork called Encouraging a Child. This will be entered into the 2014 Pulima Art Award competition, which was established by local Taiwan organizations to support indigenous artists. The work features a grandmother with facial tattoos with her hand on the shoulder of her grandson. Nisak says that this work recalls the many stories and words of wisdom told to him by his grandmother.
There are also other cultural themes in this work. For example, a bird can be seen flying skyward. This type of flight pattern was considered auspicious when indigenous men were preparing to set out on a hunt. The large eye at the top of the work represents the protection of the ancestral spirits. This particular piece required 12 layers of resin to complete.
Nisak shows his works in various exhibitions around Taiwan. They can also be seen by appointment at his studio. Since he works in his studio almost every day, this is generally an easy matter. In terms of sales, Nisak says that his works are mostly large in size, and he has not yet created a collection extensive enough to market. Thus, one of his future directions will be to create smaller works and functional products that will be easier to sell.
"I have a cultural mission. My art is a way of preserving my culture."
However, he makes it clear that he did not become a lacquer artist with the sole intention of making money. Rather, he considers himself "a lifelong volunteer in the promotion of lacquer art." He adds that, "I have a cultural mission. My art is a way of preserving my culture." This is how an ancient Chinese art form has come to inspire the preservation of Taiwan's indigenous culture.
English and Chinese
Studio of Dorik Nisaq (得 漆工作室)
Add:66, Alley 116, Lane 477, Sec. 2, Zhongshan Rd., Taiping District, Taichung City (台中市太平區中山路2段477巷116弄66號)
Tel: (04) 2392-0039