Toronto artist Tong Zhou believes that one’s self-perception shapes their relationship with the world. In a Zoom interview with Pancouver, Zhou acknowledges that there were times when he was not proud of his Chinese heritage. As a student at the Nanjing Art Institute, he and his classmates studied western art, often putting it on a pedestal.
“It was always a dream to see the masterpieces,” Zhou says. “That’s why I decided to explore a little bit of the world while I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.”
He moved to Vancouver about 15 years ago, just as the city was gearing up to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. After leaving China, Zhou also spent time backpacking in Europe to see artworks that he had admired as a student.
“I spent a couple of months there and mainly lived in the Netherlands,” Zhou says.
But something unexpected occurred when he visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Zhou learned that the great Dutch painter harboured a fascination for Japanese printmakers. In fact, Van Gogh enthusiastically collected their works.
“Seeing that Van Gogh had been inspired by Japanese art gave me a different perspective on how to look at art history—and to look at my own culture, as well,” Zhou says.
He realized it was pointless to consider whether Western art was better than Eastern art because each influenced the other.
Zhou uses three given names
After moving to Canada, Zhou kept his Chinese given name, Tong. But for some Canadians, he switched it to “Tom” to make it easier for them. With others, he was “Tony”. On occasion, he would be part of a group where some would refer to him as Tom, others as Tony, and others as Tong.
“People got confused and I never corrected them,” he says. “The reason I didn’t correct them is I understand that if I use an English name, it’s easier for English speakers to remember me. But does that name really change who I am?”
Meanwhile, Zhou struggled with a different dichotomy as an immigrant from the Chinese province of Jiangsu. He recalls constantly switching his cultural identities between “Me” and “Wǒ” (我), which means “me” in Chinese, depending on the circumstances.
“But then, it hit me like a burst of inspiration—my struggle wasn’t about my conflicting cultural identities,” Zhou says in a video for this year’s TAIWANfest events in Toronto and Vancouver. “It was about figuring out who I wanted to become. All those complex feelings about my Chinese identity boiled down to a fear of losing ‘Wǒ’, or my old self.”
Zhou’s fascination with his personal evolution extends to a new self-portrait for TAIWANfest Toronto and Vancouver TAIWANfest. He describes it as “a visual narrative of my self-identity journey”.
The image shows Zhou with a cap on his head and his eyes opened wide. He is blowing a bubble of chewing gum with words scrawled around his head in yellow.
Playful yet serious
The bubble of gum serves as a metaphor for his own identity: nothing ever stays the same and with every breath comes something new.
“Self-discovery is not easy,” Zhou explains. “You have to deal with the fear of changing yourself because your past identity doesn’t help you to grow. So you have to ditch that identity and then form a new identity.”
The self-portrait is playful, yet also includes a serious message. The same is true of the photograph that he submitted to TAIWANfest, which shows a fluffy moth covering his eyes. He’s thinking about turning this image into a painting.
Zhou is one of four Canadian visual artists whose self-portraits are in TAIWANfest’s It’s Me and Wǒ exhibition. The others are Montreal-based James Lee Chiahan, Toronto-based Alicia Chen, and Vancouver-based Liang Wang. Unlike Zhou, all three trace their family roots back to Taiwan.
TAIWANfest also includes an exhibition of self-portraits by youth artists, enabling attendees to see the world through a child’s eyes. In addition, the festival will present 20 self-portraits in an exhibition called Love The Voice by the Taiwan AIDS Society and Taiwan AIDS Nurses Association.
“We want to shout out to the public that you can not identify who is living with HIV or who has what kind of background, only judging by their appearance,” the two groups declare on the TAIWANfest websites. “We are all human, there are no differences—living with ups and downs and our own issues. Most importantly, we live and share our own stories.”
Zhou celebrates LGBTQ activists
TAIWANfest organizers are showcasing self-portraits to pay homage to its partnership with Dutch B.C. in exploring connections between the island nation and the Netherlands. Self-portraits became an important art form during the Renaissance, particularly in the Netherlands, which colonized Taiwan from 1624 to 1662.
This isn’t the first time that Zhou’s work has been shown at TAIWANfest. In 2019, his series, called The Courage, honoured six LGBTQ activists who helped Taiwan become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage.
That year, TAIWANfest Toronto displayed his large and multi-coloured digital portraits of Chi Chia-Wei, Josephine Chuen-juei Ho, Yu Mei-nu, Hsu No-sheng, Victoria Hsue, and Lai Cheng-che at Harburfront Centre. In Vancouver, the images were featured in the busy 700 block of Granville Street.
Zhou says that he deliberately injected many colours into each piece to symbolize the LGBTQ rainbow. He also wanted to capture what each of these activists had to go through before achieving their goal.
“The Courage is definitely a celebration of same-sex marriage in Taiwan,” Zhou says. “I think that was a big moment, especially for Asia. This is a human-rights moment, considering that we perceive Asian culture as somewhat conservative.”
Zhou is enchanted by artists who offer different perspectives on the human psyche. Among his favourites are surrealists Salvador Dali and René Magritte, as well as the intense Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. Zhou is particularly taken by Schiele’s self-portraits.
“It’s almost unhealthy and skeleton-ish,” Zhou says. “It’s not about beauty. That’s why I find it so fascinating. Obviously, he is looking at himself on a psychological level.”
In addition to exploring gender, sexuality, and identity in his art, Zhou also has a keen interest in psychology. He seriously considered becoming a psychologist until he realized how long it would take. And he enjoys reading books on this topic.
One of his favourites is The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Zhou says that this and other books enabled him to help friends during the pandemic.
“That time really allowed me to think about who I am and what I want in life,” he recalls. “So I no longer struggle.”
TAIWANfest Toronto runs from August 25 to 27 at Harbourfront Centre. Its visual arts programs are at South Lawn, North Orchard, and Brigantine Patio. Tong Zhou will present a free live painting demonstration at Brigantine Patio at 2 p.m. on August 26 and 1:30 p.m. on August 27.
Vancouver TAIWANfest takes place at various locations in downtown Vancouver from September 2 to 4. Its visual arts programs are in the 700 block of Granville Street. All events at TAIWANfest are free.