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Gabriel Yiu: Vancouver Art Gallery’s new chapter should reflect city’s cultural wealth

Professor Johnson Chow
Prof. Johnson Chow, who died in 2021, proudly stood in front of his grand masterpiece, Jiuzhaigou in Autumn. The 52 x 196 inch artwork was painted on 500-year-old Ming Dynasty rice paper.

By Gabriel Yiu

With October’s announcement of an additional $50 million—for a total of $100 million—from the B.C. government, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s new home is set to become one of the city’s most iconic landmark architectural statements.

Provincial funding adds to a growing conglomeration of committed public and private donations, including $29.3 million from the federal government and more than $190 million in private donations. This includes $100 million from the Audain Foundation and $40 million from the Chan Family Foundation.

The injection of private and public funding has enabled a second redesign of Swiss studio Herzog & de Meuron’s original blueprint. The new design, released to the public in 2021, is a collaboration between Herzog & de Meuron, Vancouver architectural firm Perkins & Will, and Coast Salish artists Debra Sparrow, Skwetsimeltxw Willard (Buddy) Joseph, Hereditary Chief Chepximiya Siam’ Janice George, and Angela George.

The new Vancouver Art Gallery is set to stand 68 metres tall and will host 45,000 square meters of floor space. The designers seek to make the massive structure “approachable” by emulating traditionally woven textiles with interwoven copper-toned metals. Along with the use of mass timber, this will give the structure an inviting and earthy feel.

The amalgamation of contemporary design and Indigenous influences, including the use of materials culturally important to local First Nations, creates a truly spectacular architectural work. It seeks to embody the primeval grandeur of the ancient forests iconic to the West Coast landscape.

No doubt, the Vancouver Art Gallery will continue its growing traditional of centering traditional and contemporary works of Indigenous artists local to our Coast Salish territories and nationwide.

Its impressive building façade mirroring the West Coast landscape and the rich art and culture of local Indigenous peoples will anchor the gallery close to Indigenous histories and roots.

Now, the gallery must seek to answer the next big question. How will its upcoming exhibitions reflect the soul of this diverse city’s people, especially the diasporic communities of colour who form the majority of the city’s population?

Rendering of the exterior of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building © Herzog & de Meuron (CNW Group/Vancouver Art Gallery)
Rendering of the exterior of the new Vancouver Art Gallery building © Herzog & de Meuron (CNW Group/Vancouver Art Gallery)

Chinese artists often overlooked

As a lifelong aficionado of Chinese art and culture, I am often dismayed that in a region inhabited by half a million people of Chinese heritage and descent, the enormous artistic talent of this community has gone mostly unseen and unacknowledged by the Vancouver Art Gallery, and by extension, Vancouver’s general population over the past decades.

Vancouver is home to many of the world’s most renowned Chinese Canadian painters. But despite their international fame, their work has rarely been prominently featured at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (One exception came in 2017 with the 12-week exhibition called Pacific Crossings: Hong Kong Artists in Vancouver, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China.)

The gallery has missed an opportunity to serve as the artistic and cultural hub of the diverse city that is North America’s Asia-Pacific Gateway. With the new gallery building infusing the city with a new sense of anticipation and excitement for local art, my great hope is that it can finally capture and showcase the full extent of this city’s talent.

In the next section, I will introduce readers to some of these unknown masters who have been our neighbours for years and decades.

Iguazu Falls by Johnson Chow
Brazil’s Iguazu Falls (56 x 174 inch) was painted by Prof. Johnson Chow in 1993.

Professor Johnson Chow (周士心)

Vancouver was home to the late Professor Johnson Chow for over half his life. Professor Chow is a scholar of Chinese calligraphy and painting, and the number of students he has mentored and influenced range in the thousands. His painting style originated from the Southern School of Chinese painting, often called “literati painting”, a style that emphasizes the expression of the artist’s inner realities over the accurate portrayal of the outward likeness of objects.

Having immigrated to Canada in 1980, some of Chow’s most influential works include Ancient Glacier in Los Angles, Iguazu Falls in Brazil, The Grand Canyon, The Rocky Mountains in Canada and Jiuzhaigou in Autumn. These paintings, many of which are of landscapes in the Americas, are departures from the traditional Chinese painting styles and techniques. The named paintings were all completed in Vancouver.

Chow’s works are displayed as a permanent collection at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMA). In 2011, the HKMA presented a grand exhibition featuring over 60 pieces of Chow’s finest paintings. There is also a museum dedicated to showing his work in Suzhou, China. This was his birthplace and home before he lived in Hong Kong for two decades. Aside from his prolific painting albums, Chow has penned and published extensive collections essays and books on art instruction, art theory, and art history.

Tung Pui Sun
With outstanding technique and conceptualization, Tung Pui Sun brings to life epic and mystical scenes of romance and martial arts by legendary storyteller Jin Rong.

Pui Sun Tung (董培新)

Another master artist of international renown, Pui Sun Tung has recently celebrated his 80th birthday at his home in Vancouver. His work has been shown in numerous solo exhibitions in cities across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Last year, Hongkong Post transformed eight of his Romance of the Three Kingdoms paintings into postal stamp collections. Tung’s work started a new chapter for Chinese illustration, drawing from the rich and chivalric stories and historic events of traditional martial arts novels. With outstanding technique and conceptualization, Tung brings to life the epic and mystical scenes of romance and martial arts from master storytellers like the legendary writer Jin Rong.

Yang Shanshen
Sotheby’s recently auctioned the late Yang Shanshen’s narrow painting, Dragonfly in Lotus Pond.

Yang Shanshen (楊善深) and Carrie Koo (顧媚)

Yang Shanshen and Gu Mei (also known as Carrie Koo) are two ubiquitous Vancouver names in international art auctions of Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

The late Yang Shanshen immigrated to Vancouver in 1988. He is a renowned artist of the Lingnan, or Cantonese School of Chinese painting. It’s a revolutionary and innovative artistic movement influenced by the Japanese Nihonga visual arts, and seeks to create new school and styles of art through the fusion of Han Chinese and Western, ancient and modern styles. Last year, the Yang Shanshen Lingnan Art Museum was established in Taishan, China, to commemorate and display his work.

Carrie Koo was a Hong Kong pop star before immigrating to Canada and making Vancouver her home. She studied painting under the tutelage of Zhao Shao’ang (趙少昂), a contemporary of Yang Shanshen and considered one of the great Lingnan artists, as well as under contemporary water-ink painter Lui Shou-Kwan (呂壽琨). Carrie Koo’s landscape paintings, which were part of the 2017 VAG exhibition, play with haze and light/shadow contrast and are perfect demonstrations of Western-Chinese fusion and mastery.

Carrie Koo
Vancouver artist Carrie Koo’s Lush Mountains in Mist is one of her three paintings recently auctioned by Sotheby’s.

A Permanent Exhibition of Chinese Canadian Artists for Vancouver

Vancouver is truly a land of “crouching tigers, hidden dragons,” a phrase that describes great talents walking undetected among the population. Yet great art should never remain hidden and unseen. I have only scratched the surface of Vancouver’s hidden repository of international talents. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of these talents are of history-making calibre, yet they remain overlooked by mainstream media and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

I hope that the new chapter of the Vancouver Art Gallery will include a permanent exhibit of Vancouver’s vast Chinese Canadian talents and serve as a hub where people can come from all over the world and experience the cultural richness of North America’s Asia-Pacific Gateway. This will also help the Vancouver Art Gallery become an institution that truly reflects the contemporary vibrancy of our diverse city.

Lau Wai Yin
East Vancouver calligraphy master Lau Wai Yin (劉渭賢) large paintings are among media commentator Gabriel Yiu’s favourite works of art.

I believe that this vision is not my wish alone. I suspect that all the living artists named above and their collectors, patrons, family, and all of the artists and art enthusiasts whom they have inspired will also support the establishment of a permanent exhibition of Chinese Canadian artists at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The contributions of Chinese Canadian immigrant artists to the international art community should be celebrated as a proud part of Canada’s cultural and artistic heritage. A gallery truly reflective of Vancouver’s diversity cannot only curate Euro-American works and developments, while ignoring the artistic history being made right here in our own neighbourhoods.

Vancouver is uniquely positioned as an intersecting point of global movement of people and goods. It is past due time that Vancouver Art Gallery fully taps into the city’s abundant talent and endeavour to become an international hub of artistic exchange.

Gabriel Yiu is a writer and art lover in Vancouver.

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Gabriel Yiu

Gabriel Yiu is a writer and art lover in Vancouver.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.