Pancouver art director Jessica Sung’s artistic vision is inextricably linked to learning about culture and community. It’s this curiosity about heritage and connections that inspired her to curate a very unusual exhibition looking at the world through the eyes of children.
“Art and design is not just a job description, but an intimate conversation between the artist and the audience,” Sung says.
Self-Portraits: About Innocence will be unveiled at this year’s TAIWANfest Toronto and Vancouver TAIWANfest celebrations. The idea came when Sung noticed that her niece, Iris Su, decided to draw herself as a wolf. She created this image doing a self-portrait assignment for her Grade 5 class at Ziqiang Elementary School in Taipei.
“Most of the children drew traditional self-portraits of their own faces,” Sung says. “I wanted to know why she chose to portray herself that way.”
It turns out that her niece feels that her personality resembles that of a wolf.
“She said that she is not very good at expressing who she is,” Sung continues. “So animals might be a better way for her to show the world who she is on the inside.”
Video: Iris Su describes her self-portrait.
Children at centre of exhibition
This year’s TAIWANfest has a theme of self-portraits, reflecting its partnership with the Dutch Cultural Association of B.C. and the history of self-portraits in the Netherlands. Sung decided to include a children’s component, featuring the self-portraits from Ziqiang Elementary.
“In this project in particular, the children used the lines and dots and patterns that were part of their art class,” she says.
Sung points out that throughout history, even with famous painters like Rembrandt, self-portraits were a way for artists to examine themselves. And by doing this, they would learn more about themselves because they were constantly taking a closer look.
For each self-portrait in the Innocence gallery, the Grade 5 student spoke on video about their work.
“This self-portrait project is an interesting and great way to learn about these youths and how they are growing up in this pandemic,” Sung says. “Through their use of these lines, dots, and patterns, kids have a lot of detailed depictions of their own culture, their personal inner lives, and their perspectives.”
Video: Koo Yu Hsin explains why nature is important to her.
Student reflects Indigenous viewpoint
One of the children, Koo Yu Hsin, is from the Amis tribe, which is one of 16 officially recognized Indigenous groups in Taiwan. She included many flowers and butterflies within her self-portrait.
“Those are what I stumbled across in my tribe,” she says. “I often put them in my paintings because they are so beautiful.”
In addition, Koo’s painting includes totems on her hair and clothing.
“Humans and nature co-exist,” she adds. “So we should protect this land. So in many of my paintings, you can see the presence of flowers, plants, and butterflies.”
Another student, Joanne Su, says that she really likes dogs. That’s why one of these animals was included in the upper left corner of her self-portrait.
“I also like to eat strawberry daifuku,” Su declares in the video below. “So I also drew a cute strawberry daifuku.”
Su reveals in the video that she hid her name, Joanne, in the self-portrait. Then she challenged viewers to find it.
Meanwhile, Sabrina Jian’s self-portrait shows a girl devoid of emotion. The image includes cats over both of her shoulders.
“The background uses dark purple lines to represent the coolness of the protagonist,” she says.
Another student, Vic Su, painted a self-portrait with a lion in the background. It’s actually a comic character that he created.
“My hair, mouth, and clothes are all drawn with lines,” he notes.
No need for realism
Another of the male students, Charles Hsiao, says in his video that the teacher said that the self-portrait did not have to be realistic. This gave him latitude to play with perspectives.
Another painting by Janet Chiang almost has a Cubist feel. She included her English name in the subject’s earrings.
Oli Shen, on the other hand, strove to create a realistic and detailed self-portrait.
“There is also an owl standing on the branch,” she says. “I hope everyone will like my work.”
Anna Su is another of the students who painted a realistic self-portrait. She hid her English name in the work. Su used coloured pencils for part of the background to create a sharp contrast.
Then there was Emma Tsai’s happy face, with playful circular patterns in the background. She says in her video that if people open their eyes wide, they might find her English name in one of the corners.
Her classmate, Carol Tai, also created a happy portrait, with the colours of the rainbow surrounding her head.
Masks show up on faces of some children
Several child artists, including Eric Lin and Andy Chang, portrayed themselves in masks.
“They are growing up in this pandemic and they have been wearing these masks for two years now,” Sung says. “Masks used to be worn when people were sick, but now, it’s kind of an everyday habit. It has also become a way for the kids to express themselves in their current world of constant change.”
One of the students, Leighanne Su, drew herself in a mask created from tiny squares.
“It is made of circles and lines,” she says in the video below. “The line is wrapped around the circle, giving it a feeling of continuity.”
Her hair is also composed of line drawings, separated in sections.
Mina Tuan also included a mask in her self-portrait, which shows her in pony tails. Her uniform was designed with many line patterns.
Yet another masked self-portrait, this one by Shirley Yang, is a bit dark. She reveals in the video below that she had just cut her bangs beforehand, which is why they are parted in the middle.
One handsome devil attracts attention
One of the funnier lines came from a student who introduced himself as Justin Wong. But he says that he prefers people to call him “handsome”.
Wong chose to represent himself as a demon because it attracts everyone’s attention.
“My work is based on the theme of the devil,” he says. “I included concepts such as horns and line drawing because I think it will look more like a demon.”
Another student, Amy Chen, speaks about her self-portrait’s unique pattern line and how it’s filled with vines and flowers.
“Third, if you look carefully, you’ll see a lot of small text throughout,” Chen says.
Chelsea Chen shares with viewers that she thinks line drawings are fun and interesting. She also states that her painting includes symbols representing her as well as her lucky numbers.
“Have you noticed that the real-life me and the me in the picture have a beauty mark in the same place?” she asks.
Peggy Hu used coloured pens, pencils, and markers for her self-portrait, as well as three kinds of lines: wavy, vertical, and horizontal.
“Because I really like potatoes, I added a potato-like circular shape on my hair,” she says. “Hope everyone will like our work. Thank you!”
TAIWANfest Toronto will present Self-Portraits: About Innocence from noon to 7 p.m. on Saturday (August 26) and 12 to 6 p.m. on Sunday (August 27) at North Orchard at Harbourfront Centre. Vancouver TAIWANfest will present Self-Portraits: About Innocence from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday (September 2) and Sunday (September 3) in the 700 block of Granville Street. On Monday (September 4), the exhibition will be at the same location from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. All events at TAIWANfest are free.