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LunarFest GTA’s Island Tribute exhibition celebrates Taiwan’s spectacular craft comeback

Island Tribute craft
Craft artisan Huei-Ting Tsai weaves bamboo into usable products.

Taiwanese weaver Huei-Ting Tsai is giving new meaning to the term “farm-to-table”. In her case, the farm is full of different species of bamboo. And the table is one of the resting places for the craft artist’s elegant bamboo lanterns.

Tsai hails from the southern city of Tainan, once a centre of bamboo weaving. But the rise of mass-produced merchandise in the post–Second World War era delivered a devastating blow to this craft industry.

Now, it’s making a comeback, thanks in part to the efforts of Tsai and the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. Tsai’s impressive designs will be among other Taiwanese crafts on display at LunarFest GTA’s Island Tribute exhibition. It’s at the Varley Art Gallery in Markham on Saturday (February 17) and Sunday (February 18).

craft
Lanterns are associated with Lunar New Year, but most of them are not made from bamboo.

The Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto and Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society have co-organized Island Tribute with the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association. The exhibition will also include displays of banana-fiber, bulrush, and umbrella-plant weaving.

For her part, Tsai has access to more than 200 species of bamboo. As a result, she can weave a stunning variety of household items from this plant.

“Every species has a different characteristic to it,” Tsai tells the Toronto Spark.

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Huei-Ting Tsai’s work involves hauling bamboo back to her workshop.

Craft artist splits bamboo into thin strips

There are still a few elders who share their skills of what was once a thriving craft culture. But as they move into their 80s and 90s, it’s taken a younger generation to spread the word.

Tsai explains that practitioners must split the wood into extremely thin strips. Next, they weave these strips into everyday products, including chairs and baskets. Almost everything is done by hand, though Tsai uses little tools for tiny items like bamboo earrings. Bamboo strips even bend in ways that they can be wrapped around drinking glasses.

“It gives you a textured grip, insulation, and protection,” Tsai says.

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Taiwanese craftspeople weave bulrush into hats, household goods, and accessories.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan Yuan-Li Handiwork Association in northwestern Taiwan has supplied bulrush-woven products to the Island Tribute exhibition. According to one of the association’s members, Yu-Chun Lin, Indigenous people were the first to do this.

“Then, over time, they taught the techniques to the Han people and they used it in all their daily projects,” Lin told Pancouver last year prior to an exhibition at Simon Fraser University.

Eventually, bulrush products became Taiwan’s third largest export after sugar and rice. However, the weaving industry went into decline and the artisans sought work in other fields. In recent years, it’s making a comeback, with the association inviting dozens of former craftspeople to re-enter the trade.

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Members of the Kavalan tribe reconnect with elders through banana-fiber weaving.

Men and women collaborate

Another popular craft in Taiwan is banana-fiber weaving. And the matriarch is Yu Ying Yen, a member of the Kavalan tribe who only began doing this at the age of 62. According to the LunarFest GTA website, the Kavalan people “weave to declare their existence to the world”.

“They are searching for the memories of their mothers sitting on the ground, weaving an entire language and culture with banana fiber,” the website states. “It is a collaborative effort that involves all the women and all the men: cutting down the trees, scraping the bark, drying in the sun, threading, natural dyeing, and spinning the thread.”

The fourth set of crafts offers a modern twist on ancient Indigenous traditions in Taiwan. Young members of the Amis tribe created a design brand called Kamaro’an. It incorporates umbrella grass in chic, contemporary designs.

craft
A Kamaro’an traditional basket.

For example, a handle is connected to a purse with weaving that resembles the connection method between a rim and netting on Amis fishing gear. It’s a way for these young artisans to express their stories and shatter stereotypes about their culture.

“Kamaro’an does not limit the materials they use,” the LunarFest GTA website states. “Umbrella grass is the traditional weaving plant of the Amis; in adapting to contemporary designs, they also work with leather, kintsugi, and pottery.

“What remains unchanged throughout the times is how they carry on the spirit of the tribe, merging the traditional techniques into modern society.”

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A model shows off a Kamaro’an camera bag.

LunarFest GTA is presenting Island Tribute at the Varley Art Gallery in Markham on Saturday (February 17) and Sunday (February 18) in partnership with the Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto and the Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society. For more information, visit the LunarFest GTA website.

Learn more about underrepresented artists on the Toronto Spark website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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