BY Charwei Tsai in Influences | 19 JUN 17

Portfolio: Charwei Tsai

Coinciding with Refugee Week, and her film Hear Her Singing screening at the Southbank Centre, the artist shares some influential images

BY Charwei Tsai in Influences | 19 JUN 17

Lenny Foster, Kiva. Courtesy: the artist,

I grew up in Taipei’s packed urban landscape. While I was studying in the US, I visited New Mexico, and it was there when I felt, for the first time, a deep connection with nature. There was something about the broad sky and the expansive barren land that helped me to distance myself from my anxieties. I also began to feel a sense of spaciousness in my own mind, which expanded with the openness of the air. In Taos, I visited a kiva, a sacred space for the Pueblo Native Americans. It is a simple circular space that is carved into the earth and opens up to the sky. The entrance to the kiva is through a ladder. Ceremonies and ritual dances are performed there. My experience inside this space had a lasting influence on the way I consider space in my work.

Anonymous, Mandala of Vajradhatu, 19th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

After college, I moved to New York in 2002 and volunteered for Tibet House, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Tibetan art and culture. I helped to archive their repatriation collection of Tibetan art including precious paintings, textiles, statues and ritual objects. I was especially drawn to the formation of a mandala, a Tibetan cosmology. This complex system of colours and symbols is used as a tool to cultivate wisdom and compassion. In its imagery, each of the five colours represents a negative emotion as well as an antidote to transform that emotion into a beneficial energy. My exposure to Tibetan Buddhism and art during my time at Tibet House greatly influenced my own practice. 

Charwei Tsai, Hair Dance, 2012, film still. Courtesy: the artist, in collaboration with Tsering Tashi Gyalthang

In 2012, on the remote Lanyu Island in Taiwan, I met a group of indigenous women who performed a ceremonial dance called ‘Hair Dance’. They swing their hair up and down as a way to form waves that will bring their men safely back from the sea. I had seen old images of these women before, and I was fascinated by them. During this time, Lanyu Island was going through a nuclear crisis. Our government-owned electricity company had been disposing nuclear waste on Lanyu Island since the 1980s. It began at a time when local people had no knowledge about what nuclear waste was, and the government misled them in the name of progress. Since the nuclear crisis in Japan in 2011, local people have become more conscious of the problem and have started to fight against it. The island is so far from the mainland of Taiwan that, for many, the voices of these indigenous people sounded too distant. I came to this island to film these women and the elders, whose livelihood, culture, and traditions revolved around their sacred sea that was being polluted by nuclear waste.

 Displacement camp, Kathmandu, 2017. Photo: Tsering Tashi Gyalthang

I was haunted by images of Nepal's earthquake disaster in 2015. This type of natural disaster could have happened anywhere in Taiwan or in Japan, where my families reside. At the beginning of this year, I had a chance to visit Nepal with my husband, through an academic workshop led by The New School in New York. We came across earthquake victims who were still living in terrible conditions at a makeshift camp in the centre of Kathmandu, two years after the natural disaster occurred. But these people had become mere statistics, forgotten by politicians and their games. We spent some time at the camps and asked the victims to simply share a song that expressed their state of mind. Some sang traditional Nepali folk songs and others sang songs about their own lives. In each of their songs, you could feel their suffering and despair. A month later, the camp was forcefully dismantled and most of the 2000 occupants were left on the streets without any support.

Set Her Free demonstration outside the UK Home Office, 2014. Photo: Rowena Gordon. Courtesy: Women for Refugee Women

The experience in Nepal led me to my current project in London called Hear Her Singing. It is a collection of songs sung by women asylum seekers and detainees from Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. This image shows the activist group Women For Refugee Women campaigning for the rights of these detained women asylum seekers. My project is an exchange through singing between the two groups of women. I am deeply moved by their strength, resilience, and solidarity to support each other through unimaginable hardships.

Charwei Tsai’s Hear Her Singing is on view at the Southbank Centre, London, from 19 June to 2 July 2017.

Charwei Tsai (b. Taipei, 1980) currently works and lives between Taipei and Saigon. Her recent solo exhibitions include ‘Water Moon’ at Contemporary Art Institute, Villeurbanne Rhone Alpes (until 13 August 2017) and ‘As It Is’ at Galerie Mor Charpentier, Paris (2017). She has participated in group exhibitions including the Biennale of Sydney (2016), ‘Simple Shapes’ at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2015) and Centre Pompidou-Metz, France (2014); Sharjah Biennial (2013), and ‘Phantoms of Asia’ at Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (2012).