Chinese Canadian brush painting artist Lee Nam went largely unrecognized when he worked with Emily Carr in Victoria in the 1930s. Five years ago, Montreal-based artist Karen Tam began the difficult task of trying to find out more about him. Tam will explore his work in an exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery from May 4 to June 30.
The legacy of Lee Nam
“The presence of Lee Nam as a historical or artistic figure exists solely through Carr’s journal
entries,” says Tam.
These journal entries tell of a talent who grew and persevered in gaining recognition in the
face of significant prejudices with support from Carr. The curator of the exhibition, Shaun
Dacey, mentions that Carr exhibited his work in her studio-apartment before he went on to
have a show of his paintings around a year later.
Carr did not just advocate for his talent though; she learnt from it too. The influence of his
approach is something that Dacey believes shows in Carr’s work.
“Carr’s experimentations in brush paintings in the 1930s, exploring British Columbia’s
coastal landscape, led her to develop a technique of using oils thinned with gasoline on
brown paper in order to paint quickly. This technique is similar to watercolours and in some
ways, Chinese brush painting,” says Dacey.
With the sparse information on Tam’s life that exists only through Carr, Tam has drawn on a
rich range of approaches to explore who he was.
“In some [of Emily Carr’s journal] entries, she describes visiting his studio as well as
[observing] his paintings. In an attempt to give presence to Lee Nam, I have re-imagined his
studio as an installation based on Carr’s descriptions,” she says.
The re-imagining of his studio promises to be a highlight of the exhibition, as Tam’s self-
described recreation of ‘Chinese restaurants, karaoke lounges, opium dens, curio shops and
other sites of cultural encounters’ runs through all of her work and is something she is
particularly renowned for.
Tam has also created a series of drawings as portraits of Lee Nam based on head tax
records of immigrants coming into Canada with similar names. These artworks will be seen
alongside paintings by Carr, a sketch attributed to both Lee and Carr and historical artworks
from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV).
Local Chinese brush painting
The inclusion of local artworks is not just restricted to historical pieces from the AGGV.
Tam’s work with the Chinese brush painting community in the Lower Mainland has been vital
to the development of the exhibition in Richmond. Tam completed a two-week residency
earlier in the year during which she met with local ink-brush artists; some of their work will be
included in the exhibition. In curating the exhibition, Dacey feels that the contribution of local
artists has added a huge amount.
“I was amazed at the crossover and similarities among works we are presenting by Chinese
masters and those producing here,” says Dacey. “The skill level is spectacular.”
This involvement of local Chinese brush painting artists does not stop at their artwork being
included in the exhibition. Mirroring Tam’s imagining of Nam’s workshop is a space for
visitors to get involved in workshops and demos. Participants will be able to take their first
steps in learning how to paint birds and flowers led by members of the Lower Mainland’s
Chinese brush painting community.
More than that though, through coming to the exhibition, visitors will be taking part in righting
misconceptions about British Columbia’s Chinese Canadian community.
“Much of what I see in mass media regarding Richmond is focused on the ‘new’ Chinese
community. Karen’s investment in unearthing the biography of Lee Nam speaks to this
erasure of Chinese-Canadians identity from our national and provincial history,” Dacey says.
Find out more about the exhibition here: