Elders and Roots: Ginseng and Chinese migrants

A ginseng photo part of the series "Ginseng Root Studies". | Photo courtesy of Evan Lee, Monte Clarke gallery and Richmond Art Gallery

A ginseng photo part of the series “Ginseng Root Studies”. | Photo courtesy of Evan Lee, Monte Clarke gallery and Richmond Art Gallery

The ginseng root is considered a cultural delicacy in Chinese culture, but it is not commonly used in modern artwork.

Evan Lee, a Vancouver based artist, combines images of Chinese migration to Canada and the plant root together in his new art exhibition Elders and Roots. The art exhibition, held at the Richmond Art Gallery until June 15, includes three separate works: “Ginseng Roots Studies,” a collection of scanned ginseng photos, a series of hand drawn photos called “Old Women,” and a video titled “Manual Labour.” Lee believes that all three bodies of work are connected under the theme of migration and globalisation.

“The migration theme came from the curator, who proposes that in one form or another, the subjects of all the works are migrants. My work is increasingly focused on this topic. I am not a migrant but most of my friends and family are,” says Lee.

Inspirations for the Works

Evan Lee, Vancouver based artist. | Photo courtesy of Evan Lee

Evan Lee, Vancouver based artist. | Photo courtesy of Evan Lee

Elders and Roots focuses on three different aspects of migration. The ginseng root is delicacy in Chinese culture and Lee used this as an inspiration for his first work “Ginseng Root Studies”.

“I have a memory of my parents taking us through Chinatown and showing us how the roots on display in the windows looked like people,” says Lee.

Lee tries to recreate this memory by scanning ginseng roots and positions them to resemble different human actions. Lee says the process of scanning the roots was complicated, stating that the entire series which included multiple steps of preparation, capturing, editing and selecting, took over a year to complete. Lee’s second body of work titled “Old Women,” is a collection of hand-drawn photos of elderly Chinese women walking the streets of Chinatown rummaging for unwanted goods. Lee’s inspiration to include this body of work in his exhibition comes from the idea that these women are migrants who came to Canada looking for a new life. “Old Women” also explores the idea of a modern-aged gleaning. Lee believes that together, both the “Ginseng Root Study” and “Old Women” complement each other.

“Both the roots and elderly women can be said to be at the same time frail but powerful, graceful yet rugged and archetypical yet unique. I had always wanted to show them together,” says Lee.

Reaction to the Exhibition

The combination of human-like ginseng and the drawings of elderly women has brought attention to the exhibit.

“Many enjoy the life-like photos of the ginseng. If you look closely, you see the faces, the hair, and the arms of people in [the Ginseng]” says Su Jin Lim, the emerging artists committee chair at the Richmond Art Gallery.

She mentions that the initial reaction of the guests is bewilderment, but that the connections between the ginseng roots, the video, and the old women become obvious to most of those who come and visit. Francis Nguyen, 19, does not visit art galleries often, however, he found this one to be particularly interesting. Nguyen heard about the gallery through his friend and decided to visit after hearing about the ginseng photos. Nguyen says that the exhibition is interesting even for someone who isn’t an art enthusiast.

“I felt the ginseng work is really unique and you can see the human postures and the resemblance. It was something I’ve never seen before,” says Nguyen.

Elders and Roots has been showing at the Richmond Art Gallery since April 26 and will continue to show till June 15.