Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia

What a Loving, and Beautiful World, 2011, interactive digital installation calligraphy by Sisyu, sound by Hideaki Takahashi.| Photo courtesy of the artists and Pace Gallery.

An upcoming exhibit at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA) explores the significance of written and spoken word across diverse cultures in Asia.

Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia, which runs May 11–Oct. 9, encompasses a variety of written forms reinterpreted into visual art and includes works ranging from the ancient Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions – the earliest known form of writing – to digital media works illustrating the progression of written language. It also showcases Qu’ranic manuscripts, Afghan graffiti art, Southeast Asian palm leaf manuscripts, Tibetan scripts, and Chinese calligraphy, to name a few.

“All creatures leave traces of themselves as they move through life, but words, whether spoken, written, imagined, or visualized, are traces unique to humans,” says Fuyubi Nakamura, PhD, the Asia curator for MOA leading the exhibition. “Some words disappear, while others remain only in memory or leave physical traces as writing or text.”

These traces form the theme of the exhibition, she says.

Fuyubi has been conducting research on Japanese calligraphy for almost 20 years. Calligraphy, she says, has a special significance in Chinese and Japanese culture. In order to show their status, important political figures had to practice calligraphy.

“In the past, Chinese officials had to take exams to become a government official and calligraphy was one of the things they had to learn,” explains Fuyubi. “So the understanding of calligraphy is crucial to understanding those cultures, particularly those from East Asia.”

Kimura Tsubasa, Outline, 2007, sumi ink on faille fabric, 117 cm x 700 cm. | Photo courtesy of the artist

A long collaboration

The exhibit will feature works from six international artists: Thai artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Afghani graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani, Japanese calligraphers Kimura Tsubasa and Yugami Hisao, Tibetan mixed-media creator Nortse, and an interdisciplinary group of digital technologists known as teamLab from Tokyo.

As an anthropologist, Fuyubi says her interest is not just in the artworks but in the artists who create the pieces. She has been working with the two Japanese calligraphers for almost 20 years because of her research. She met the Tibetan artist Nortse in Tibet in 2010, and through a common friend who understands English, has finally realized her desire to showcase his work.

“In his case, he is still based in Tibet,” Fuyubi says. “Politically, it’s not so easy for him to travel outside of Tibet right now [but] the great thing is his artwork can travel and speak for him so I was really keen to have this particular work.”

Understanding calligraphy

Fuyubi Nakamura.| Photo by Kyla Bailey.

The exhibit also features a calligraphy piece by Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, also known as the Father of Modern China, and after whom the classical Chinese garden in Chinatown is named.

“Lots of people when they think of Asian calligraphy, wouldn’t understand what’s written so they can think it’s very difficult to approach or understand,” says Fuyubi. “[But] calligraphy can be enjoyed in different ways.”

In the same way that one can enjoy music with lyrics in a foreign language, one can enjoy the calligraphy pieces without having to understand what is written, she says.

“That’s not always what’s most important to [these] contemporary artworks,” says Fuyubi. “It’s more about enjoying the different ink brushes for example [and] tracing the movement of the brushes.”

Written cultures

Fuyubi has held two similar exhibits in the past: the first in Australia in 2010 and the second in Argentina in 2011. The Asian collection at MOA, she says, is the largest but has never been given enough space for a showcase so this new exhibit provides an opportunity to highlight the Asian collection.

“I hope [people] will learn there are so many different ways to express language or written script,” Fuyubi says. “I want people to understand why written cultures are so important to many societies in Asia.”

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