A scream for tolerance – Tsang Kin-Wah’s Canadian debut

Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

“Everyone wanna be accepted and adored” is one of the sentences on the walls of the Onsite/Offsite Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition where Tsang Kin-Wah displays his anti-racist ideologies in elegant flower patterns. The Hong Kong-based visual artist is famous around the world for his so-called “wall paper art,” in which he weaves his messages into patterns on walls and floors.

Vancouver Art Gallery curator Diana Freundl invited Tsang on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. To commemorate this event, the Art Gallery exhibits several artworks from Hong Kong-based artists. Tsang represented Hong Kong in the 2015 Venice Biennale and is known all over the world for his unique word-based style. Never before has his work been exhibited in Canada, which makes Vancouver the stage of his Canadian debut.

The Onsite/Offsite exhibition in Vancouver is a scream for tolerance towards immigrants and a rant against racism, a topic that forms a common thread in the work of Tsang. In the Vancouver exhibition, he highlights the discrimination against Vancouver’s Chinese immigrants by using anti-immigrant slogans from Vancouver newspaper articles. Journalists wrote these articles during the 1887 anti-Chinese riots, during the wave of Chinese immigration from Hong Kong in the 1980s and during the recent discussions surrounding foreign house buyers from China. “They are all rich they are all Chinese” and “They are polite and tolerant, but you are a racist” are two of many slogans on the wall that are directed to the Vancouverite public. They reflect the anti-Chinese sentiments that were prevalent during various stages of Vancouver’s history.

Although the Chinese floral and dragon patterns seem to present the slogans in a peaceful way, the language that the artist chooses is partly adverse and foul. Tsang went through a rough immigration himself when he moved as a six-year-old boy from China’s mainland to Hong Kong and later on when he had his education at the British Camberwell College of Arts. He debuted his work early in his career on the prestigious 2001 Hong Kong Biennale, but the artist did not always have an easy time fitting in.

“My work is focused on inclusion and exclusion, partly because I was an immigrant myself, but also because of a racism experience I had in London many years ago. These issues often bothered me when I was a little younger and I realize that these could happen to many other people in different parts of the world,” says Tsang.

Incorporating Chinese culture

Offsite exhibition – Tsang Kin-Wah.| Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The now 39-year-old artist, who is famous for expressing angry and obscene slogans in his art, mixes the obscenities with inclusive sentences like “Learn to love” and “Human first.” Tsang wants to show people a rough direction but also to open up the way for interpretation by presenting separate words in little clusters that form flowers or animals. The form, colour and shape of the words are highly symbolic.

“I used a traditional red Chinese floral and dragon pattern to symbolize the Chinese culture,” says Tsang. “But the red colour also reflects the anger and heat of the topic.”

His Vancouver exhibition is a protest against the current wave of right-wing sentiments against minorities.

“I think racism is deeply rooted in many people’s minds and exists in societies in a subtle way. People usually do not show it and would condemn it, but I feel that it is getting more and more explicit these few years. The far right is getting increasingly popular in Europe and America,” he says.

For more information, please visit www.vanartgallery.bc.ca.