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Amis painter Yosifu captures beauty, richness of Taiwan indigenous culture

A Taiwan Railways Administration Puyuma express train sporting livery based on the paintings of Amis artist Yosifu rolls through the scenic landscape of eastern Taiwan. (Courtesy of Yiyuan Resort)

A Taiwan Railways Administration Puyuma express train sporting livery based on the paintings of Amis artist Yosifu rolls through the scenic landscape of eastern Taiwan. (Courtesy of Yiyuan Resort)


Among the scores of Puyuma express trains traveling between Taipei City and Hualien and Taitung counties on Taiwan’s eastern coast, one stands out for livery featuring vibrant depictions of indigenous people. The eye-catching illustrations are the work of Yosifu, a painter from the Amis tribe.
 
 

Yosifu’s 2012 piece “Should We Talk?” shows two Amis women sitting side by side but focusing on their phones rather than communicating with one other. (Courtesy of Yosifu)
Yosifu’s 2012 piece “Should We Talk?” shows two Amis women sitting side by side but focusing on their phones rather than communicating with one other. (Courtesy of Yosifu)

According to Yosifu, his trademark penchant for rich, diverse colors was inspired by his hometown of Matailing in Hualien. Dotted with rice paddies and dissected by a river, the Amis community changes hues with the seasons. “I feel very lucky to have been raised in an environment with such breathtaking natural views,” he said.
 
Growing up in Matailing, Yosifu dreamed of becoming not a painter, but a singer. At age 18, he moved to Taipei to pursue that ambition, but despite winning several competitions and releasing an album, he never made it as a pop star.
 
Feeling directionless, Yosifu accepted an invitation from a friend to visit the chilly, calming climes of Edinburgh. He immediately fell in love with the city’s beautiful, historic landscapes. That was more than two decades ago and he has lived there ever since.
 
During his first three years in Scotland, Yosifu worked as a painter and decorator. He only transferred his skills from walls to canvases after a 2003 holiday with friends to Greece.
 
According to Yosifu, while sleeping in an attic in Athens, he dreamed of three angels standing at his bedside. As he stared at the figures, they told him: “It’s time to paint.” “They guided my hand as I drew a colorful river on the wall,” he said, adding that this experience motivated him to pursue a career in art. In 2005, Yosifu got a major break when he was included in an exhibition of 10 emerging artists at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He was the first one to sell a piece at the show.
 
 

Yosifu’s 2010 painting “Can’t Speak” depicts an Amis woman holding a finger to her lips in reference to past restrictions on the use of indigenous languages. (Courtesy of Yosifu)
Yosifu’s 2010 painting “Can’t Speak” depicts an Amis woman holding a finger to her lips in reference to past restrictions on the use of indigenous languages. (Courtesy of Yosifu)

Buoyed by this positive feedback, Yosifu mustered the courage to approach galleries, luxury hotels and upscale restaurants. The response from those businesses was less encouraging, however, and after numerous rejections he began to lose hope. Then one day he was taking a break at a local cafe when he noticed several paintings on the walls with price tags next to them. Yosifu checked with the cafe owner and learned that there was an opening to display work, but only for five days. He pounced on the opportunity, with the result that 12 of the 15 pieces he exhibited were sold.
 
“I experienced a lot of rejection back then, but my courage to keep knocking on that next door carried me through those hard times,” he said. “Opportunity comes to the persistent and the prepared.”
 
Over the following years, Yosifu’s works were exhibited at a variety of venues, including Candid Arts in London and Gladstone Gallery in Edinburgh.
 
According to the painter, it was not until he met entrepreneur Stanley Yen, founder and chairman of the Taiwan-based Alliance Cultural Foundation, that he started to spend more time depicting tribal culture and traditions. Yen encouraged him to delve into his indigenous roots, advising that this would bring greater emotion to his work. “That was when I decided to stop going by my English name Jamie and use my Amis name Yosifu,” the artist said.

 

Yosifu returned to Taiwan in 2010, staying for six months in his hometown and other tribal villages to reconnect with his indigenous heritage. “Every cultural element must be carefully researched before being painted so that it isn’t misinterpreted or misrepresented,” he said. “Many of my works may seem lighthearted, but they contain reflections on our history as well as criticisms of modern social phenomena and contemporary society’s relationship with Mother Nature.”
 

 
 

Yosifu (right) and friends are all smiles in the exhibition space at Tribal Queen Art Cafe in eastern Taiwan’s Hualien County. (Courtesy of Yosifu)
Yosifu (right) and friends are all smiles in the exhibition space at Tribal Queen Art Cafe in eastern Taiwan’s Hualien County. (Courtesy of Yosifu)

His 2010 piece “Can’t Speak” shows an Amis woman holding a finger to her lips. The piece highlights past restrictions on the use of indigenous languages during public events and at school.
 
This focus on indigenous themes boosted the popularity of Yosifu’s works. In 2013, he became the first aboriginal artist to hold a solo exhibition at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. His creations have also adorned trains on the Taoyuan Airport metro and the New York subway system.
 
Yosifu said he treasures his Amis cultural identity and is committed to helping the next generation of indigenous talents embrace artistic expression and find prosperous futures in their villages. To this end, he and his sister opened Tribal Queen Art Cafe in Matailing last December.
 
An exhibition space and coffee house, it also sells produce by local farmers and serves as a space to train young tribespeople in introducing their culture to visitors from home and abroad. “I want to show them that it’s possible to make a good living in their communities,” Yosifu said. (E) (By Chiang Pei-ying)

(This article is adapted from “Identity through Art” in the April 2015 issue of Taiwan Review. The Taiwan Review archives dating to 1951 are available online.)