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Elug Art Corner:Creating a Future for Indigenous Culture

2020-11-17
Chen Chun-fang /photo byJimmy Lin /tr. byBrandon Yen
 
Dondon Hounwn founded Elug Art Corner with a view to ensuring the survival of indigenous culture. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Dondon Hounwn founded Elug Art Corner with a view to ensuring the survival of indigenous culture. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
Founded by artist Dondon Hounwn, Elug Art Corner seeks to reinforce the cultural heritage of Hualien’s Dowmung Community by collecting tradi­tional ballads and myths. It also strives to carve out a future for the community by inviting visit­ing artists to engage with traditional tribal craftsmanship.
Inside a workshop built of bamboo in Hualien’s Muku­mugi Valley, people are learning the indigenous art of beading. Nearby, a few young indigenous artists are preoccupied with installation artworks. Occasionally tourists pass by and cast a curious eye. This bustling after­noon is typical of Elug Art Corner’s daily routine.
 
Elug’s bamboo house-cum-studio is hidden in a valley. This photo shows an installation artwork by artist-in-residence Idas Losin. Entitled Naissance, it gives Elug a sense of mystery. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Elug’s bamboo house-cum-studio is hidden in a valley. This photo shows an installation artwork by artist-in-residence Idas Losin. Entitled Naissance, it gives Elug a sense of mystery. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
Coming home together

Elug means “path” in the language of the Truku people, but the workshop also has a Mandarin name, erlu: er meaning “child,” and lu “road.” Founder Dondon Hounwn is inspired by the image of a child fearlessly follow­ing the trail blazed by the ancestors into the future.
Dondon was brought up by his grandparents in the indigenous community of Dowmung, located in Tongmen Village in Hualien County’s Xiulin Township. He has fond memories of playing in the local woods and listening to his grandmother recounting the myths of their Truku tribe. It wasn’t until the last year of junior high that Dondon left to study in Taipei, where he attended a senior high school that offered specialist classes in Taiwanese indigenous arts and crafts and performing arts. Having mastered the basics of indigenous dance, he started to perform with U-Theatre upon graduation, an experience that laid the groundwork for his subsequent career in performance art.
As a performance artist, Dondon at first relied on erratic commissions for his income, finding it difficult to make ends meet. This financial insecurity led him to seek administrative work at the Ketagalan Culture Center in Taipei after completing his compulsory milit­ary service, although he carried on performing at weekends. However, despite his comfortable salary at that time, Dondon’s restless soul itched for more creative activ­ities. An un­expected opportunity arose in the form of the govern­ment’s funding program for indigenous artists-in-­residence. Intended to foster indigenous art and local employ­ment, this scheme motivated Dondon to return to his home turf.
Concerned that Taiwan’s indigenous peoples were ­losing touch with the history of tribal migrations and traditional rituals, Dondon drew on the concept of environmental theater to produce The Wind of the Btulan in Dowmung in 2010, which brought together myths, legends, ballads, and prayers to ancestral spirits.
Afterwards, while serving as a lecturer at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, Dondon enjoyed the opportunity to bring his students back to his village to create art. Eager to learn from traditions and passionate about art, the youngsters were in tune with his ideals. This inspired Dondon to recruit a group of young artists from various indigenous peoples including the Atayal, the Paiwan, and the Truku to establish Elug Art Corner. In April 2015, Elug set up shop in Dowmung.
 
Elug collaborated with National Dong Hwa University’s Professor Wang Yu-hsin on a workshop where students reinterpreted traditional craftsmanship, using china clay (in lieu of Tridacna shells) to  make beautiful accessories.
Elug collaborated with National Dong Hwa University’s Professor Wang Yu-hsin on a workshop where students reinterpreted traditional craftsmanship, using china clay (in lieu of Tridacna shells) to  make beautiful accessories.
 
The youngsters at Elug learned from village elders to build this old-style house in Dowmung. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
The youngsters at Elug learned from village elders to build this old-style house in Dowmung. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
Singing and building

The artistic skills of weaving, knitting, gather­ing natural plant dyes, and dyeing are actually intrinsic to the daily lives of indigen­ous people. For indigenous artists, art is grounded in everyday life, and in hands-on practice. “Art is very real,” Dondon says. “You will witness many issues and often be called into question. You have to make experi­ments along the way in order to achieve breakthroughs and then transforma­tions.” In Dondon’s view, this process not only poses challenges to indigen­ous artists working in tribal communities, but also serves to stimulate their creativity.
Dondon’s decisions to establish Elug and to bring his young colleagues back to Hua­lien look brave and romantic. Yet, to prosper in his village, he first has to ensure the com­mun­ity’s survival. Under the influence of modern­iza­tion and the demands of eco­nomics and tourism, tribal traditions have fallen into ­decline. Believing that the Truku people’s ancient language is the fountainhead of so much of their culture, Dondon and his colleagues have visited and interviewed elderly villagers. During the inter­views, they collect and record traditional ballads, and then they practice singing them before rearranging the music. At Elug, they have been performing these ballads to the accompani­ment of traditional mouth harps, along with various rituals and dances, reinterpreting traditional culture through environ­mental theater. Invited to perform in many places, they have extended the good wishes of their ancestral spirits to diverse audiences.
Because of their migratory way of life, the Truku people used to build their houses with local materials, such as flying spider-monkey tree ferns and yellow rattan palms. Government restrictions on hunting and logging, together with inexorable changes in work patterns, have led them to pursue a more settled way of life. Their traditional dwellings are giving way to concrete buildings.
Determined not to let Dowmung’s traditional houses vanish forever, the youngsters at Elug learned to build them from village elders. They went with elders into the mountains to study the properties and uses of plants which have played a vital role in Truku culture. They learned to cut bamboo, remove nodes, and bisect stems vertically. Having acquired these skills by constant practice, they then embarked on constructing a new house. Everything—from walls to bedsteads—comes from nature. The soothing scent of bamboo pervades the finished building.
 
Elug’s youngsters visit villagers to learn traditional ballads and crafts such as weaving. They preserve local history by recording and rechanneling images and sounds.
Elug’s youngsters visit villagers to learn traditional ballads and crafts such as weaving. They preserve local history by recording and rechanneling images and sounds.

Let art bloom

Since the completion of their building project in October 2019, Elug has organized workshops on rattan weaving and bow loom weaving in their traditional house. There, experienced villagers teach participants how to prepare yellow rattan palm canes and use them to make racks for draining dishes, drying cloth, or displaying decorative objects. In this way, the ancestral skills of the Truku people can be kept alive. The bow loom weaving workshops take place in the winter. A fire is built inside the house. The attendees are taught to bend bamboo stems into a bow shape to hold warp threads in tension. On these bow looms, they set about weaving colorful bands of cloth. The whole setting—the weaving and the studious looks—seem to belong to a bygone age. It feels as if the house has come to life.
Elug also organizes Phpah, a festival that attracts artists and craftspeople to the village. In the Truku language, phpah means “flower.” Dondon has given it a more poetic inflection: “blossoming life.” By inviting creative practitioners to the village, Elug seeks to endow traditional culture with a new relevance.
At the inaugural Phpah festival in 2019, Gao-­Deng Li­chuan, an artist who works with metal and stone, col­labor­ated with a bladesmith in Dowmung, using marble to create highly distinctive cutlery. ­Zheng Zhi­ting, a specialist in natural dyes, teamed up with Dow­mung’s women to create fabric dyed with catechu and persimmon, making smock-like coats and mufflers inspired by traditional clothing. When she first saw Dowmung, Zheng was deeply moved by the view of the village in the lap of the mountains. She turned her impressions of the flora in the surrounding woodlands into woven patterns. Wearing these patterns, she imagined herself being cradled by the mountains, just like Dowmung.
Indigenous artists Idas Losin, Temu Basaw, and Labay Eyong took up residential fellowships in Dowmung, where they were inspired to create three works of land art: Naissance, Eight Hills, and Sun-Drying. Temu, who joined Dondon at Elug upon finishing university, drew creative sustenance from his life in Dowmung. Using metal threads to make eight “hills,” he wanted them to look as if they were pulled up out of the ground. “That which is raised from the land is abundant in its nature. In the context of Dowmung, our workshop, our land, and our way of life are all characterized by abundance. So being pulled out of the land confers a sparkling feeling, although this also comes with blood,” Temu says.
 
Indigenous artist Temu Basaw’s Eight Hills is inspired by his daily  observations in Dowmung.
Indigenous artist Temu Basaw’s Eight Hills is inspired by his daily  observations in Dowmung.
 
Living and creating together

It has been five years since Elug came to Dowmung. In addition to preserving traditional culture, Elug endeavors to promote wider access to tribal culture. Their midsummer music festival is an example.
For this year’s three-day festival, Elug invited many indigenous singers to perform. Village elders were also invited to sing ballads with the youngsters at Elug. These performances tied in with a market selling local crafts and agricultural produce. To provide a serene atmosphere, the festival organizers installed woven artworks produced in the village. The rich and diverse program attracted some 1000 visitors.
Elug’s local work has breathed new life into Dowmung, but Dondon modestly says that they are simply exploring ways for people to carry on living in the village. He hopes that Elug can rechannel the art, history, rituals, and character of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, enabling young people to inherit the soul of their culture.
 
Guided by Dondon Hounwn (wearing black in the photo), young people from different indigenous tribes are exercising their ingenuity to reinterpret traditional arts and crafts. They seek to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with Dowmung.
Guided by Dondon Hounwn (wearing black in the photo), young people from different indigenous tribes are exercising their ingenuity to reinterpret traditional arts and crafts. They seek to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with Dowmung.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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