Karen Tam_With wings like clouds hung from the sky
Karen Tam, with contributions by Lui Luk Chun, Kileasa Wong, Andy Lou, Richard Wong, Lifu With wings like clouds hung from the sky 大鵬就振翼, installation view, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 2017.
Photo : Mike McLean, courtesy of the artist and Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

Karen Tam, With wings like clouds hung from the sky 大鵬就振翼

Zoë Chan
Can you rewrite history? How do you talk about an artist about whom there exists very little information? Is it possible to bring such an artist ­posthumously into the artistic canon? Should you even try? Karen Tam overturns such worries with supreme self-assurance and extreme empathy in her new exhibition With wings like clouds hung from the sky 大鵬就振翼,1 1 - The exhibition was presented at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, from June 3, until September 4, 2017. curated by Haema Sivanesan. Stemming from her curiosity about Lee Nam — an artist mentioned in Emily Carr’s writings about her time spent in Victoria — Tam contends that this virtually unknown artist deserves our attention, or rather, could have been deserving of our attention. Despite the dearth of information available on Nam, however, Tam does not let this absence overwhelm the exhibition. She fills the lacuna in a series of playful ways, including calling on collaborators to contribute to the exhibition, and allowing her imagination free rein. Like a biopic director working in a revisionist vein, she nimbly mixes fact and fiction in order to flesh out who this artist might have been.

Nam is alluded to only briefly in Carr’s The House of All Sorts (1944), a memoir published shortly before her death, though he also turns up in her journals. From the memoir, we glean that he was accomplished and ambitious enough to approach her with his work. She decided to present his paintings in a one-off Salon des Refusés-style group show that she was organizing in response to the rejection of her own paintings by the Island Arts and Crafts Society in Victoria (which she bitterly blasted as “an extremely exclusive set” who showed “little tinkling landscapes weakly executed in water colours”).2 2 -  Emily Carr, The House of All Sorts (1944) (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004), 116 — 17. Not only were its members conservative in their tastes, they were also outright bigoted, and they refused to let Nam take their art classes, much less show his work, because he was a Chinese immigrant.

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This article also appears in the issue 92 - Democracy

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