Dancing with Ethnic Tribes: a look at Max Liu’s Art from Crossing Cultures and Globalization

Cheng Hui-mei

When many Taiwanese scholars were still questioning Taiwanese aboriginal art and why it did not influence Taiwanese mainstream artists, Max Liu was constantly going to Oceania, Africa, Borneo’s remote primitive regions and Taiwan ’s out of the way, difficult to access mountainous areas. With an artist’s sensitive antennae and pondering human goals, Max had a dislike for civilized people who are “extremely cultured and refined;” he liked to be with simple, lively, natural races. Today the world is moving toward a new era of globalization where cultures are becoming identical. After Max Liu entered among the tribal, ethnic groups he found a sudden sympathetic feeling and concern for the ecological crisis.

Originally Max explored primitive art because he liked modern art; the further he walked into the tropical rain forest, the more he personally advanced investigating and collecting primitive art. He studied the ways different people ate, clothed themselves, lived, worked their daily life styles and ceremonies for offering sacrifices, religions, beliefs, dance, painting etc. He did not see such natural tribes as specimens in a museum. He treated them as his good friends, kindly and naturally. He exchanged and communicated with them on an equal level because the dignity of birth and the beauty of existing is a gift that each tribe has. There was neither good nor bad in judging each one’s extraordinary culture and primitive art and also their unique history of existence and background.

The deeper that Max Liu entered among the primitive tribes, the more he was taken by the style of their bold, strong colors and struck by the magical power of primitive art. What does the beauty of creation have to de with civilization? He aimed at establishing a relative anthropology of art which could connect art with the primitive tribal culture. He persisted in seeking the utmost original primitive thinking and primitive aesthetic and their mysterious beliefs. He thought that primitive art reflected the spontaneous impulse of passion and that the emotional image is and initial sincere, sensitive mysterious art. It appears strange; the attractive stylistic features show that what we can criticize is our past that it is already ossified in the rationality of civilization. Remark #1: If you don’t have a vast affection for and wide open aspiration toward the primitive tribes you won’t like Max Liu’s familiar enjoyment of the native primitive world.

Max Liu is not like the common anthropological scholar who studies the function and meaning of primitive art from the social science point of view. His viewpoint is that of an artist who stresses its creative psychology, color usage and explorative style. H said, “Levi Struass viewed two different masks and found two different cultural systems. I search for what beauty is from the creative standpoint. Remark #2: This kind of appreciation of different cultures crossing ethnic groups and crossing time and space is the experience of the aesthetic.

First of all, maintaining an equal footing is his primary consideration, i.e. an equal and sympathetic position that makes him go beyond the beauty of time and space in a mutually interactive experience because each race or individual has its own unique social history and related system Each has its own art style and aesthetic standard and symbolic meaning. Beauty is actually a kind of recognition of values. Remark #3: Max Liu continually explored the human creative source. He pondered the progress of civilization, the gain and loss of numerous races, and collected information on their historic records. He found that primitive people with their mysterious non-logical wild thought can awaken a modern person’s inner original instinct and inspire the imagination and pour new lively water upon the soul of a too long confined civilized society.

Max Liu’s ultimate care was to break the “racial” boundary and establish a crossing of the aesthetic sense experience between different cultures and our own culture because of an original affection for the different cultures and a passion for nature.

Liu used his work to express sympathetic feelings for how the aborigine’s race speaks out with the voice of justice. In his “Anger of Orchid Island” he voiced criticism to make us think deeply on how the Taiwan government dumps its nuclear waste trash on Orchid Island . To care only about the nuclear energy economy and not care about the ecology and protecting the environment is an irresponsible attitude. At 86 years of age he was willing to be a forest policeman at Jade Mountain National Park and become the representative person of the Taiwan ’s natural source of environmental promotion.

Though this small island has t5he most diverse ecological sources, it also has the most destructive ecological power. Awakening the sense of ecology and saving the cause of the earth he wished to provide the next generation with a road for living.

I Artistic Anthropology and Creation

Examining the 92 year old Max Liu, he has been a mechanical engineer and also a professor, writer, artist, representative of environmental protection, and anthropologist like a biological species he has a variety of brilliant, colorful diverse roles. When we planned this exhibition of Max Liu, we tried to stress “Artistic Anthropology” which he later was devoted to as the main core that would link his other works and related styles and divide them into seven major units. His works have symbolic meaning, simplicity of form, sensitive color, mysterious atmospheres, original spontaneous interest and his study is his best explanation of Artistic Anthropology-primitive thinking and creation.

1. Race Crossing: Primitive art has a bold, simple, clean, unique style and is full of supernatural mysterious feeling. For the Europeans and Americans, 20th century modern art has extreme cultural shock. Starting out from primitive art, Max Liu’s paintings can be a further source to differentiate one’s own culture from different cultures, their unique customs and regional ceremonies and his attitude of equality and kindness to living things. He painted the angry shouting voice of the Da-Wu tribes of Orchid Island and African gold diggers as civilization’s economy is destroying the natural bio-en-vironment with a predatory behavior. His human antenna stretch to the different races and tribes of the world, and primitive races with a long history of living amidst nature and its supernatural characteristic environment; their primitive art hides a rich, impressive social culture and symbolic meaning and also creates a special thinking and creative method. Through Max’s works, we can learn how to appreciate the definite characteristics of primitive art. We can also be open to individual “cross cultural” aesthetic experie3nces to expand our minds, and to respect different cultures, to establish a mutually equal treatment for crossing ethnic groups when we meet each other to set up an interactive experience.

2. Life and Philosophical Thought: Max Liu’s works secretly hide the primitive thinking and regional mysterious feelings which he embodied from the primitive tribes. He believes in sorcery and an invisible pantheistic animism and expresses in art the viewpoint that “everything has a soul.” For example when he saw a stone from Keeling Mountain , he magically changed it into a cute woman, and painted “The little Fairy of Keeling Mountain.” He also respects the works of European master painters, the ones who have primitive affection – Picasso, Miro etc. and has high regard for their works because he and these master painters create their work and are inspired in the same way by primitive art. “Worship of a Crocodile” was based on the Tang Dynasty scholar Han Yu’s writing of an article “In worship of a crocodile” as a topic and creative source, it ironically commented on and criticized the era where the people are living in misery and have to push away the man-eating crocodile. He used an old article to satirize today’s situation. The “Horse Wagon in Manila ” portrayed a bony horse with an outstanding rib cage pulling the wagon to express the heart sore heavy family burdens. Walking through over 90 years of age, Max Liu is full of different thoughts about life, and uses his open minded, astute heart; he paints from a fullness of philosophical thought and fables revealing his sensitive candid feelings.

3. Peninsula and Epic: In 1965 Max Liu entered the Vietnam War to make a living, and work as a military engineer for American troops. He worked hard in the daytime, and painted at night; on holidays he went to Vietnam ’s neighboring counties Thailand and Cambodia for sketching. Escaping like a war refugee from the combat zone, he was very touched by the remnants of the Wu Gu Dynasty from the 9th to 12th centuries. The thousand different odd legends of the Wu Gu Ku sanctuary, the stone goddess sculptures and relief of bold braves fighting historic wars and people’s daily life different aspects allowed him to soak in the sentiment of religious art. His painting does not have the taste of heavy gun smoke but with the soft color of paint and figures spread out in a nebulous atmosphere. It has the historical faded spot texture and religious mystery. He mixed the Ji-myeh Tribes of Vietnam’s art, the Cambodian Wu Gu Ku and Siamese art from Thailand . The painting appears kind and simple with an unsophisticated elegance, semi-abstract, with poetic meaning and an unclear atmosphere, and has its own new artistic boundary. He used smooth lines, and light pastels to quickly sketch the scene of cities and towns in Vietnam and Thailand . This series of “An Epic of the mid-southeast Asian Peninsula ” opened his primitive feeling for the ancient civilization which he personally experienced and became also the turning point of his painting life.

4. Astronomy and Seasonal Periods: His astrological series came from his rich imagination and from his organic semi-abstract style and symbolically drawing of the universal, strange, and mysterious horoscope. For example “Gemini” has clean powerful black and white, side by side lines and sketches out bright, transparent twin-like fairies, one twin’s head points upward, the other head points downward; one has feet planted firmly on the ground and the other’s head supports the sky-independent, acting unitedly, wise and resourceful. Seasonal Periods Series: Max Liu puts his deep affection for the 24 seasonal periods of the Lunar year, Li Tsung, Jing Jyh, ku Yu, Li Hsia etc and their magical change into abstract works. The periods are nourished by an organic style from supreme nature’s herbs, leaves, and rainwater and let his paintings have the rhythmic tempo of supreme nature. Like the seasonal period’s poetic name, the paintings symbolizing the change of time and order of supreme nature, also show the crystallized wisdom of the ancient people peacefully coexisting with supreme nature. He has a great passion for this great nature and uses his caring eyes and heart to find delicate feelings and thought that will build a bridge for us to explore and communicate with nature.

5. Jungle Instincts and Cries: The more primitive undeveloped a far side area is, and the more alive it is with life and power; these are more attractive to Max Liu. He could be running speedily in the mountain forests under the far sky and over wide earth. He has not forgotten to care for the rare birds and animals that live in the primitive forests, except when he was collecting information from primitive tribes. In recent years he urgently asked for the protection and nourishment of nature’s sources. He has devoted himself to protecting wild life and animals. In “Wild Nature Calling” he expresses humanity’s care and has painted many elephants, leopards, lions, rams, zebras etc. He has loved the wild life animals like he loves the primitive jungle’s native tribes. He treasures that land that nourishes each living thing. Because the rainforests and wild life animals face the crisis of dying out, this has become a bioecological crisis which human beings now face today. Max believes deeply that only when we own nature’s source that human beings can regain the freedom of running in primitive fields like wild animals, back in their origins, and full life power of nature. H even thinks that the definition of “civilization” of today, should not be missiles and big cannons, but should promote the idea of how to protect the land of wild fields and jungles, and rescue the life body of the earth. Exploring the jungles inspired Max Liu to respect life and nature, and even more reveal his ultimate care.

6. Roles and Crossing Boundaries: Max Liu’s roles have been diverse, his life is full of varieties, and his portrait of each period of his life tracks his path and is an eyewitness to his tough tenacity. He could paint himself as naked in his studio freely creating, or paint himself as an emperor with a moneyed empire or magically change himself to a toilet bowl and wave his hand with a rope like a forest cowboy; he has even joked of himself as a clown and good child. He follows “The Philosophy of Being Second;” his mood is not manipulated or artificial, his character is honest, true, humorous, just like the straightforward and pure indigenous people. “No more killing” is a portrait; though he loved to hunt in his early age, in his later old age Max served as a honorary forest ranger of Jade Mountain National Park in order to protect nature’s sources and nourish his compassionate feelings for protecting the natural ecology. His portraits are his self-analysis and also contain “the dialogue of his paintings.” Having traveled over a hundred thousand miles, his life has been one of constantly creating; in his life, he has faced many challenges, and the portrait “Old Man and the Sea,” symbolizes his hard working life and the philosophy of being brave enough to challenge life.

7. Eros and Admiration of Sex: Max Liu’s wild character in life is shown in freely and completely painting the wild primitive jungle and it also maintained his original unsophisticated innocence. This true feeling and romantic mood of the naked contact between human beings and all natural living things made his person and work emit a primitive mysterious charm. The more he understood about primitive tribes’ customs and habits, legends, beliefs, the more he found his childish heart, and the more he became intoxicated with his own sentiment and intuition. He loved the “Eros” series where he interpreted the human beings continuing power from life’s sexual power; this life cannot basically be apart from the drinking man and woman. He thought that “Sex” is for the purpose of continuing life. This is healthy and natural. He respected “Sex” as he respected life itself. He held the open attitude of primitive societies to sex; they respect the sexual organs, appraise the spirit who gave this attitude to their life and the way they looked at how human beings vigor thrives on love and desire. He also recongnized that if art cannot be without strong feeling, it equals a lack of life power.

8. Folk Collections: Folk art is distilled from the deepest level and the widest range of the major populace; it is closely related to folk religion, customs, characteristics, surroundings, and seasons; it contains an endless multiple vitality and sincere simple style. Max Liu used his intuition and feeling to extract from such traditional folk culture rich material and themes, which include Chinese Door Guard Gods, the Kitchen God, the Money God, shadow shows, Peking opera etc. Using either modern aesthetic concepts or transformation or exaggeration, he created unique interesting works. He loved to go to the temple and soak in the smell of the incense; he loved to be close to the local customs and practices. He collected both primitive art and folk art and obtained creative thought and stylistic expression from the cultures of different ethnic groups.

II Dialogue between Jungle and Civilized Society

From Max Liu’s exhibition and his published works and rich colorful roles we have some following points to think about.

1. Different Cultures, One’s Own Culture and Crossing Cultures

The static materialistic culture in different cultural ethnic life groupings, and the moving oral and performance art all contain an endless cultural life power. Different Cultures are made and nourished by their society’s cultural systems, it has nothing to do with good or bad; we understand the different cultures, therefore we can respect the different cultures and be free the selfish departmentalism of our own culture and be further open to the cross cultural exchange and aesthetic experience.

2. Primitive Thinking and Visual Sensibility Contemporary Taiwanese Art circles are full of sharp critics and sensible dialectics, these have become the sensible principle for the “visual sensibility” of a visual standard; they are different from those that emphasize initial intuition and sentiment, the mysterious, subconscious creation of primitive art. In the anthropologist’s construction, Levi-Strauss thinks that the human beings overall remain the same in parts of their subconscious function. Therefore to go back to the original state of creation, by sincere feeling and a non-logical method of creation, liberates the excessive sensibility of the visual view. Perhaps primitive thinking can help overcome the worries of contemporary art.

3. The Tribe’s Body and Civilization’s Body

The tribe’s body, which with supreme nature merges with mountains and ocean as one, has not been docile and not been disciplined; such are open, free from resistance and full of the various possibilities of the body. The disciplined form of civilization’s modern body blocks the mountains and ocean, blocks the inaccessible, and implements the body. Foucault called it the docile body, the obedient body, and it can reach efficiency and portion out space and time. Bodily development learns how to control all sorts of regulations and training. (Note 4) However, civilized people acknowledge this as a progressive body. As a matter of fact this is the lost way of contemporary people. If we can re-discover the different possibilities of the body, eliminate the dualism of progress and a laid back style, and re-establish the body’s creation, it will help the body to release its potentiality and expand its energy.

4. Nature, Environmental Protection and Hi-tech Civilization

Ecological environmental protection and hi-tech civilization are in conflict with each other; human beings pillage the resources of earth and continually pursue economic growth, despite the natural environment, they see nothing about the wild animals’ species extinction, the crisis of the tropical rainforest gradually disappearing, and so constant disasters will happen from above and human beings will not survive either. Civilization is the actual criminal; it causes the earth to be destroyed. Hand in hand we must rescue the earth’s life body, bringing reconciliation to the crisis of being in a united deathlike struggle between human beings and environment. “Ecological consciousness” should have been the knowledge of Taiwanese in crossing over the centuries. (Note 5). Ecological education should start with children’s education, so that we can be sure Taiwan has an everlasting spring.

5. Academic Education and non-regulated Education

Max Liu was not from an academic fine art education, he taught himself art, from translating modern art articles. He insisted to learn art and needed to be brave to try it out, experimenting with different materials and building up the imagination is more important than technique. Max Liu’s paintings are not just a single material with water color, but mixed with many multi-media, so that the work has its own texture quality and volume.

He was not shaped step by step by painting the regulated plaster statues, but used his own concepts and mixed them with the study of Anthropology and the jungle exploration experience and created an alternative art style.

6. School Education and the Spirit House Education.

The majority of those in civilized society receive school education, in tribal society it is the spirit house education. The spirit house is the place where they kneel and worship; the adult ceremonies or important worship services of their fellow clansmen are all held in the spirit house. Man and woman are separated; women have their women’s house to hold their ceremonies. In the spirit house, the sorcerer teaches fellow clansmen ways of living and social responsibilities, they have the principle of mutual sharing not individualism. In civilized schools education is usually oriented towards knowledge and neglects the cultivation of character and a feeling for the goals of the society.

III General Cultural Education and a Culture of Globalization

Looking at Max Liu’s life and works from the standpoint of his contact with numerous primitive tribes who are being forgotten in the world, the question of “cultural globalization” is worth re-thinking in depth. Today’s global/indigenous combination develops the cultural confusion of foreign races. We can see the phenomena of cultural commercialization everywhere such as ceremonies of offering sacrifices, folk customs festival celebrations for tourists; this globalization does not necessarily raise the overall but averages the quality, but new cultural difference or foreign race confusion happens continually. Today anthropologist’s eyes reflect the cultural status of “foreign races,” for the indigenous people, especially the local elite could be actually the “true native culture. (Note 6) When many traditional cultures no longer function mainly as a social life and the colonist’s culture cannot avoid planting itself into the tribe’s systems; many contemporary aboriginal artists’ art expresses the cultural chaos in a new art form which mixes the tribe’s traditional culture and colonist’s culture. (Note7)

The African Cameroon contemporary artist Jean Baptiste Ngnetchopa (1953), took the Popu art style, and sculptured the money bill from local and different countries of the world as wooden sculpture and made it 7.7 times bigger than its actual size; he did not preserve the used currency pattern (100% copied). He wanted to comment on the recognition of “value” and think about how from the ordinary job and time, what do we reward and what is the reward of making art work. In an art work the most important accomplishment is the consumption of time; its value has been taken through the market system operation and other’s appreciation, so that it can be transferred into a currency value. (Note 8). The domestic aborigines Wu Ding (wu wa li shi) manipulated the modern technique, and captured the group image of aborigines different ethnic groups lives, like the Taiya Tribe’s weaving clothes, shelling the chestnuts with a pestle and mortar, the Zhou Tribe’s archery and the Bunong Tribe’s hunting, the Ami Tribe’s ceremonial dancing, all these images emulated the human figures, lightly in and lightly out, appearing and disappearing, and just leaving the subjects in the earth, space and time, he accurately digs out the destination where the vanishing aborigines became extinct in supreme nature. (Note 9) Therefore for many tribes to continue to maintain their culture, they must quickly take over the foreign cultures and techniques, and blend them into the construction of self-identification, and yet avoid losing their ethnic group identification among the globalization of the capitalistic system, and face the crisis of raising the average cultural quality or disappear like invisible men.

After WWII, a “General Cultural Education” started to be mentioned in Western civilized countries; this was Max Liu’s main goal of traveling to Babuja in 1993 for Oceania’s cultural artifacts collection, because of these masks, spirit images, tree skin clothes, canoes etc. the original cultural artifacts can help our people get a glimpse of the last screen of the Stone Age culture’s true face. The main purpose of general cultural education aims at the past conflict caused by each individual race’s cultural differences, and so through the education it may bring to an end the discrimination caused by not knowing each other; and further to understand, respect, and cooperate with each other, in order to reach the everlasting peace of humanity in the world. (Note 10) General Cultural Education in today’s global village era appears more important to us, no matter whether it is the spirit culture or material culture, different ethnic groups need mutual respect and should have more interactive exchange brought about in cultural or academic fields.

In Taiwan, our globalization should not be always chasing a western (European or American) culture, but should cultivate a modern civilian who has a brand new general cultural visual view and wide open mind, who can culturally interact with non-western, non-main stream, dissimilar races, and absorb the cultural differences, so that each can enrich his own indigenous culture as “all living things have variety” and develop a diversely dissenting quality of cultural ecology.

Max Liu has worked hard all his life, day and night; he always danced with the ethnic groups and dwelt with the tribes. He maintained a high profile interest in exploring art and anthropology, as the primary focus of people’s pure true soaking into primitive art. The books he wrote about artistic anthropology for our Taiwanese in the 21st Century are just the stepping stones by which we move forward to crossing boundaries with ethnic groups and crossing cultures. Using the lines of Isy ma ha dan, Pu Keun, of the Bunon tribe, as an adventure between heaven/earth gestures for 92 years old Max Liu “In going to the fields, never let the sun reach there earlier, and when coming back from the rice fields, keep your face up to reflect the moon shine.” (Note 11)


Footnotes :

Note 1 : Liu, Chi-wei (Max Liu) “Art anthropology,” Hsiung Sy , Taiwan Jan. 2002, pp.17-23

Note 2 : Liu, Max. Oral history Description, Taiwan , May 17th, 1998.

Note 3 : Hsu Kong-Ming, “Primitive Art and Primitivism,” Modern Art 60th Issue Taiwan , June 1995 pp.21

Note 4 : Foucault, Michel, Docile Bodies, in Discipline and Punish, New York , Pantheon Books,1977, pp. 135-169

Note 5 : Liu, Max, “ Taiwan Crossing Century Making Effect’s Direction-Environmental and Ecological Education,” New Concept, Dec. 1997, p.8

Note 6 : Chiou, Shu-Wen, “The Price of Cultural Relativism,” Contemporary 175th Issue, March 2002, p. 115.

Note 7 : Pick, John, trans. Chiang Jean-Liang, Art and Public Policy, Guey Kuan (Laurels),Feb. 2000, p.129.

Note 8 : Magnin, Andre, Jacques Soulillou, Contemporary Art of Africa, London , 1996, Thames and Hudson , pp. 124-125.

Note 9 : Cheng, Hui-Mei, Author’s writing, “Lively Art vs. Dead Specimen : Comprehension of Taiwanese Contemporary Aboriginal Art,” Dien-Chang (Collection), Aug. 2001, pp.62-65.

Note 10 : Liberty Times, May 24th 1993, p. 24.

Note 11 : Line from I Sy Ma Ha Dan, Pu Kuen, “Mountain Brown Moon Shadow, reger (Gesture,Attitude) of Reading Nature” by Wa Li Sy Non Kan , New Concept 132nd Issue, p. 104.