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Traces of Words paints layered appreciation of written language

By Zoe Grams

Shamsia Hassani, What about the dead fish? 2011 Paint on the ruins of Russian Cultural Centre, Kabul. (Photo courtesy Shamsia Hassani)

Shamsia Hassani, What about the dead fish? 2011 Paint on the ruins of Russian Cultural Centre, Kabul. (Photo courtesy Shamsia Hassani)

Since the first written text was invented more than 7,000 years ago, words have shaped our perceptions, held our histories, and become one of humanity’s most complex and widely used tools.

The Museum of Anthropology’s new exhibition, Traces of Words: Art and Calligraphy from Asia, demonstrates the evolution of language across Asian cultures and shares the beauty of words as art forms in and of themselves.

The collection of gorgeous, provocative or transporting depictions launched on May 11 and will be open to the public until Oct. 9. Amidst multiple galleries in and out of the museum are artworks including: Qu’ranic manuscripts, Afghan graffiti and digital creations from Japan. Highlights from the museum’s Asian collection will be displayed in multiple galleries within the building, while a satellite exhibition at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC will display Asian materials from UBC Library collections throughout May.

Behind the multifaceted, ambitious exhibition is socio-cultural anthropologist Dr. Fuyubi Nakamura, whose prior accolades include teaching at graduate schools including Oxford, and receiving multiple awards. Regular MOA attendees will know her work from the 2015 exhibition, (In)visible: The Spiritual World of Taiwan through Contemporary Art.

Using knowledge gathered over more than 18 years of research, Nakamura approached the selection of these hundreds of pieces with an unusual, impassioned method.

“I met all of the artists. That’s very important to me. I don’t just select artworks,” she explained. “Because I’m trained as an anthropologist, I work with people rather than objects. The starting point is always there.”

She met the artist behind one of the most powerful pieces in the exhibition at a symposium in India in 2012. After speaking with Shamsia Hassani from Afghanistan, Nakamura became fascinated by the bravery – and artistry – behind the woman’s graffiti on the often-controlled streets of her country.

Other highlights Nakamura recommends includes an interactive media work by teamLab, an artists’ collective based in Tokyo, Japan, who call themselves uber-technologists. The group of architects, designers and engineers developed traditional calligraphy script that transforms into the images represented by the characters when a reader – or viewer – walks by. The result is an artwork that is ever evolving, and ever changing, just like language itself. While teamLab is revered throughout the globe, this will be the first time the work is shown in Canada.

Nakamura also recommends discovering Tibetan mixed-media creator Nortse, who she met in Tibet in 2010. His work, “Book of Ashes”, represents Nortse’s childhood memory of thousands of Buddhist scripts being systematically destroyed by the Chinese government.

The anthropologist was quick to explain the power of viewing political works in a language one may not understand.

“Calligraphy works are not just about reading. It’s about showcasing different ways of experiencing different forms of writing in the Asian script,” she shared. “Even when you don’t can’t read the text itself…Of course, what’s written is often very important, but sometimes it’s not about legibility.”

Not understanding the language itself can often lead to a greater appreciation of the artwork and intricacies, such as “seeing the ink splashes.” Another reminder of the multifaceted power of the written word.

Traces of Words runs from May 9 to Oct. 11 at The Museum of Anthropology at UBC. Tickets are available at moa.ubc.ca or in person.