Paiwan artist carves out new paths for Taiwan's indigenous traditions

Paiwan artist Etan Pavavalung keeps tradition alive with unique woodcarvings

'Vibrant Island' by Etan Pavavalung at opening of Taipei Summer Universiade Aug. 2017. (Courtesy of Sports Administration official YouTube channel)

'Vibrant Island' by Etan Pavavalung at opening of Taipei Summer Universiade Aug. 2017. (Courtesy of Sports Administration official YouTube channel)

TAIPEI (Taiwan Today) -- When indigenous singers performed at the opening ceremony of the 2017 Taipei Summer Universiade, images of painted woodcarvings by Paiwan artist Etan Pavavalung appeared on 1,200 square meters of LED panels beneath their feet. This vibrant scene was one of the most memorable moments at the launch of the largest sporting event ever staged in Taiwan.

As with his other pieces, Etan’s creations for the ceremony straddle a line between tradition and modernity. Made using innovative carving techniques, the artworks comprise striking interpretations of centuries-old legends and motifs from the Paiwan tribe, one of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized indigenous groups. Central images from the carvings include circles and lilies, powerful symbols in aboriginal culture.

For the Paiwan and Rukai tribes, lilies signify beauty and virtue in women as well as bravery and hunting prowess in men, Etan said, adding that when he carves the flowers, he often thinks of tribal tales he heard growing up.

“My grandmother used to say that the lilies on the mountain where we lived were there to keep people company,” he said. “She told me that when a lily dies, it returns to its home in the sky, turns into a star and guards us from above.”

The use of the flowers in his carvings is also influenced by the Wild Lily student movement, a 1990 pro-democracy protest calling for direct elections in Taiwan named for the white Formosa lilies worn by participants.

“Eyes of the Earth” by Etan uses powerful symbols from aboriginal culture including lilies and eyes, as well as the sun, moon and stars, to depict the connection between people and the universe. (Courtesy of Taipei Indigenous Contemporary Art Gallery)

Perhaps the most dominant images in Etan’s artworks are circles. Often, partial circular forms intrude from the edges of his pieces, as though they are forcing their way into the work or signify a much larger idea just beyond the frame.

According to Etan, the circles typically represent the land and people’s relationship to it. “We need to respect the earth just as we care for our family members,” he said, adding that his paintings aim to encourage a respectful rather than domineering attitude toward nature.

The artist said that when they are depicted as a whole or concentric, the circles embody the ideals of completeness and sharing. This is because elders in Taiwan’s indigenous tribes would traditionally gather children around a fire to pass down oral histories.

To produce an artwork, Etan begins with a rough sketch on the surface of the wood, before filling any empty space with flowing lines. This creates a sense of dynamism, as if the wind is sweeping across his pieces. The addition of vibrantly colored paints to the carved wood further strengthens this aura of motion and vitality.

Etan said he was inspired to adopt this innovative method of making woodcarvings following the destruction of his hometown of Davalan Village in southern Taiwan’s Pingtung County. In summer 2009, Typhoon Morakot struck central and southern Taiwan, causing hundreds of deaths and forcing the relocation of Etan’s and many other indigenous families from devastated mountain communities.

“Afterward, we focused all our energy on reconstruction plans for the village, and I began thinking about using art to promote spiritual healing,” he said. “I started exploring an ancient Paiwan concept known as ‘vecik’ and it is from this idea that I developed my current method of artistic expression.”

The Paiwan term “vecik” refers to the patterns of forests, mountains, rocks, streams and all other natural objects. “It concerns not only the arrangements of tangible items, but also intangible ones like the wind,” the artist said. “Producing works from this perspective enables me to pass on the traditional aesthetics of the Paiwan tribe.”

“Don’t Take Too Much” depicts Etan’s grandfather asking his grandchildren to pick up some betel nuts from a tree. (Courtesy of Taipei Indigenous Contemporary Art Gallery)

Born in 1963, Etan grew up in a family that has for generations placed great emphasis on cultivating “pulima,” a Paiwan word referring to individuals with subtle handcrafting skills. Etan’s father, Pairang Pavavalung, was recognized by the Bureau of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture for his skills at playing the traditional Paiwan nose and mouth flute. And in 2017, elder brother Sakuliu, a celebrated painter, potter and sculptor, became the first indigenous artist to receive the National Award for Arts in the fine arts category.

Etan said he is committed to honoring his family legacy by using art to convey the traditional wisdom of the Paiwan tribe. The woodcarver draws much of his inspiration from childhood memories, with many of his works showcasing scenes of his forbearers.

In “Don’t Take Too Much,” Etan depicts his grandfather asking his grandchildren to pick up some betel nuts from a tree. The name of the work comes from his grandfather’s constant reminders to take only two or three. “This memory is always with me, as it conveys ancient tribal wisdom about respecting nature and never exploiting natural resources,” he said.

About four years ago, Etan asked his father to teach him to play the mouth and nose flute. “This has allowed me to get closer to my father,” he said, adding that music in Paiwan is more than melodies but another way of speaking. “There is no written form of the Paiwan language, so art, handicrafts and music are our literature, our forms of expression.”

Through his art, Etan aims to share his tribe’s unique aesthetics and the embedded philosophical perspectives on human civilization and ecology. “Tribal insights are a cultural asset not only for indigenous peoples but for all of Taiwan and the world.”

Etan (right) plays a traditional Paiwan flute with his father Pairang. (Courtesy of National Center for Traditional Arts)