From house painter to indigenous artist: the journey back home

TAIPEI (The China Post) — Yosifu (優席夫) gazes out the 2nd floor balcony of the Tribal Queen Cafe, mesmerized by the golden fields of the Matadim Tribe: his home.

As our hour-long interview came to a closing, his words opened a set of windows into his brazen aura, one that belonged to an untamed artist.

Amidst moments of carefree laughter, witty remarks, and tears of joy and relief, I found a man at peace with his past and struggles. More than anything, I saw an indigenous individual with unconditional love for his community and unbounded pride in his identity. 

With NYC subway trains plastered with his vivacious artwork, sold-out exhibitions, brimming partnerships & awards, the breadth of Yosifu’s name is undoubtedly far reaching.

Yet, the seemingly effortless strokes behind his electrifying paintings speak of a bitter battle with belonging, lost dreams, and identity. 

LOST DREAMS 

The Matadim Tribe located in Taidong, Taiwan “was a bore,” the artist recalls from his childhood. He dreamt of bigger plans in the city up north. When his aspirations of becoming a singer fell just within his grasps, they always managed to slip away.

The elusive opportunities always had an excuse in hand: record company turmoil, claims of his skin being too “dark” for the album branding, and the likes. Gutted by futile attempts, Yosifu decided to fly to Edinburgh for a vacation to mend his broken heart.

Perhaps, singing just wasn’t his calling. 

He fell in love with Edinburgh. So much that he decided to uproot his entire life in Taiwan and start anew in the foreign city. For the first couple of months, he crashed on a friend’s sofa and found a job as a house painter.

“Those were some dark days,” Yosifu confesses solemnly. “I felt so disheartened in a place I could not call home, making a living as a minimum wage worker.” He resorted to alcohol in order to cope with depression. 

One of Yosifu’s most renowned pieces, “The Secret of the Sun ” illuminates the wounds of oppression when indigenous communities were banned from speaking their mother language. (Courtesy of Yosifu Online Art Gallery)
Inspirations and Aspirations

When a few friends insisted on a getaway to Greece, “a cheap one” he chuckled, an allusion awaited for his arrival. One night, three blue angels came to visit him in his dreams.

They spoke to him in English, “Hey, it’s the time. Time to paint!” and raised his hands to form brush strokes. His hands started to itch after returning to Edinburgh. It was a drawing itch. 

And so Jamie (Yosifu’s old English name) started to draw, experimenting with basic subjects. Sketches of flowers and animals overlaid his apartment walls. One day, another pair of eyes caught onto his artwork.

His landlord passed by Jamie’s doors and gasped at his work, “Wow Jamie! Can I display this?” Little did Jamie know, his landlord’s living room display would land him an invitation to showcase his work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest art festival.

The coordinator of the showcase selected 10 young artists across the country. “The other nine artists were professionally trained in art school. I painted houses,” he explained in disbelief.

However, it would take more than a festival, and dozens of door knocks to carve out a new path. 

When the festival ended, Jamie drew more. He told himself: “Hey, maybe I can make a living out of this”. Just like that, he became a salesman and pitched his artwork from door to door, across different art galleries. After countless knocks, no one answered back. No one wanted his work.  

It was the late afternoon. Jamie grew tired from the day of rejections and wanted a cup of coffee. He spotted a café in the corner called Sala Café. Here, his destiny changed. 

While he sipped on his coffee, Jamie realized that price-tagged works & pieces belonging to budding artists hung on the cafe’s walls. He knew what he had to do. 

The owner loved his work, but had barely an opening for Jamie to display his work. 5 days was all the owner could spare. Jamie committed with no hesitation. 

Salvation

“Those five days felt like an eternity.” 

Every day, he waited for people to buy his work.

Every day, he stalked the exhibition at a distance, observing how customers felt about his art.

Every day, his thoughts churned and all he hoped for was to sell off at least one painting.  

On the fifth day, he pushed open the doors. A row of red dots lined the walls with his paintings. He sold off 85% of all his work and couldn’t stop crying. 

Jamie couldn’t stop crying because for the first time in three years, he could finally send money back home. Home had many faces he needed to take care of: his father, mother, and 3 siblings. 

Transformation

The fledgling artist found flight in 2010. For 4 years, Jamie only drew inspiration from western art. When he came home in the new decade and met Mr. Yen, vibrant colors were revived.

The man told Jamie: “You are not a westerner. You cannot truly embody their essence. Come home and draw your people”. 

Something awakened inside of him. 

From then on, Jamie returned to his tribe and retraced his origins. He became a modern indigenous artist and soon found family & friends from the tribe as his subject matter, eternalizing them in paint and frame. 

In celebrating the rich culture of the Amis and paying homage to his people, Jamie salvaged a new appreciation for his home. 

2010 also marks a momentous milestone in Jamie’s life. He changed his English name from “Jamie” to his indigenous title “Yosifu”, derived from the Arabic form of the famous biblical figure. 

A turning point in Yosifu’s journey of self-discovery is depicted in “I Hear Myself”, the artist’s introspection on reclaiming his indigenous identity. (Courtesy of Yosifu Online Art Gallery)

His landmark piece “I Hear Myself” captivates this moment, where Yosifu reaffirms his identity.

Amidst the brewing hatred society has barricaded against indigenous minorities, Yosifu discovers an unprecedented sliver of clarity through his love for art. He finds that it is time to embrace his “honey brown” skin.  

Reinvigoration   

A personal mission of Yosifu, guiding young indigenous individuals back home, seemed inconceivable a few years ago. It took years of investment in local businesses, countless visits across different tribes and an unwithering passion for sharing his story with others to light the path back home.

Now, he is overflown with indigenous reinvigoration project collaborations, undertaken by the younger Amis generation themselves.  

I followed up with Yosifu on the phone a few days ago to discuss the repercussions of COVID-19 within the indigenous community. “Despite the detrimental effects the virus has caused across the globe,” Yosifu explains, “domestic tourism has soared in Taiwan. It is a hidden blessing for the indigenous community because skyrocketing visits to the countryside have provided an unparalleled amount of jobs for indigenous businesses.”

He admits that this influx in tourism is temporary, but recognizes the renewed opportunities it brings for younger faces fighting to preserve their culture & legacy.  

All across Taidong, Puyuma trains docking station platforms serve as a lighthouse for lost indigenous individuals, ushering them towards a way back home.  

On these Puyuma trains, you will find Yosifu’s art. 

Yosifu captures a core matrilineal value embedded in indigenous culture: the celebration of beauty, nature, and simplicity. (Courtesy of Yosifu Online Art Gallery)

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