Exhibitionists·ARTFOLIO

Martial arts culture keeps this artist tethered to his home — and inspires his subversive work

In Howie Twsui's epic 25-metre animated scroll, heroes in martial arts battles are symbolic reminders of fighting oppression and championing resistance.

'I'm hoping that my work can empower other diasporic artists to keep it real'

In Howie Tsui's epic 25-metre animated scroll, heroes in martial arts battles are symbolic reminders of fighting oppression and championing resistance. 4:24

When Howie Tsui was a kid — born in Hong Kong and now in Vancouver via Lagos, Nigeria — he consumed a ton of martial arts fantasy fiction and Hong Kong TV shows courtesy of his dad's videocassette company. And that portal into wuxia culture ended up having a massive impact on his art practice.

Martial arts films, Japanese and Chinese ghost stories, anime and Hong Kong's notorious Kowloon Walled City — all of them have become elements of Tsui's art and his connection to the culture he comes from. Although he says he felt insecure in art school because he was worried the art he instinctively wanted to make wouldn't "fit within the framework of the Canadian contemporary art canon," learning more about those genres reassured him that there was a space for him after all.

His new work, Retainers of Anarchy, takes his storytelling to a whole new level — literally. In the 25-metre video installation that functions as a sort of animated scroll, heroes in martial arts battles are symbolic reminders of fighting against oppression, undermining the establishment and acting as champions of resistance.

In this video — part of our "Artfolio" series — Tsui lets us in on how his practice led to Retainers, finding his place in the art world and how seeing an animated scroll at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai inspired his most epic work.

See Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 28.

Watch Exhibitionists on Friday nights at 12:30am (1am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT) on CBC Television.

About the Author

Lisa Wu is a filmmaker and photographer on the unceded, occupied territories of the Coast Salish peoples. She’s interested in stories that show the intersection between art and social change. Working to keep B.C. beautiful, she’s part of a movement to #stopkm and to #protectourcoast.

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