Digging for Chinese Treasure…in a Museum

Karen Tam

Karen Tam in front of Qing dynasty Alcove Bed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

When my friend Karen Tam, told me earlier this year that she was the artist-in-residence at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, I asked her two questions:

1) Do the statues come to life like in the movie A Night at the Museum?
2) What was she doing there?

So maybe my imagination is fueled by movies including Indiana Jones and more recently, Monument Men, and maybe I was disappointed that the answer to my first question was “no,” but I found Karen’s project to be very intriguing.

I met her again on the last day of her residency, this time at the museum, to find out exactly what she was working on. She had spent six weeks exploring their archives and learning about the history of the museum’s collection of Chinese art and artefacts. It was late Friday morning, and we sat on a vinyl bench on the third floor where only a handful of people were perusing the display cases.

Many of the objects she examined came from antique dealers in New York, Boston and London, two of who obtained valuable artefacts because of major historical events. Goods belonging to Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War wound up in the hands of Yamanaka Sadajirô and his company Yamanaka & Co which dealt in government confiscated goods. The other one was C.T. Loo.  Treasures that once belonged to the Chinese Imperial Family fell into his hands as they sold what they could in order to flee China before the fall of the Last Emperor and the Japanese invasion. Accused of being a thief and looter of China’s national treasures, Loo defended himself by saying he was actually saving the art by selling them to collectors.

It seems that the museum also played a small part in history. In the 1940s, the museum held three exhibits by Chinese artists of which one was to raise money for China’s Nationalist Party and another for China’s Communist Party. However, all three exhibits were held when Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act (which banned Chinese immigrants from entering the country from 1923-1947 )was still in force. Canadian society, while appreciating the art and culture of the Far East, did not hold the same appreciation for the people who created it.

The museum’s Chinese collection holds many stories, but as Karen’s residency ends her interest does not. She is holding talks with the museum about the possibility of holding an exhibit based on her discoveries. In the meantime, her next installation will be at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon as part of the exhibition “Convoluted Beauty: In the Company of Emily Carr,” at the end of June. Her subject will be Lee Nam, a Chinese immigrant to British Columbia, who was a painter and a friend of Emily Carr. In collaboration with Montreal-based painter, Lui Luk Chun, a senior artist in his seventies, she will re-imagine what Lee Nam’s studio looked like in the 1930s.

You can read more about her experience as artist-in-residence at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on her blog Pumpkin Sauce. Check out her portfolio at http://www.karentam.ca.

Click on the link to learn about the artist’s residency at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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