Howie Tsui

Retainers of Anarchy


Organized and circulated by Vancouver Art Gallery

Curated by Diana Freundl, Interim Chief Curator / Associate Director

In this exhibition, the Vancouver-based artist brings together martial arts characters and techniques with social and political realities of present-day Hong Kong. Presented in the form of a 25-metre hand-drawn animation, Retainers of Anarchy offers an opportunity to reflect on notions of identity and nationhood by drawing on Hong Kong’s political unrest, protests and conflict.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Lagos, Nigeria and Thunder Bay, Ontario, Howie Tsui, like so many Canadians, straddles many worlds. His work employs a variety of media—including ink brush work, sound sculptures, lenticular lightboxes and installations. Tsui constructs tense, fictive environments that subvert venerated art forms and narrative genres, often stemming from the Chinese pictorial landscapes, Euro-American and Asian popular culture.

In his work, Tsui addresses ideas of resistance, using the narrative tool of wuxia, a popular genre of Chinese fantasy fiction and film depicting martial arts battles in ancient China. Wuxia often constructs stories around warrior heroes from lower social classes who uphold chivalric ideals against oppressive forces during unstable times. In Retainers of Anarchy, Tsui uses the genre as a tool of pointed critique, reflecting his particular interest in the paradox of how self-governed harmony can exist in places of seeming lawlessness, such as the controversial Walled City settlement demolished within Hong Kong and how rampant corruption may flourish in governed states and regulated industries.

For Tsui, wuxia provides not only a connection to a distant culture; it also offers inspiration for his ongoing exploration of tactics for resistance to imposed control. Often this work evokes parallel experiences across different cultures and can offer multiple points of entry for a diverse audience. The result of Tsui’s careful weaving of multifarious source material is a visually complex, richly textured landscape of personal imagination and historical reference. As a crowning achievement, Tsui’s Retainers of Anarchy dismantles geographical divisions and neglects historical timelines, offering encounters with both legend and reality.

The exhibition contains graphic images that may cause distress.

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