By Shelley Tsai

There’s a joke that goes, “Are you Ho Te-lai, or Ho Pu-lai?” The name of the artist is particularly easy to remember, so I’ve always kept him in mind. But what impresses me about Ho Te-lai/Ka Tokurai is his philosophy about life and his loving and committed personality.

Taiwan became a Japanese colony under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1985. On the one hand, a modernized Japan popularized with Western ideas following the Meiji Restoration brought Taiwan a broader Asian art horizon. On the other, Taiwanese people were dissatisfied with the Japanese-dominated art community, and colonization led to class divide and identity crisis. Many local artists decided to leave Taiwan on a quest for freedom of thoughts. As a result, a large number of great artists started to emerge, and Ka Tokurai was one of them.

There’s a long story behind all the expat artists in Japan back then, including Ka Tokurai, Liao Chi-chun, Tan Teng-pho, and Yen Shui-long. I always enjoyed looking back on the times they lived and reflecting on the artists’ life in the current era. The experiences that artists like Ka had are much more profound than those of today’s artists, especially considering the fact that both he and his wife were engaged in art creation.

A man who loves his wife

Ka and his wife were truly a perfect match. He married Kamajirou Kimura’s eldest daughter Hideko-san, who was proficient at playing musical instruments. The couple’s daily routine was to devour music and paintings together, while Hideko, as Ka’s beloved muse, is often portrayed in his paintings and poems. Hideko can be found in over half of the thousands of poems Ka composed during his lifetime.

Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

When Hideko was suffering from maxillary sinus cancer, Ka stayed by her side to look after her along the way. He cleaned up after her when she experienced incontinence, saying it was neither troublesome nor burdensome as it was the last thing he could do to show gratitude for his wife. One year after his wife’s death, Ka published a poem collection entitled “Keeping to My Way” in memory of his wife. His longing for his wife is all evident in his words and between the lines. The couple didn’t have kids, and after Hideko passed away, Ka lived alone.

I’ve always respected and admired creators who could practice their philosophy they preach to the viewers in their own daily lives. It’s not easy to disclose the complete and true self. It’s difficult to be honest, so is facing challenges and transcending oneself. An artist like Ka, who expressed himself with all his heart, could bring to viewers not only visual stimulation and reflection, but a moral education and a demonstration of how to live a life.

Diehard Taiwanese

Having settled in Japan for many years, Ka never applied for Japanese citizenship. A lot of his friends tried to persuade him to get Japanese citizenship for social benefits, such as healthcare. But he resolutely refused to abandon his Taiwanese identity. He also refused to commercialize art by selling his paintings, living the ideal of “art for art’s sake.” 

Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

The only award created in the name of a Taiwanese painter

After World War II, Japanese citizens plummeted into a depressed atmosphere. No one was in the mood to appreciate art. Despite such circumstances, “Shinkozo,” a civic art organization in Japan, started manually producing posters with mimeographs to revive the art scene. Both Yuichi Honme and Ka worked daily to give the members peace of mind and were thus praised as the “dual wheels of the car” by their fellow members. But while in Japan, Ka never forgot about his hometown. In 1956, he returned to Taiwan and held a solo exhibit at Taipei’s Zhongshan Hall, which was a new step forward for both Shinkozo and his own art career.

Until his demise, Ka continued to mentor the young artists at Shinkozo. Devoting himself to the organization for 28 years, Ka was held in high regard by its members. To commemorate Ka’s contributions, Shinkozo established the “Ta Toku Award,” which became the only award among those conferred by Japanese art organizations that was created in the name of a Taiwanese painter.  

Never giving up on art

To me, Ka is more like a teacher. He provided the younger generations with life wisdom. What influences me the most is in fact his spirit of never giving up. Today, giving up seems to be an easy option, yet he always said, “I only have one life; I only have one destiny. It’s precious.” He never gave up on his art and life, nor wavered from what he believed despite the turbulence of his times. He was perseverant yet pure.

He was fearless in the face of life and death. “All people will die, like the falling leaves and setting sun. It has never changed to this day since ancient times.” I believe trials and tribulations make one wiser and better know how to address life’s challenges. Being born in troubled times seems to be a gift to Ka’s life. I think about the significant differences between his times and ours, and surely it’s not possible to transpose the wisdom of the prior generation to modern days as a frame of reference. Nonetheless, the way he fixated on, valued, and persisted with the things he loved serves as a role model for all humans regardless of what times and locations they come from.

Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Many of Ka Tokurai’s creations are somewhat similar to kids’ doodles, with topics ranging from as simple as mountains, water, tofu at breakfast, to the portrayal of his wife playing the violin. While documenting the historical context, his paintings also show us how he learned from the little things in life. Viewers can see from his paintings how precious ordinary life was to people back then and how he deeply missed his wife. I think it’s hard for one to disguise himself in the art he makes. People can read feelings from works of art, sensing delicately whether their creators were wholeheartedly devoted, and Ka is but the artist who put in all his heart and soul.

To welcome Ka’s 120th birthday, consolidating the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM)’s collection and the works, documents, and files kept by Ka’s family, including calligraphy, watercolor, sketches, notes, manuscripts, photos, and others, which long hadn’t had the chance to be shown to the public before, the TFAM showcases more than 200 pieces of Ka’s original artwork and documents. The exhibit area is divided into eight major themes: “Tokyo Fine Arts School,” “Hsinchu,” “Shinkozo,” “Mother and Wife,” “Meguro, Home,” “Life and Source Investigation,” “Pen and Ink,” and “Sketch and Scenery.” Such an arrangement representing a broader creation context is to introduce a concrete and complete manner present the process whereby the artist developed his own artistic path.

Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Keeping to My Path: A Retrospective of Ka Tokurai
Venue: Galleries 2A & 2B, Taipei Fine Arts Museum
Date: July 8, 2023–October 22, 2023

This article originally appears on every little d. Translation is by Edward Ying-Jen Lin.

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