Exhibition: Prison art

Liu Chen-tan, a political prisoner jailed and tortured during the White Terror era, found solace through literati painting

By Nancy Liu  /  Contributing reporter

Sat, Mar 30, 2013 - Page 12

Liu Chen-tan (劉辰旦), a political prisoner during the White Terror era, is showcasing a series of ink wash paintings he completed while behind bars, offering the public a different perspective on the nation’s recent history through art.

Charged with involvement in two bombing incidents during the Martial Law period, Liu, a photography and sports enthusiast who was in his mid-30s, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1972. Liu was jailed at various Garrison Command (警備總司令部) branches in Taipei City.

“I wasn’t involved in the bombings but [the authorities] framed me for the crime because they couldn’t find the bomber,” Liu said.

Liu, like other political prisoners at the time, was severly tortured during his incarceration. There were incidents where officials forced fuel down his throat and hung him up for hours.

Liu’s sentence was later commuted to five years after Taiwanese political activists drew international attention to the case. US human rights organizations and the administration of Jimmy Carter pressured the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to improve prison conditions.

To pass his time in prison, Liu painted a series of canvases depicting animals, natural scenes and Chinese philosophers — subject matter that he believed wouldn’t spark controversy.

“I tried my best to disguise my discontent with the authoritarian regime by using visual metaphors,” Liu said.

In depicting birds, for example, he would paint their eyes looking toward the sky to symbolize resistance and revolt.

Liu dubbed himself Liuda Shanren (六大山人), a moniker he chose for two reasons. First, the number six (六, liu) referred to the small world he lived in — the prison’s four walls, the roof and the ground. Second, he tried to draw a connotation between his ill-fated destiny to Bada Shanren (八大山人), a famous Chinese painter and a descendent of Ming Dynasty nobility. Bada Shanren was forced into exile after the Manchus established the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century.

Liu, a self-taught painter, often had to make do with what was on hand because the warden didn’t allow painting materials.

“I made my own painting desk out of a bathroom door and used stacks of toilet paper as legs,” he said.

“There was a time when I had to paint on toilet paper because xuan paper (宣紙) was banned,” he said referring to a fine paper that is traditionally used for Chinese calligraphy and painting. “They feared that prisoners would sneak messages out using invisible ink like lemon juice.”

Liu said his passion for painting helped him endure prison and “transported me to another world, giving me the freedom to travel beyond boundaries.”

Due to limited space, the exhibition, organized by the Kaohsiung Museum of History (高雄歷史博物館) and the preparatory office of National Human Rights Museum (國家人權博物館籌備處), will only display 70 of Liu’s paintings and artworks, although he completed over 500 pieces during his incarceration.

Tzeng Hung-min (曾宏民), the museum’s exhibition department chief, said that Liu is one of many who were persecuted during the White Terror era, a period marked by the suppression of human rights. The museum plans to curate more of such exhibitions in the near future to tell the life stories of victims and their families, he added.