888 Portraits in Taiwan

“888” documents Brenda Zlamany’s project “Creating a Portraiture of the Indigenous Inhabitants of Taiwan.” From July 1 to September 30, 2011, supported by a Fulbright grant, Brenda traveled in Taiwan, primarily to aboriginal villages. She made watercolors of the people she met, using the camera lucida, a device for drawing that dates back to the Renaissance and promotes a two-way exchange between artist and subject.

The idea for this project came from an observation she made after painting portraits of nomads and monks during a trip to Tibet: when she hung the completed portraits of Tibetans near her recent portraits of New York artists, the artists appeared to reach out to the viewer, while the viewer was pulled into the portraits of the Tibetans. This contrast between “external” and “internal” gazes seemed worthy of further exploration. She choose the Taiwanese aborigines because they are somewhat removed from the mainstream culture. But as she traveled from village to village, she noticed that the line between aboriginal and Taiwanese is not always clear, and the project became more inclusive. Eventually all people living or working in Taiwan became potential subjects.

Each portrait with the camera lucida took around ten minutes to complete. Brenda aimed to make ten portraits a day. Traveling with her ten-year-old daughter, a fluent Mandarin speaker, helped her persuade strangers to participate. Each subject enjoyed signing his or her portrait and being photographed with it. The signature, an important part of the image, stamps the work as a collaboration. As word of the project spread on the island, it had a unifying effect. People were introduced to one another by flipping through the sketchbooks. While painting in remote places such as Lanyu, Wutai, Chingchuan, Yilan, and Wulia and in major cities in Taiwan, she had wonderful adventures and developed a personal connection to each subject. She choose 888 as the final number of paintings because of its significance in Chinese culture.

Interview with Brenda Zlamany, produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (2012).

Documentary about Brenda’s excursion to Taiwan (2012).

View an interactive copy of one of the watercolor sketchbooks
(37 MB download).

View Brenda’s oil paintings of people she met in Taiwan.


Subjects signing their portraits.