Culture | Monster Mash

The traditional takes on the contemporary in Howie Tsui's art

There is a Japanese folk tale about a man long ago, who took a concubine when his first wife became very sick. Overcome by jealousy in her dying moments, the first wife clutched onto the breasts of the concubine. After her death, no one could remove the hands from the chest of the younger girl, and so they had to be amputated from the dead wife’s body. Only between one and four in the morning would the hands leave the concubine, crawling away from her body like spiders and returning at dawn.

Macabre tales such as these are the stuff of Howie Tsui’s art. Tsui, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Nigeria and Thunder Bay, Ontario, introduces a host of unearthly and oftentimes unsettling characters to those who view his work. His latest exhibition, Horror Fables satirizes today’s climate of fear, whether it be of war, disease, or economic decline.

The majority of Tsui’s Horror Fables is acrylic painting, embellished with ink, tea, and smoke stains on canvas. Tsui’s Chinese upbringing is apparent in his work, which takes inspiration from Asian folklore, Buddhist hell scrolls, Hong Kong vampire movies, and imagery from the Sino-Japanese war. Into the mix, Tsui blends family ghost stories from their time in Hong Kong, living in an allegedly haunted apartment complex. “There is definitely a familial oral history I am sneaking into these paintings,” said Tsui, pointing out in one painting his great grandfather, who escaped the Chinese Cultural Revolution in a shipping container, along with many others. The canvasses on which Horror Fables are painted create a dreamy landscape that depicts – among other scenes – vampires devouring humans, giants perched on top of tall mountains in the clouds, and a never-ending stream of bodies being washed down a river of blood into hell.

Disturbing? For Tsui, the scenes in his work “re-examine experiences of fear during childhood,” thus the final experience of his art is not actually one of horror. As the title of the exhibition suggests, the monsters depicted in Horror Fables are not real. They are the stuff of children’s ghost stories, whispered in the dark at slumber parties, or told by a favourite uncle at family reunions.

Tsui is also displaying his Spectral Residues alongside Horror Fables. These are painted apparitions on the walls, embellished with smoke stains from matches. These paintings are more ethereal than the manga-influenced Horror Fables and depict faceless ghosts that appear to be coming out of the wall toward the observer.

The inspiration for “Spectral Residue” came as a mistake when Tsui was at art school. Painting on large sheets of rice paper pinned to a wall, he did not notice the paint bleeding through onto the wall until he took down his art weeks later. The paint on the wall had created dreamy, translucent faces with hollow eyes, and shapeless bodies floating, “as if looking into clouds.” The smoke stains lengthen the ghosts and obscure their full shape to the observer, encouraging them to look deeper into their misty forms. Burnt matchsticks on the floor below draw attention to Tsui’s process, and serve as a little homage to the mistake that created the technique.

Horror Fables presents its audience with a world of horror, dark comedy, and strange new characters from a childhood unknown to many in the West. These characters are both violent and have violence inflicted upon them. In the end, however, the landscape in which they dwell is lighthearted, captivating the audience with its absence of the financial and political fears of today.