This past weekend, the Accès Asie festival officially kicked off to a packed house at the Maison de la Culture Plateau-Mont-Royal, with the opening reception of a new art exhibition “Rencontres: zishi” featuring Nie Jian Bing and Michel Beaucage.
Upon immediate viewing, the two artists’ works do not seem to be related to each other at all. Beaucage’s work was all abstract lines and colours splashed onto a page, doing their best to embody the concept of “contained chaos”; in contrast, Bing’s work, featured celebrity faces like Lady Gaga, John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe, with Chinese characters and points to indicate their “vital points” according to an ancient Chinese book.
Upon closer reflection, the common thread of blurring the boundaries emerges – for Beaucage, this happens literally as his paintings feature abstract figures, shapes and splashes over already painted lines and shapes. In Nie’s paintings, the blurring occurs in a more temporal sense, as he inscribes ancient Chinese knowledge over the portraits of contemporary figures.
Among the esteemed guests of the evening was the Honourable Vivienne Poy, the first Asian Senator in Canada who first proposed establishing Canada’s Asian Heritage Month in 2001. Poy gave a short welcome speech, alternating in English and French, expressing congratulations to the festival organizers and regret that she could not attend many of the events in Montreal.
Veteran musician Chin-Lin Leu also provided musical entertainment for the evening on the Guzheng, the 12-string Chinese zither. She first opened with a traditional piece called “High Mountain & Flowing Water” then followed up with her own improvised piece, keeping up with the evening’s theme of merging the traditional and the new. The audience, buzzing with conversation, had a difficult time quieting down and had to be shushed by both the festival organizers and other spectators multiple times.
The excitement of Friday night was contrasted with the more intimate nature of Saturday’s festival event, “Flavours of India,” an intimate gathering of about 25 people at the downtown restaurant Buffet Maharaja.
The restaurant owners, Mr. and Mrs. Khan, shared their insight on Indian cooking with the audience. Mr. Khan opened his address with the ominous warning that “Indian cooking is art, and it takes a lot of time.” Like many traditional cuisines, Mr. and Mrs. Khan’s cooking expertise came through hours of observing their parents and experiments on their own.
Even though I eat Indian food frequently, the session taught me a few new tidbits about Indian culinary terms; for example, anything tandoori means “dry” and curry means any dish in a sauce. Mr. Khan added that in certain Caribbean countries, “curry” is used to refer to the spices that make up the sauce, but not in India. The typical spiciness we associate with Indian food came from a necessity to preserve foods for a long time in the hot climate, Mr. Khan explained.
Mr. Khan was also kind enough to show the audience members the various ingredients that mingle together to make a pot of chai tea, as well as the clay oven where the naan breads are made daily. I was struck by how fast the whole process took – after sticking a lump of dough inside the oven, the bread is done baking in about a minute. Part of me also wished that the audience could’ve taken on a more interactive role in creating the chai and naan – whether it was kneading a pre-made dough, or mixing the chai ingredients to find our own unique flavour.
The highlight of the afternoon was the Kathak dance performance by Sudeshna Maulik, accompanied by tabla player Shawn Mativetsky. With her graceful and controlled movements, Maulik’s performance was breathtaking in its execution. After the performance, guests had the opportunity to discuss what they learned and saw with Indian appetizers (including chicken tikka, samosas, and onion bhaji), dessert, and chai tea provided by Buffet Maharaja. Like the festival’s promise of showcasing tradition alongside the new, the discussion of India’s rich history of cuisine and dance came alive with live demonstrations and performance.
The festival continues next weekend with author/scenographer Helen Yung’s new technology installation, “Gulliver’s Travels” at OBORO, and a national video conference of different Asian Heritage Month organizations in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto at Ex-Centris.
For more information about Accès Asie, please visit the festival website.