The Barefoot Artist (2014) Film Review, a biographical documentary film, directed by Glenn Holstein & David Traub, and featuring Lily Yeh.
The Barefoot Artist was a documentary profiling the ongoing works of Lily Yeh, while highlighting an aspect to her personal life, that has served as a singular source of inspiration – not just to her, but to the goals behind her work.
At face value the film began with what could have been another artist determined to find inspiration off the beaten path. That notion made her work, with survivors of the Rwandan genocide, a little uncomfortable to watch. One example was a simple exercise, that seemed oddly reminiscent of the more routinely morbid practice (in more ‘civilized’ cultures, anyway) of outlining a corpse with chalk.
At one point, Lily asked several survivors about life before the war. At first, it seemed like an optimistic exercise in subjective beauty, by way of selective memory; Human rationalization as coping mechanism, allowing us to draw inspiration from beyond our darker places – even if through those places. Unfortunately, the exercise involved probing a succession of survivors about their personal losses. The sequence was edited in a fashion that seemed more like journalistic exploitation, than part of any artistic project. As uncomfortable as it was, to watch the interviewees collectively struggle with the questions, they did visually share their experiences – the whole affair boiling down to a collective moment of artistic catharsis. A community of survivors creating the memorial it may not have previously considered as necessary, otherwise.
This was another example of Lily equating the beauty & ugliness of life, and Human spirit. Her own personal take on certain dualist realities, to both art & life; the title alluding to the depths of her commitment, to finding beauty at whatever depths. Finding the joy, in the sensation of mud & dirt between bare toes, would be one example; but a grander one would be the fact that it is impossible to create anything, without destroying something.
It seems that Lily’s take, on the role of art, in the Human experience, was not the embracing of subjectivity, but the elimination of it. A zen like state, where the application of specific values, to our surroundings, is discouraged; thus allowing for a never ending state of amazement, at the never ending expanse that is both the nature of things, and nature, itself.
When one stops to ponder the daunting scale, of such a goal, it then becomes clearer that Lily’s Yin-Yang method does constitute an important first step. If you can see the inherent beauty in ugliness, and vice-versa, then the need to separate the two, on a value scale, becomes pointless. Apply this principle to art, and art, itself, is taken beyond subjectivity, to individual expressions of universal truth – even if we, as individuals, can never hope to see the full tapestry, as it unfolds. Still, it will always be about that first step.
Lily’s own back story went some ways in framing this outlook. Born into the Japanese occupation of China, her father was both extremely supportive of her art, but was also a General in the nationalist army. That position made him a hero, in World War 2, but an enemy to the communists. The fight against the Japanese kept her family on the move, broadening her horizons; but the Communist take over forced them to flee to Taiwan. Her father’s standing afforded her some privilege, growing up in Taiwan, but she saw her future abroad. That first trip, by boat, and her recount of the infinite possibilities ahead of her, from the ship’s bow, may have been the gateway moment for a perpetually expansive frame of thought.
Of course, it doesn’t pay to be an expansive thinker, in an introspective age. Lily came to America in time for the Pop Art movement of the 60s. The population crush of urban America didn’t really allow for broad, universal themes, and therefore, the ironies of self-centered self-awareness dominated the field. It was a bad fit, for someone as fine tuned as Lily was, back then; but in her effort to keep from going creatively idle, she got into the gallery scene, and networking. Even as her personal relationships suffered, her people skills would become part of her artistic identity; so, in a way, the Pop Art diversion only served to expand her expansive view, by incorporating the very lives of others into her work – but only after she divested herself of the notion of merely producing art. People became an integral part of her artistic view, and with them, came an appreciation for the dualities of the Human condition.
This was all extrapolated from the first twenty minutes, of the over eighty minute film.
The balance of the film highlighted her work at three locations. North Philadelphia, USA, where her drive to make art a communal affair began; leading to the creation of the Village of Arts & Humanities. Korogocho, Kenya, where the residents, of what was literally a garbage dump, took an opportunity to make their home a thing of pride. Most poignantly of all, was her work in Rugerero, Rwanda, where her focus was on allowing the residents of the Genocide Survivors’ Village to give their departed a true memorial – for their own sake, as much as to the memory of their lost loved ones.
There were other locations and other projects, in places like Haiti, the Palestinian territories, and The Dandelion School, of Beijing, China, where the communist ideal, of a single minded community, was applied to beautification, rather than the aesthetic free drab of collectivism. The story of her father, however, would serve as the connective tissue to these projects.
Lost somewhere along her course, from the Chinese General’s daughter, to American artist, was her father’s own story; a story that, upon finding his journal, she took upon herself to bring some resolution to. The ultimate dark, to her father’s light, was the story of his first family; abandoned through divorce, and left to suffer through some of China’s darkest moments, even as Lily reaped the benefits of his parentage. It remained a source of shame for him, and after his passing, Lily resolved to bring as many of her extended family together, in modern day China, to redeem his memory.
The need to be mindful of the full aspect of the Human condition – complete with the resolving of the best with the worst, within us all – could be considered the theme of the film, and the underlying subject behind all of her works.
Her canvas was the various settings, themselves, where, in the face of their everyday hardships, she was determined to not just find inherent beauty, but have the locals find it from, around, and within themselves.
This wasn’t the work of some hippy-dippy idealist, but that of a genuine social engineer. Self-appreciation, through communal beautification, was just the first step. In Rwanda, for instance, self-appreciation gave way to self-determination, as the survivors opened up to vocational skills, and laying down the foundations of a communal infrastructure. For the sake of creative license, this process was inter-cut with the networking of her entire extended family, linked by her father, to honor the subject of his greatest failing, thus cementing both his legacy, and the bond between the participants.
The Barefoot Artist depicted a long process, that brought much needed catharsis to not just whole communities, but also its subject. Lily Yeh had one more balancing act, to her Yin-Yang overview, and that was the need to make peace with herself, even as she attempted to do so with others. Even an altruist needs to tend to the self.
The focus of directors Glenn Holstein & David Traub was more process than goal oriented. The art, behind the depiction of Lily’s work, was in the collective work that went into the various tasks, and the cathartic outcomes. If any real mind is to be paid to the art, itself, that was left to the viewer. The Barefoot Artist was no pat on the back, for anything Lily Yeh has done; it merely provided context to a life’s work in progress. Arguably, its most visually striking scene was the final one, which picked up where the very first shots left off. Somewhere between the stark beauty, of its remote setting, and the scope of Lily’s ambitions for it, it seemed like a moment, in an incalculable history, was captured.
That may have been as good an example of art, itself, as there is.