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Ingrid Lyons Review - Calista Kuan

Calista Kuan 
A3 pencil and marker sketch of my Grandmother and I when I was young. 

Calista Kuan


In a portrait depicting the artist and her grandmother, Kuan has identified and expressed a poignant moment from her childhood, perhaps gleaned from an old family photo album. She has used pencil and markers to express an affectionate meditation on familial love and companionship during lockdown. 

This piece also encapsulates a sense of newfound joy and appreciation for ‘the ordinary’ and ‘the everyday’. Conversations and activities that may have been taken for granted in the past will be greatly cherished again in the future by Kuan as she expresses her anticipation for, ‘a proper conversation face to face’, the hope to ‘go fishing’ as well as looking forward to ‘singing at the top of our lungs’ to list just a few.

In this way Kuan’s work recalls the narrative driven, votive or ex-voto style paintings of Mexico. The etymology of the term ex-voto comes from the Latin ‘ex voto suscepto’ which translates as ‘from the vow made’. Such paintings were generally created in gratitude and devotion, with some of the more common wishes being for better health, children, financial stability and marital happiness.

The artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was greatly inspired by ex-voto painting and this can be easily observed when you look at her work. Especially when you consider how many of Kahlo’s paintings were centered on her wishes for better physical health. Furthermore, Kahlo had a vast collection of ex-votos, which she gathered from around Mexico, where they were often left at churches as offerings of gratitude to various Catholic saints. 

And though the term, ‘ex-voto’ is usually representative of Christian examples, the tradition of votive painting is prevalent in many cultures around the world including Japan and China. For example, Japanese Ema are small wooden votive plaques on which Japanese Shinto worshippers inscribed their wishes or prayers. Much like the ex-voto paintings of Mexico, these small-scale works take on a variety of themes depending on the concerns, worries or hopes of the painter. 

Within Kuan’s composition, Sketch of my Grandmother and I when I was Young two figures sit closely and happily in each other’s company and much like an ex-voto, she has written, in colourful marker, words outlining her memories of the past and hopes for the future in being reunited with her grandmother. 

What distinguishes the humble ex-voto and Ema painting from another art work, is that they are not necessarily made by artists, rather anyone can make a votive painting to express their personal wish or prayer. 


Ingrid Lyons is a freelance writer and curator, currently living and working in London. Lyons has written gallery texts and exhibition catalogue texts for many of Ireland’s leading artists, having worked at two of Ireland's foremost art galleries, the Douglas Hyde and Kevin Kavanagh.

She has written for numerous online and printed publications including the Irish Arts Review and Circa Magazine.  

Lyons also writes fiction, an example of which can be read in Proud and Strong All Day Long, a short story to accompany images of paintings by Kathy Tynan, published by Kevin Kavanagh.

Ingrid Lyons is currently working on a collection of short stories and a series of freelance curatorial projects.