Irene Lam, Phoebe Man, and Wong Kit Yi discuss artists, art spaces, and exhibitions in Hong Kong that address gender-based violence and inequities.
On the relationship between art and social issues, artist and art researcher Barbara Holub once said, “Art is not a problem solver.” Still, there is potential for art to become a tool that reframes social problems, a means of personal expression, a strategy to raise awareness, and a communal practice that builds support and solidarity. In Hong Kong, by broaching the difficult topic of sexual violence, artists have produced works that tell the victims’ stories and trauma with care, while art spaces and exhibitions have emerged that invite the public to reflect on these subjects.
Chelsea Ma, from AAA’s Editorial team, spoke with artists Phoebe Man and Wong Kit Yi (Ali), along with Irene Lam, curator of “480.0 Gender and Art Space,” on their work relating to art and gender equity. They discussed how art and artistic strategies have addressed sexual violence, gender-based violence, and gendered inequities pervading institutions. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chelsea Ma: Phoebe, a large body of your art practices revolve around sexual violence, e.g., Redo Suzanne Lacy’s work “Rape Is” (2012), Relay (2013), If I Were (2014–15), One Person One Heart (2014–15), Free Coloring If I Were (2018), and If . Garden (2019). What drove your artistic engagement with this topic?
Phoebe Man: I started working on this subject because of my personal experience; the ubiquity of sex crimes in the day-to-day news also made me want to do more to address it. According to studies, about one-in-three women worldwide have been subjected to either sexual violence or physical violence from intimate partners in their lifetime. In Hong Kong, one-in-seven women has experienced sexual violence. The pervasiveness of rape myths in Hong Kong makes the matter worse. It’s a general misconception that sexual predators are mostly strangers; in fact, over 80% of the perpetrators are known to the victim, they could be the victim’s friend or relative. Some victims might be at a loss as to how to deal with the aftermath of the sexual assault, and victim-blaming culture further silences the victims. I tried to process and raise awareness of the matter through art, and my focus has shifted over the years.
My earlier artworks were about my own stories and self-healing. Later, my focus transitioned from the personal to the public, covering topics such as rape myths, and the politics and history of sexual violence. My recent projects focus on public engagement, interaction, and participation. I collaborated with concern groups like Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women (ACSVAW), hoping to gain more traction for the topic. For me, the shift in my interest is a natural one—it happened after years of healing through making art, knowing more about the issue, collaboration with fellow art workers, and exchange of experience with the public. My current emphasis is on motivating more people to work on the subject through artworks and curation.
CM: Irene, you’ve curated various exhibitions in 480.0 Gender and Art Space, which occupies a small tonglau unit in Yau Ma Tei. The art space started as a project under ACSVAW, a non-profit working for the rights and interests of victims of sexual violence. As the only local art space entirely dedicated to gender-specific topics, it has hosted thirteen exhibitions since its opening in 2017. How did you come up with the idea to discuss gender issues through art?
Irene Lam: Part of my job involves publicising ACSVAW’s work and programmes. As the organisation’s name suggests, we focus on sexual violence inflicted on women. We used to bring up the topic in a way that was perhaps a bit too rigid and serious—the drawback was that we were only able to engage those already interested in the subject—it’s like being trapped in an echo chamber, and not being able to get the matter across to outsiders. Another downside was that when we talked to the public about sexual violence or our organisation’s work, they would be dismissive and lose interest quickly.
Art is a way to initiate the conversation with the public from a softer and more palatable perspective. The name of our art space, “480.0,” is the homonym of “why does sexual violence occur” (性暴力點嚟) in Cantonese—when we introduce this space to visitors, this is something we can talk to them about in a lighter way.
CM: Your last exhibition, #OneinSeven – Stories Beyond the Numbers (2021), features the real experience of sexual violence survivors, displaying personal objects that narrate their stories of trauma and healing. In this exhibition, how do you talk about sexual violence in a way that moves people without being clichéd and overly sensational?
IL: We avoid adopting a narrative that would place undue emphasis on the plight of the victim and the ruthlessness of the perpetrator, or one that would make the incident of sexual assault a spectacle and flatten the victims’ life stories, as if their lives are only defined by the single moment of the assault.
In this exhibition, we wish to broaden the narrative perspective and focus on the journey of healing. One of the items displayed is a school uniform dress full of stitches. At first glance, you might think it is what the victim was wearing at the time of the assault. However, this is not what the dress was about: the victim’s relative sexually assaulted her when she was young; her mother lost her temper and tore the school uniform apart. She didn’t want to go to school without a uniform, and had to mend it herself. Through the mended dress, what she really wanted to talk about was how she grew up amidst adversity without support from reliable adult figures.
At first, I was preoccupied with the thought that the dress must have something to do with sexual violence, but then the confusion it caused in me made me reflect on the myths and tropes I had about people or things that limited my imagination, for example, thinking that a wrinkled dress must signify the aftermath of sexual assault. In this exhibition, I hope to present the life stories of the survivors with more context, to help viewers challenge these stereotypical impressions, and to look at these stories in multiple ways.
CM: Phoebe, let’s talk about audience participation in your works. In Free Coloring, you designed three types of colouring paper printed with the phrases “If I were a victim,” “If I were a perpetrator,” and “If I were a bystander.” You invited the viewers to put themselves into the shoes of these people, and to write or colour on the paper to express their feelings. The viewers could display the paper on the wall and respond to each other’s work. Another artwork of yours, Relay, was a conversational collaboration with survivors of sexual violence, using paper-cutting art to respond to texts written by the survivors. You’ve described it as “socially engaged art”—can you tell us more?
PM: The art of addressing social issues through artworks with elements of audience participation, and that instigate social discourse, has many names—socially engaged art, participatory art, community art, relational art, dialogical art, new genre public art, and so on. I like to call my work “socially engaged art” to highlight two important elements—social issues and audience participation. I enjoy making art with the audience and this convection flow of knowledge with them. Through debates, dialogues, and cooperation, we can present the viewpoints in a multi-dimensional way, add depth to the discussion, and achieve paradigm shifts.
Socially engaged art is different from political propaganda, in that political propaganda places emphasis on function and purpose, while art is more about human experience—it is spontaneous and open, and allows space for experimentation, discussion, and imagination. It values the process, and the results are often unexpected.
CM: Irene, speaking of participation, many of the exhibitions in 480.0 Gender and Art Space, including the Everyday Gender (2020) photo exhibition and #OneinSeven – Stories Beyond the Numbers (2021), have engaged the public in various ways. In Everyday Gender, there was an open call for submissions of photos that convey gender-based hostility in daily life; in #OneinSeven, as we mentioned earlier, you invited victims to display their personal objects. Is participation an element you bear in mind for your exhibitions?
IL: We weren’t thinking about that in the beginning. We were trying to appeal to pop culture, so we invited popular illustrators and artists to participate in our exhibitions. We had not expected that the art space would attract quite a number of victims of sexual violence. Apart from seeing the exhibitions, they came to get a sense of whether they felt comfortable sharing their traumas with our staff here. Therefore, we came up with the idea of inviting victims to participate in our exhibitions, with hopes that they would be able to support each other and heal through the process. Our art space is more than an exhibition space—we have staff here to provide appropriate support to visitors.
CM: I think the setting of this art space facilitates this purpose. It is small; and its cosiness somehow reminds visitors of a friend’s home rather than the typical gallery space.
PM: My experience is similar—my exhibitions had attracted viewers who had experienced sexual violence. I once opened my studio to the public to share my life stories; the viewers naturally responded with their understanding of sexual violence, and even stories of their own. Some of them burst into tears when recounting their experience. It dawned on me that these kinds of work are much more than about making an artwork; it’s also about how to respond appropriately to the audience, and counselling skills are equally important.
This made me realise that the docents and I should be equipped with knowledge about counselling. We had prepared some information about seeking professional help in case the viewers needed it. When I curate the exhibitions, I strive to create a sense of companionship for everyone—viewers can read others’ life stories, or read silently at the learning corner. If they want to express themselves, they can create art through interactive installations. If they want to talk to someone, our docents would be there for them, or they can join the workshops. Victims and people who are concerned about sexual violence would not feel alone at the exhibitions.
CM: Phoebe, your essay “Creative Practices of Issues of Sexual Assault” (透過藝術形式介入性暴力議題的六招一式) introduced various artworks about sexual violence that had significant social impact. What do you think are the inherent qualities of these artworks that helped raise social awareness?
PM: I guess it is “truthfulness” that threads through them. People are usually moved by true human stories and feelings. When creating artworks, I hope to encounter my true self through art. When it comes to advocating for social change, artistic strategies may be deployed to raise public awareness, but in the end, it takes substantive effort and cooperation by people serving at different positions to actualise systemic and behavioural change. Art is a means to induce cultural change, which would hopefully bring about social change.
CM: Ali, as a fellow artist, what do you think about the limitations of advocating social change through creating art?
Wong Kit Yi (Ali): In most cases, the impact an artwork can make is limited; it is difficult to rely on artworks to promote social change. In this sense, I think art may not be the most effective medium. But like everyone else, art workers have an active role to play in bringing attention to injustices against women in their communities; the art community is instrumental for feminist activism or any other social activism in the sense that we tend to be a conscious community. In 2017, the #MeToo movement that sparked a conversation in the United States also had its impact in the art world: Jens Hoffmann, a prominent curator, had to step down from his position as Deputy Director at the Jewish Museum (Manhattan), following an investigation on sexual harassment allegations against him. In the end, he had to give up on curating the first Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art (FRONT International), and his career fell into a slump. It is precisely because of the workers that accountability was achieved.
CM: The suppression of individual autonomy in our culture begets different forms of systemic violence, physical or non-physical. Ali, you’re curating a show on “witch-hunting” in September 2022, Witches Own Without (W.O.W), which will inquire into related themes. Why are you interested in talking about it through “witch-hunting”?
WKY: Violence, tangible or intangible, takes various forms, many of them entangled with capitalist social relations. What enables systemic violence is hierarchical power that seeks to subordinate specific genders, races, and classes, and ensure that such subordination is normalised. I am interested in talking about the symbolic violence of mainstream culture that colonises our minds, manipulates our bodies, and silences our voices. The mainstream image of princesses is popular among little girls, while that of a witch is much less desirable—when we talk about witches, some people immediately think of an ugly woman with a big nose, wrinkled skin, and dishevelled hair. However, to me, witches are very close to my idea of an ideal feminist: while women are expected to take up conventional duties, such as getting married and childbearing, witches are not so constrained. She can choose unconventional paths as she wishes, and she has no obligation to offer the labour of childbearing, even if such lifestyles might attract condemnation. In places such as India, a woman’s brother or father would accuse her of being a “witch” in order to evict her, depriving her of valuable resources like land. This seems to go hand-in-hand with general structures of non-physical violence (sometimes in the guise of “family values”) that pervade our societies in different forms, resulting in practices such as the stigmatisation of unmarried women.
Feminist discourse is culturally-relative and region-specific. It differs across social classes, races, and regions. The discussion in Hong Kong is not the same as that in Europe and America. Different female artists have their own interpretations. Some adopt an antagonistic attitude or exclude male artists, some think feminist practice is about embracing all genders, and so on.
CM: People approach this matter in different ways—the activist group Guerrilla Girls draws attention to the issue of visibility of female artists by criticising the lack of equal representation of women in institutional art. In working towards raising visibility of female artists, some choose to create female-only exhibitions, in the hopes that one day, the gender imbalance can be neutralised. The rationale behind these tactics is to challenge patriarchal systems that give men more opportunities and higher social status. On the other hand, some female artists create works about women as a natural outgrowth of their life experience, rather than deliberately theming their works the “female experience.”
WKY: The Hong Kong Academy of Visual Arts and the Baptist University jointly conducted a study called “Creative Livelihoods” on the long-term development of career paths of creative-arts related graduates. The results show that from 2001 to 2015, “an average of 72.2% of art graduates from publicly funded creative undergraduate programmes in Hong Kong were female.” However, “proportionally significantly more male graduates seek further education in the field than their female counterparts,” and “female creatives are twice as likely to turn their backs on creative practice than their male counterparts.”
I understand that the institutions are systemically unfair and male-dominated; in response, we should create more opportunities for women. But at the same time I am asking myself if I should reinforce the stereotype of a “successful” woman artist and try to compete with male artists on paper? Should I try to compete with male artists in a system that is mostly built by men?
I would feel kind of weird if I were to be selected in all-female artists shows—was I selected because of the quality of my work, or my gender? I would feel pressured that a female artist has to deliver “feminist works” to fulfil certain kinds of expectations. This is not to say that I don’t support feminist activities, it’s just different ways of being allies—maybe not through my work per se, but through actions like protests and voting, or being in community with working-class women who are of minority races or migrants, trans or gender non-conforming; or housewives or sex workers. An “artwork” is sometimes more powerful when it’s not labelled as such; but I totally respect artists who make strong political statements in their work.
IL: Going back to the issue of “all-female exhibitions,” I am not against this idea, but female exhibitions and feminism are two different things. On the other hand, participation of all genders should be encouraged from the perspective of gender equity. Although the name of our association might suggest that our interest is in issues about “women,” the naming has to be traced back to when our organisation had just been established—women made up the majority of victims of sexual violence, and there was a need to empower the women. The downside of it is the reinforcement of the narrative that women are of a disadvantaged group. In this day and age, we should explore issues beyond “women,” and extend our discussion to “gender equity.”
CM: This relates to how women should position themselves. Disadvantaged groups, such as sexual and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, face the question of whether they should position themselves outside or within the mainstream discourse. Sometimes people choose to place themselves at the margins in order to justify the need to fight for their rights. Using labels such as “women,” “LGBT,” and “the disabled” can be tactics to facilitate discussions.
The pursuit of a safe but unrestricted space for women reminds me of Sandra Cisneros's novel The House on Mango Street (1984). It is written as a series of diaries that depicts the coming of age of a Chicana girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, exploring the issues of identity, gender, female autonomy, etc. In the second-to-last entry, the protagonist writes down what she wants: She wants not a flat, not an apartment in back, not a man’s house, not a daddy’s, but a house all her own; with her books and stories, nobody’s garbage to pick after. When can women narrate the space they’re looking for without reference to the patriarchal society they’re trying to escape? This is a process of constantly examining where we are in the movement.
PM: Virginia Woolf suggested that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. It doesn't only mean a physical space—it also implies a political and creative space which is spiritually undisturbed by the world. It is very nice to have 480.0 Gender and Art Space to provide a space for discussion and action. This space empowers survivors and gathers people to work together on this topic. I wish this room could be as big as the world. When people respect each other and are free to be themselves, they can develop their full potential and pursue their dreams.
Phoebe Ching Ying Man is a multimedia artist, independent curator, and Associate Professor of the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong. She specialises in socially engaged art and community art. Her animations, videos, and installations have been shown at over 190 exhibitions and festivals worldwide.
Irene KM Lam is the curator at 480.0 Gender & Art Space, and the Manager of Communication and Resource Development Department at Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women. She graduated from Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, and has been teaching drawing and artistic creation part-time for over eight years. Irene is interested in gender equity, and values the experience and knowledge exchange between artists, social service providers, service users, and the audience. She incorporates these values into her curation practice.
Wong Kit Yi lives and works between New York and Hong Kong. She is currently an artist-in-residence at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where she walks to and fro between Mexico and the US to explore meteorological borders. She received an MFA from Yale University, and has been teaching university courses about performance, video art, and new media at the State University of New York at Purchase. When she is not teaching, she loves lecturing people in her signature karaoke-inspired lecture format. She is the co-chair of LASER (Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous) Hong Kong, and a die-hard member of KFC (kombucha fan club).