Phoebe Wong selects five books on women artists in Hong Kong
As part of the New Hall Art Collection initiative at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, I spent the last year studying the representation of women artists in Hong Kong and remain disappointed by the slimness of literature on this subject. For this short piece, I’ve selected five books from AAA’s on-site library that speak to this gap. The earliest I found was a study on women artists published in 2000 (yes, 2000), and the latest was published in 2017. Some artist monographs are also included to shed light on individuals who crafted a space for their practices at a time (the 1980s) when their media was not quite “understood.” I also share these books with a view towards the upcoming Hong Kong Conversations on women artists, as part of an ongoing series of talks that considers Hong Kong's art ecology within a wider cultural and sociopolitical framework.
Man, Eva. The Free Tribe: 10 Women Visual Artists in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Chung Hwa Book, 2000. [Chinese] REF.MKW
This book is the result of a research study initiated by Eva Man. Interviews with (and artwork analyses of) ten young women artists active in the 1990s Hong Kong art scene are presented here (Phoebe Man, Sin Yuen, Leung Mee-ping, Sara Wong, Stella Tang, Lam Kong, Leung Po-shan, Fiona Wong, Lo Yin-shan, and Sze Yuen). It may be the first monograph devoted to women artists in Hong Kong.
In her introduction, Man explains some difficulties she encountered in her research—the first and most fundamental being the label “women artists”:
"Women visual artists?" Some would say why aren't male artists labelled by their gender the same way as women artists do? […] In a society where woman artists still remain a minority, the intention of exemplifying one's gender is obvious—so why is there a need to forbear from discussing “women” artists? As a subject of concern, it is also easy to spark fervent questionings. Some say the appeal of women studies is outdated. Nowadays, women visual artists who are in their twenties mostly do not see their gender as an obstacle to their development. They detest the idea of being placed within the "victimization" narrative, or to put undue emphasis on gender issues. Nevertheless, there remain many local women practitioners who actively promote "women's art," as they feel like their relevant expressions have not been accorded with proper value and treatment. They, therefore, have high hopes for research or activities concerning this subject matter. (4, author translation)
Indeed, after the almost twenty years that have passed since this publication, women artists remain “obscure,” as Michelle Vosper notes (see below); and the question of “women artists” as a label is something I continue to interrogate.
For my New Hall Art Collection research, in particular, we examined the visibility of women artists over time. For Hong Kong survey exhibitions and biennials, we noted names that came up a few times, exhibiting over the years before disappearing. Just to name a few of these forgotten women artists: Beatrice Tso, Leung So-ying, and Lee Ching-man in the 1960s; Rita Choy, Chan Flora Kay, and Cecilia Quah in the 1970s. I can’t help but thinking that without Man's book, the footprints and voices of artists like Sze Yuen, Lam Kong, and Lo Yin-shan, who have now basically disappeared in the art scene, could be as untraceable as their earlier counterparts.
Vosper, Michelle, ed. Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Hong Kong: East Slope Publishing, 2017. REF.VOM
This monograph features sixteen women art practitioners, all of whom are Asian Cultural Council fellows. They cover various artistic disciplines, with six from the visual arts: Liao Wen, Yin Xiuzhen, Yang Lina (from China), Choi Yan-chi, Jaffa Lam (from Hong Kong), and Lulu Shur-tzy Hou (from Taiwan).
In her short introductory essay, Michelle Vosper, the former director of the Asian Cultural Council (Hong Kong), states that this project is an effort to counter-balance a phenomenon of women in the arts—namely, their “obscurity.” (2)
Sixteen different stories are told through the unfolding of their diverse life experiences, practices, aspirations, and struggles in various art fields. Yet, as Vosper notes, one thread brings them together: their “resilience in the face of adversity.” (3) Incidentally (or indeed not), for my aforementioned research I also interviewed both Choi and Lam, and I was struck by their stories—the events that totally changed the course of their lives. Choi Yan-chi lost her teaching post at a top government school in the early 1970s because of her leftist family background. Jaffa Lam went through tremendous struggles to fit into her new “home,” after migrating to Hong Kong from Mainland China in the early 1980s. (It is important to note that this generation of migrant children were uniquely alienated by wider language, economic, cultural, and even political gaps between Hong Kong and Mainland China in the 1970s and 1980s.)
Lai, Linda, ed. [Re-]Fabrication: Choi Yan Chi's 30 Years, Paths of Inter-disciplinary in Art (1975-2005). Hong Kong: Para/Site Art Space, 2006. MON.CYC
Everything Starts From Here - May Fung. Hong Kong: Para/Site Art Space, 2002. MON.FUM
These two artist monographs were published on the occasion of a series of research-based exhibitions (five in total) that revisited salient figures in the 1980s. When I came to realise the small number of works and limited research on artists from this generation, I commented that the Hong Kong Museum of Art did not do them justice. This group of local-born artists (in the post-war period) studied overseas and returned, together with some local-bred artists, and helped shape the 1980s contemporary art scene. The research series by Para Site is a bottom-up approach to fill this gap.
In 2005, art historian Linda Lai, the curator and researcher of Choi Yan-chi's retrospective at Para Site, untangled the dynamics and also dialectics of this period in the monograph:
Being inside or outside the dominant discourse was once a key problem to Choi Yan-chi. That certainly explained why her achievement in the 1980s had not been sufficiently recognized, or duly given a place in the history of art development in Hong Kong. From a different perspective, the marginal position she was driven into could be empowering. [Being the] “alternative,” too, has always been assigned a space marked out for that purpose, and a particular way to be heard and appreciated, a state of adversity that had fueled Yan-chi's projects as a “fugitive” rebel, as Matthew Turner puts it in his essay for this book. Her state as an alien gradually relaxed, as this publication has witnessed, with the return of many local-born artists returning from overseas, thus Yan-chi calls the 1980s (I suppose the second half of the decade in particular) “our time” in her introductory essay. (43–44)
The publication on Choi Yan-chi is a seminal monograph—not just on the artist herself but, to me, as a model for scrutinising history. In Lai's words, “When it comes to the question of history, I feel there is too much emphasis on discourse, or discursive practices, whereas the effort to collect and to discover the fine details of everyday living is very inadequate” (24). With this aspiration, Lai has adopted a rhizome-approach in Choi's project, which resulted in collecting and archiving notes written by Choi over the years—texts and reviews on contextualising the artworks; hours of interviews/conversations between Lai and Choi; and a meticulous mapping of multiple timelines that locate the histories, discourses, acquaintances, and networks in relation to Choi.
May Fung's monograph, a modest publication, serves as a concise document of her artistic career. Many of her works merely appear in the book as items in lists (films, videos, and video installations). A majority of Fung's works do not exist anymore, whether because of their ephemeral nature, a lack of documentation and archival preservation practices, or because they’ve simply been lost.
Ng, Elaine, ed. Dye-a-di-a-logue with Ellen Pau. New York: Monographs in Contemporary Art Books, 2004. MONL.PAE
As somewhat of a surprise, the Hong Kong Museum of Art does not have a collection of Ellen Pau's video work: Pau, a self-taught artist, was a key “figure to emerge from the still-fledging contemporary art scene in Hong Kong” (6) and has been active through the 1990s till now. This monograph was published in New York (yes, in New York) and edited by Elaine Ng, a former manager of Videotage and now the publisher of art magazine ArtAsiaPacific. It serves as a comprehensive examination of the artist's video practices, from single-channel work to video installation since 1987.
Critics like Pamela Kember, Alice Jim, and Johnson Chang offer in-depth analyses of Ellen's works that examine identity, sexuality, politics, and urban life. The artist's deliberations on the medium itself are inserted here and there throughout the book. One thought reads: “Video records your growth and dreams. The maker/author of a movie exists as a transparent being, external to the images. However, the maker/author of a video becomes part of, or even the actual content within the space of video – who engages investigation, development or scepticism within the dialogue. The movie is liberation through suppression, it is more about dreams than about growth” (See: “Reflecting Media: 10 Notes on Video,” 222–25).
Considering that the above was written in 1990—i.e., when video, a comparatively nascent form of art in Hong Kong, was basically understood as a documentation tool—it is riveting to see Pau, a radiographer by profession, take on such an intimate relationship with the medium. In this light, one can read her works as highly personal, though not necessarily autobiographical, just as one critic observes: “Pau is rare among local artists to take on broad political issues, but she has used them to serve her own art and not public ends” (215).
Phoebe Wong is a Hong Kong-based culture worker with a special interest in contemporary art, design, and visual media. She was Head of Research at Asia Art Archive before becoming an independent researcher and writer in 2012. Her writings have been published in Art Plus, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and the International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong, amongst others.