WAGIC is a dedicated space for discussing gender, sexuality and feminism(s) in China past and present

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Women in Art Hong Kong, past and present

 

This year, the New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, UK and the Asia Art Archive launched their exciting new research on women and art in Hong Kong, which combines quantitative data and the experiences of women artists working in the region. WAGIC asked Eliza Gluckman of the New Hall Art Collection and independent researcher Phoebe Wong to share some background about their research process and some of their discoveries.

 

Could you explain to us what led up to your research on Hong Kong women’s art?

 

Eliza Gluckman: When I began as Curator of the New Hall Art Collection in 2015 the college was already thinking about expanding the collection beyond the UK and US artists that contributed to its initial growth in the early 2000s. We now have over 500 works by women and the collection is not only open to the public as an accredited museum collection, but also creates the living environment for a college for women at the University. We have students from around the world, and particular connections with Hong Kong. By chance I also had a background of researching artists in Hong Kong and a network, so we began to discuss how we might bring works in to the collection from Hong Kong. It seemed important that we did a bit more than just collect works, we wanted to be a part of the debate about the visibility of women artists. We secured support from Asia Art Archive, but my main concern was finding someone to work with in Hong Kong who could carry out the bulk of the research and help shape it in a way that was specific to the region. I was very lucky to be introduced to Phoebe Wong.

 

Hong Kong has a very unique history. Could you explain how the socio-political circumstances there intersect with gendered issues?

 

Eliza Gluckman: Aha - well it’s been interesting negotiating the intersection of gender, or more specifically feminism, within the context of Hong Kong. Personally I have been challenged in my perceived ideas of feminism and Phoebe and I have had many long discussions about it! Although there is a history of feminism within certain groups of artists or academics, the wider use of the term is complex and often unwelcome and the notion of a shared history by women (from collective action or political fight) is hard to find. Yet the discussion about the visibility of women artists, and how they do appear to be under represented in the market and institutional programming (specifically compared to the huge proportion of women to men graduating from art college) has created a huge amount of interest. Hong Kong itself seems to play in to this narrative - the last decades of colonial rule passed equality laws, or those specific to women’s rights, that were fought for elsewhere, and in terms of the arts infrastructure clearly sought to invest in culture as a soft power policy before 1997. There are some great texts about the specifics of gender politics and repression being played out in the tension (or sometimes collusion) of the out-going colonials and the traditional Chinese elite, specifically around marriage and property rights.

 

What was gained by focusing on women separately from their male counterparts?

 

Eliza Gluckman: I think it is easy to perceive the ‘art world’ as an egalitarian space but from working at a college that is hugely engaged with the debates on workplace discrimination and implicit bias, I think we are very naive to assume equality exists. Women artists have been proven to be written out of art history, it goes hand in hand with a lack of access to formalising skills and education, alongside an often male perception of what is interesting in subject matter - therefore historically art by women is unrecorded, not collected and not displayed. This cycle has lead to a huge bias in art history. I think it stands to reason that we must take stock and check that we are listening at all the voices in society. Of course we hope for a time when this is not necessary, but there is much to do!

 

Why did you choose to use generational focus groups as a research method?

 

Phoebe Wong: This research takes the form of an ethnographic portrayal of women in art over the past decades, rather than a formal historical enquiry that emphasizes the continuities and discontinuities. We hope to prompt individuals to relate their stories and thoughts through conversations among themselves. Three such group-conversations with artists of different generations were conducted. Taking a narrative journey, we looked into the life experiences of a handful of women artists of different generations in Hong Kong. Each conversation centres around the individual's life story: her aspirations and struggles as an artist. Their experiences may overlap, or otherwise, but collectively these conversations when penned down reveal a glimpse of the development of the art ‘world’ in the specific socio-cultural context of Hong Kong.

 

The first group are the baby boomers; Choi Yan-chi, Wong Wo-bik and Yvonne Lo, were born in the late 1940s and 1950s. With limited arts education opportunities in Hong Kong, they chose to study overseas, returning to Hong Kong in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Together with other returnees, they were a major force in bringing contemporary art practice to Hong Kong from the mid-1980s. Sara Wong, Jaffa Lam and Angela Su were born in the post baby boom period (after the mid-1960s), and form the second focus group of artists. The grant economy that took shape in the 1990s provides new opportunities and alternatives this generation of artists. The last group of artists, Ho Sin-tung, Ko Sin-tung and Elva Lai, were born in the late-1980s: a time when Hong Kong had become an affluent society with considerable stability. The balanced cultural infrastructure and a substantial art market emerged at the time of their graduation, in and after 2008, creating both opportunities and challenges.

 

True, we can never fit people in neat groupings, not to mention how I, as a researcher, have put forward all the assumptions, and framed the project in the first place to foreground how social and institutional structures in relation to the individuals, in this case, the women, in their artistic pursuits. Interestingly, when I tried to put women artists of different generations together, to try out an inter-generational dialogue, it changed the dynamic and hierarchies emerged.

 

How did it help with your understanding of what is happening now to trace a longer history of women’s practice?

 

Eliza Gluckman: This really goes back to the Hong Kong question. One of the amazing things about studying the past 50 years of the Hong Kong arts infrastructure is just how much it has changed. The very systems and structures we take for granted simply did not exist in the 1960s. If you wanted to be an artist you were either independently wealthy or an incredibly single-minded person - there was not an art market to speak of, no one to support you, only peers who created Art Societies, more of a social construct. With the artists we interviewed who were born in the 1960s and 70s, they have felt uncomfortable calling l themselves artists until recently. Now that Hong Kong is dripping in commercial galleries it is perhaps easier for people to understand. Life experiences for each generation was so different - colonialism or key dates playing a major part in their experiences. The migratory nature of the Hong Kong adds another layer; of all the artists we interviewed only one had parents who were both born in Hong Kong.

 

Where there individual artists or events that really stood out to you in the course of your research?

 

Phoebe Wong: Unbeknownst to us before this research, artists Choi Yan-chi and Wong Wo-bik (artists from the first cohort we interviewed) were born in the same year, studied in the same secondary school, and later attended the same art college in the United States. It is no small coincidence that Choi and Wong studied in the Columbus College of Art and Design in the early 1970s. In another interview a couple of years earlier, Wong Wo-bik stated that unbeknownst to her, ink artist Wuicus Wong studied at the same college back in the 1960s. Indeed several more artists and designers of Choi and Wong’s generation had studied at the same school, including Eva Yuen, Mike Ng, Bing Lee, and Siu Lai Chi. The college, offering scholarships to Hong Kong students, provided opportunity to these aspiring young adults. However, the significance of this institution has never been studied.

 

Intriguingly, the one subject that got the first peer-group of artists very excited, and they took great delight in talking about it, was cinema. There were Cantonese movies, Mainland China movies, Japanese terror flicks, and western movies; they were exposed to these developing different experiences and tastes. Their interest in art could be attributed to this wide exposure of visual experiences. What is interesting here is the different categorization of films in that period. Growing up in a leftist family, Choi Yan-chi loved both leftist movies and western movies (read Hollywood movies), without a conflict of ideologies. Whereas, another artist Yvonne Lo as a young teenager, enjoyed spending time with her grandfather in cinemas; she watched communist movies from Mainland China and locally produced Cantonese movies on equal terms, with no prior knowledge of films for propaganda or social education.

 

Indeed, many visual artists are cinephiles: Angela Su (from the second group) said she was (and still is) more inspired by films than reading from art books, while Ho Sin-tung (from the third group) is known as a dedicated cinephile, and with many works themed on films. And, the Phoenix Cine Club (1973-87), a space that organised art film screenings regularly, kept being mentioned by different generations of artists.

 

What are the big issues for the younger generation of female artists in Hong Kong?

 

Phoebe Wong: In view of Hong Kong becoming an international art hub and an integral part of the global art world, the mid-career artists, as shown in this research, seems to have had an identity and status issue. They would tease themselves as the ‘ever emerging artists’ as far as a global art scene is concerned. As a matter of fact, from our survey, as the Hong Kong scene is becoming more international, the visibility and representation of local female artists are getting lower.

 

We conducted a survey with Hong Kong commercial galleries with the help of the Hong Kong Art Galleries Association. As of 2017, of the total number of Hong Kong artists represented, 35% were women; whereas, the average percentage of women drops to 24% when ALL artists (Hong Kong and non-Hong Kong) are considered. At the Venice Biennale, Hong Kong has participated nine times (since 2001), showing 25 artists, eight of whom were women. Since 2009, however, the Hong Kong pavilion has featured a solo artist, giving one person this significant international platform. No woman has yet been selected. Hong Kong women represent 2.4% of the artists in the total M+ Collection. M+, a major public museum scheduled for completion in 2019 has built an international collection with a focus on 20th and 21st century art, design and architecture and moving image and goes beyond Hong Kong. In the case of Para/Site Art Space, founded in 1996 as a local artist-run space, it has become more and more international in its second decade, the numbers of overseas artists shown has outnumbered that of local artists; it is in this same decade that the percentage of women artists dropped considerably.

 

All in all, when looking at case studies such as Para/Site and  M+, or the Venice Biennale Hong Kong Pavilion, if the market and institutional programming in Hong Kong favours a more ‘international’ outlook then it is perhaps the women, and specifically Hong Kong women, that lose out.

 

With the art market boom, while the younger generation may have more opportunities, they have stronger anxiety at the same time. Also, they have turned to be overly career-driven. For instance, when Ho Sin-tung, an artist who graduated in 2008 and soon represented by a prominent gallery in Hong Kong, did a talk at her alma mater, the art students who posed questions showed more concern about their career path than of artistic pursuit.

 

Who is the intended audience for your research and your book? What are the outcomes of your research?

 

Eliza Gluckman: I hope the research can be used by anyone interested - as a tool to show that conversations need to continue. It has already been used by the Guerrilla Girls, who are delivering their first event in Asia examining the status of women at Art Basel itself and in the Hong Kong art world. I hope the research and these types of events give artists a reason to question why they don’t see so much art by women commissioned, or collected or shown, and this questioning gets a little louder.

Eliza Gluckman is curator of the New Hall Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, UK the largest collection of work by women in Europe. She has an MA in Fine Art (University of Edinburgh) and Curating Contemporary Art (Royal College of Art), and a specialized knowledge of South East Asian contemporary art. She has worked at SPACE Studios, the RSA, Parasol Unit and Asia House and as part of independent curatorial partnership Day+Gluckman for over 10 years.

 

Phoebe Wong is a Hong Kong-based culture worker with a special interest in art, design and visual media. Before becoming an independent researcher and art writer in 2012, she was Head of Research at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong. Wong is a member of the Association of Art Critics Hong Kong.

 

Image credit: (from left) Ho Sin Tung, Phoebe Wong, Ko Sin Tung, and Elva Lai at Ho Sin Tung’s studio. Courtesy of Peter Bird.

 

 

 

 

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