In touch with ID

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 2002, 12:00am

IDENTITY CAN simply be who you are. But is it really that simple? Joe Joe Ngai Hoi-lut, who uses identity as the topic for many of his paintings, is not sure it needs defining.

Ngai, 27, has many faces. To his friends he is a serious student who has walked a winding road in his pursuit of art. In art, he sees himself as a curious person who raises many questions through his work. But many believe his pictures are too provocative. While at art school in London, Ngai touched on topics such as racial and sexual identity. He once drew a collage featuring the line: my children don't see colour. However, he says the irony is you have to distinguish between differences in colour to read the message.

'We have been programmed to avoid, or even deny, race as a means to overcome discrimination. But the fact is we all see colour,' he says.

'Instead of shying away from it, we should celebrate the differences. Then we could perhaps overcome discrimination.'

Ngai has come a long way since his days growing up in Hong Kong.

Like many young children, he was influenced by Japanese cartoons. 'At first I wanted to be an animator. But, as I got older, it did not seem a realistic thing to do, so I gave up [drawing] when I was 15.' His artistic talent was only realised after a trip to London two years ago. 'I met some people there who encouraged me to pursue art, even though at the time it was a very personal thing and certainly not something I thought of as a career,' he says.

Identity and insecurity are recurring themes in Ngai's works. He believes identity should be deeper than skin colour and language - it should embrace the person's perception and existence.

'I do not think anyone has the right to be proud of their nationality or sexuality because it is not something you choose or work for. But to be proud of yourself you must be comfortable with your nationality and sexuality.'

Instead of making any statement, Ngai prefers to see his work as 'questions that both the audience and myself are left to answer'.

Being provocative, for him, is the reason to art.

'I need to get the attention of the person first before I can absorb their feedback.

'I want to see how different people react to my work. This is, of course, an ongoing process.

'Saying what is good art is a little like asking what is true love,' he says. 'When the artist is serious about what they are saying, what they are doing, the passion is obvious and expressed without regret.'

Ngai has returned to London to continue his art degree.

And what about the future?

'I want to continue learning, continue questioning and continue searching for answers.'