All in all, it's not just another pic on the wall
A spectacular 128-metre mural is drawing attention to an overlooked group of Hong Kong artists, writes Clare Tyrrell
Winding behind the high-rise housing of the Cheung Wan Estate in Tsing Yi, a vast mural stretches across a cement wall like a dragon. Its primary colours and optimistic vision of a green future Hong Kong - with wind turbines, butterflies and happy children - are in shocking contrast to the surrounding monotone sprawl
At 128 metres long and seven metres high, it's the longest mural in Hong Kong. The work, by the Hong Kong Mural Society, was commissioned by the Housing Authority to transform a retaining wall dividing a children's park from wild hillside. Over four months, a group of 11 artists, including graphic designers, fashion designers and novices, worked under Johnny Lee Siu-wai - and the watchful eyes of the local residents. It was publicly unveiled yesterday.
'It's public art - that's how we like to describe it,' says Joel Ferraris, vice-chairman of the mural society. 'Visual art needs to be seen by many people. If it's hidden away, it defeats the purpose.'
Artist Arnel Agawin says Hong Kong 'is a good place for the government to put a lot of money into public art. We have so many concrete areas. Even in places like Brazil, where there's not a lot of development, you can still see mural art.
'It doesn't pay very well, but the work is exciting. I could see the reaction in the children when we did this.'
Agawin and Joel Ferraris, who are well known to Tsing Yi residents after spending months on ladders working on the mural, make up the core of the mural society, with Lee and Siu Wing-tat.
Filipino artists get little attention in Hong Kong, where the gallery culture focuses on Chinese, Vietnamese and western art. John Batten is an exception. His SoHo gallery has hosted many shows by Filipino artists.
Museums in places such as Singapore hold large collections of Filipino works, and galleries feature its local Filipino artists. Why is Hong Kong lagging? 'There are a lot of Filipino artists here,' says Agawin. 'And it's not part of the concerns of the community to support art. Usually the idea of promoting Filipino art is that they bring artists from the Philippines. But there are locally based artists here, trying to make themselves visible.'
Despite lack of gallery interest, Ferraris and Agawin have been spearheading community art in Hong Kong - arguably, bringing it closer to the public than do many of the city's better known artists. And they are enthusiastic about the effect murals can have on young minds.
'Sometimes, we ask if murals are relevant these days, when we have design on computer where you can enlarge images,' says Ferraris. 'But one time, I was doing a mural in Sha Tin, and a group of young people watching told me I was very lucky to be painting on a wall. I asked what they did, and they said, 'We're graphic designers and we're always stuck in the office'.'
Ferraris and Agawin worked as professional artists in the Philippines before arriving in Hong Kong. 'I came to join my wife, who was working as a computer analyst,' says Ferraris who migrated in 1997. One of the first things he did was paint City Blues, a huge self-portrait divided into squares. 'For me, life in Hong Kong is life per square foot. The smaller the flat, the more congested it becomes.'
Ferraris then joined the mural society to complement his commercial art work and projects. While painting a mural at the Chinese University in 2000, he was invited to hold a solo show at the Shaw College Gallery. It was called Baggage and involved him charting his quest for new styles. The materials he was starting to use were a reference to life in Hong Kong. He began to paint on CD cases from shops in Shamshuipo and Mongkok, with cheap nail varnish bought in bulk from make-up chain Sasa. 'Using CD cases, CD-roms and all related scraps, I wanted to portray the glossy and glittery but fragile lifestyle that the digital age has created,' he says.
The work went on show in the 2001 City Poetry Festival, when his project 300 Days was displayed in the window of health bar Amida (now the site of Taco Loco in SoHo). 'If you're a visual artist, you're doing something visual, so you want people to see it,' says Ferraris. 'By the escalator was the perfect setting.'
Agawin is equally consumed by working outdoors and referencing Hong Kong materials. 'I'm more of a process artist - I see myself as a conjurer,' he says of his mixed media and installation projects and marbling works and paintings. 'I take the image out of the accident.'
Agawin comes from a background in advertising, but now has his own company and is taking time off to work on his own projects. A work in progress is called Relics and consists of skeleton structures made out of twigs interspersed with circuit boards 'and high-tech looking parts from old computers'.
He buries these creations or hides them in the undergrowth, letting the works become weathered. 'I'm fascinated with the interaction between nature degradation and technological advancements. I want to make a peaceful pun.'
He says he once returned to a place where he had buried four pieces, to find the site had been turned into a sitting out area.
Agawin says he feels comfortable in Hong Kong because there are strong bonds between it and the Philippines. 'There are a lot of historical ties,' he says. 'Hong Kong has been very influential in our struggle for independence. Most of our revolutionaries were exiled here. Even contemporary Hong Kong has been a base for the political strife in the Philippines, especially during the Marcos years.'
But he and Ferraris say that, although it would be healthy for Hong Kong to recognise its ethnic minorities, the label of 'Filipino artists' would be a hindrance. 'It's not healthy to be classified,' says Ferraris. 'Our works have got nothing to do with us being Filipino. For me, it's more satisfying if they see the art and think, 'Oh, that's really good', and then find out the artist is Filipino. It's more ambiguous.'
But one senses that they're close to breaking into the public consciousness in the coming year. With 36 murals already booked for the Social Welfare Department, the artists will be more visible than ever. They have also set up a website (www.filipinoart.net) to act as a Hong Kong-based forum for Filipino artists worldwide.