Political survivors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2010, 12:00am

It's telling how artists Cheng Yee-man and Clara Cheung Ka-lei marked their engagement in 2004: they donned traditional Chinese wedding outfits and joined the annual July 1 protest rally as a piece of performance art.

Cheng and Cheung, who have since married, are artists of the political stripe and believe art has a definite role to play in helping to raise social awareness among the public. That's why they set up C&G Artpartment, an independent space in Prince Edward, three years ago. The gallery has a clear and strict curatorial policy: it only showcases art with a social or political slant.

Although the genre doesn't have broad appeal, C&G Artpartment has overcome the odds to survive, and even grow. Indeed, their uncompromising stance is partly responsible for the gallery's continued existence, says Cheng, better known in artistic circles as Ah Gum.

'Other artists have asked whether we would rent out our space for them to display their work but we have repeatedly said no because we only show political art,' he says. 'If they want to exhibit their art, there are plenty more spaces elsewhere they can use.'

Lopsided media coverage of the couple's 2004 performance - most focused on their colourful garb rather than the significance of their action in Wedding Engagement at the Demonstration, Cheng says - has fired his creative energies.

The 34-year-old spent the past five years examining how the media interpreted, or misinterpreted, their work, and turned their observations into a series of unorthodox self-portraits, some of which will go on show in his debut solo exhibition, Black White Q&A 2007-2010, at the Fringe Club this week.

Cheng typically cuts out newspaper articles about him or his work - clippings from Apple Daily, Ming Pao and the South China Morning Post, for instance - and reproduces them on canvas using different mediums.

'This is a reinterpretation of the concept of self-portrait,' he says. 'This [series of] work not only allows me to re-examine my interviews with the media at that moment in time, but also to reconcile how the media portrays me, and more importantly, to understand how I see the way that the media sees me.'

The oblique portraits also serve as a record: 'News is so fleeting these days; what's considered important today is forgotten the next day. So my paintings are physical reminders of events that happened, ensuring they don't vanish.'

Cheng's exhibition features 11 works, mostly paintings, created over the past three years. They are drawn from his July 1 demonstration series (he and Cheung have taken part almost every year), a collection based on press profiles, and a series of paintings of his own paintings ('the idea is to recycle, to create a new work based on an older piece').

'Through repackaging my self-image, I can document the history of myself, and try to continue my existence in this world in another form,' he says.

There will also be an installation of his stop-motion video animation.

A registered social worker with a fine arts degree from Australia and a master's in comparative history from Chinese University, Cheng says his show also questions the relationship between the media and artists.

'The media can serve as a source of inspiration and, because of its influence over the government and its reach, it can lead this city's cultural development. However, if it misinterprets or distorts artists' intentions then whatever it does can backfire.'

C&G Artpartment's dedication to its cause has won support in some quarters, encouraging Cheng and his wife to expand into a 300-sq-ft space on the floor above. The gallery stages a major exhibition every three months, featuring some of the city's most promising young artists including Kwan Sheung-chi, Chow Chun-fai, Law Man-lok and Tang Kwok-hin.

Their current exhibition, West Kowloon Cultural 'Revolution' District, is an expression of artists' concern about the mammoth project, that it 'doesn't involve cultural elements'. A group show running until January, it includes works by Chris Cook and Sara Tse as well as Cheng and Cheung that urge the authorities to involve the local artistic community more in the development.

'What I like about C&G Artpartment is that it has a clear direction in exhibiting social art; it is one of very few art spaces in this city that are dedicated to showing this niche genre,' says Jeff Leung Chin-fung, an independent curator and project manager with the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

'What is less clear, however, is how much their exhibitions can gather and engage people to discuss the exhibits on a more in-depth level,' Leung says.

'At the moment, the gallery is showing works that are appreciated at an artistic level. What they need to do next is create a critical mass for the art they showcase and actually get their audience involved in the issues they are exploring. That will be a big challenge for a space like that.'

To make ends meet, Cheng and Cheung spend more than half their time teaching painting in their gallery studio (they have, on average, 60 students a week).

Coupled with having to care for two young daughters, one aged three and the other just two months old, they can only devote about 10 per cent of their time to art, Cheng says.

'In an ideal situation, we would like to teach less - there are other arts studios around Hong Kong who do that - and concentrate more on curating exhibitions and creating art. But [teaching] is our major source of income at the moment.'

Cheng hopes to build C&G Artpartment into a major gallery promoting socio-political art, and keeping himself in the news, the artist says, is a good way to go about achieving that.

Black White Q&A 2007- 2010 - Gum Cheng Solo Art Exhibition, Dec 16-30, Main Gallery, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central. Inquiries: 25217251 or 23909332

West Kowloon Cultural 'Revolution' District, C&G Artpartment, 3/F, 222 Sai Yeung Choi Street South, Prince Edward. Inquiries: 2390 9332. Until Jan 17