Pictures with a conscience
Mabel Sieh and YP intern Pearl Chan
In a small boutique gallery in Sheung Wan, there's a display of vibrant fragmented images made from torn newspapers and magazines. The exhibition, KaleidosManic - An Exhibit of Fragmented Proportions, comprises work by Ko Tak-kit, who is putting on her first public art show.
'Newspapers nowadays have such colourful, interesting images, and they're free to get. It's a great and inexpensive material for making art,' says 60-something Ko.
The artist is being hosted by her son, who owns the Voxfire gallery, in SoHo, where the work of talented locals are displayed.
Ko did not study art or even finish secondary school. But she began to show talent in her drawings at an early age.
'As a child, I would sketch on the walls at home and my father would reward me with 10 cents each time.'
Her father is a private person who lives like a hermit, Ko says. He was a mathematics teacher, painter and poet on the mainland. Ko took her first art lessons from one of his students. 'During the summer, I'd go to his student's studio to sketch,' she says.
The family moved to Hong Kong in 1949 when Ko was just one year old. In her late teens and 20s, she witnessed social unrest, including some of the city's biggest demonstrations and the Star Ferry riots in 1966. The riots were triggered by a 25 per cent increase in ferry fares and led to thousands of angry workers and poor people taking to the streets of Kowloon. It was one example of the public's attempts to resist the colonial regime, Ko says.
'Everyone, workers or university students, wanted to take part and get involved,' she adds.
'We lived on Nathan Road then. My sisters and I would go down and watch the demonstrations. It was very tense and people were fighting. It was scary.'
Like others, Ko felt a need to be involved. She helped run a local newspaper which published stories about social issues and unequal treatment at the time. Due to her political involvement, she was arrested three times, and spent one night in jail.
Though she has no regrets about those days, she does not want to be a social activist anymore.
'Now I just want to lead an ordinary, simple life,' Ko says. 'Over the decades, I've seen many politicians and their [political] games. I've seen great talents of my father's generation die during the war. Sometimes when we are faced with social conflicts, I feel helpless. There is not much you can do.'
However, she has not completely turned away from social issues and injustice, as reflected in her artwork. In one of her pieces, a helpless-looking person is surrounded by tall, luxurious buildings, in a depiction of the problem of soaring property prices.
Yet Ko says it is not her intention to use art to convey any political message.
'I didn't have a theme in my mind [when making the artwork]. I just find and tear out the images and colours I like in the papers and put them back together. Then I'll stand back and see if I like it. I guess some things just emerged in the end.'
While explaining her artwork, Ko occasionally changes the subject. On one occasion, she points outside the window and says: 'Do you know that was Sun Yat-sen's office in the early 20th century? And a floor upstairs was where a revolutionary teacher in the Qing dynasty was assassinated?'
Soon afterwards, Ko switches the conversation back to her passion for art and cooking.
'I like to do artwork and I like to cook, too. My favourite dish is chicken. You need to be very patient and cook it very slowly for it to taste good,' she says, leaving one wondering if she is referring to the chicken or her life.
KaleidosManic - An Exhibit of Fragmented Proportions runs at the Voxfire gallery, 1/F, 52 Gage Street, Sheung Wan, until August 6