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Literature

Five books Asia Art Archive co-founder couldn’t live without – Claire Hsu’s must-reads for a desert island

Hsu’s list includes a book that required her to undo all the patterns she had learned growing up, one she dips into whenever she needs a little moment of magic, and an archive of material from a female artist who died too young

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 1:13pm

Claire Hsu is co-founder and executive director of the Asia Art Archive, an independent charity founded in 2000 to document and make accessible the history of contemporary art in Asia. She is also a member of the acquisitions committee and board of Hong Kong’s M+ museum, and serves on the board of the Foundation for Arts Initiatives, an international grant-making body.

Here are the five books she would take to a desert island, in her own words.

Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters and Writings

edited by Vivan Sundaram, 2010

Produced in two hefty volumes, this is an archive of the letters, images and writings by the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, who was born in 1912 and died young in 1941. She is recognised as one of the most important Indian artists of the 20th century. I received this book as a gift from Amrita’s nephew, Vivan – he was a guest speaker at the Asia Art Archive about four years ago.

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Amrita was of mixed descent – her mother was Hungarian and her father was an Indian Sikh. She lived between India, Hungary and France, with the latter being where she studied art. For someone of that age and time – a young female artist trying to find her place in a male-dominated society – to produce the work she did was truly incredible. She beautifully negotiates between the different cultures.

River of Smoke

by Amitav Ghosh, 2011

This wonderful epic is the second in Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy and it was the one that really spoke to me, because it takes you to old Canton and Hong Kong. Part of the work I’ve been doing at the archive for the past 18 years is based around the idea of “complex geographies” – the notion of going beyond national stories by taking into account the constant flow of people, ideas, language and beliefs that have melted together over centuries.

This book is about a group of people from different backgrounds who come together by chance in Guangzhou, which was once one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. Ghosh succeeds in weaving together a lot of different languages. The book is fiction, but is historically accurate and there’s much to learn as you read it.

The Essential Rumi

translated by Coleman Barks, 1995

This is a book that I always have by my bed and dip into when I need a little moment of magic. I usually open it randomly at a page and read. The book was a gift from Mimi Brown, who in 2012 set up an art space called Spring Workshop in Wong Chuk Hang that ran for five years.

Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet and is widely regarded as the greatest Sufi mystic of his age. He speaks on so many different levels, taking the everyday and bringing it into a divine space. Rumi is very much about this connection to the divine and seeing ourselves as one with the universe. He’s quirky in the way he approaches things.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

by Pema Chodron, 1996

Many people going through difficult times have read this book. I like the way that Chodron is able to make Buddhist teachings so accessible. I also like the fact that she’s a woman, because spiritual teachers tend to be men.

We grow up trying to protect ourselves and our family, fixing things so that we feel the least pain. This book is about developing compassion and kindness for yourself so you can be kind to others. It was revolutionary in that it was opposed to the way I was brought up.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

by Amy Novesky, 2016

I’m the mother of three daughters – aged 10, eight and three – and much of my reading time is spent with kids’ books. This is a book I often read to them and it is itself an artwork.

It’s about the life and work of Louise Bourgeois, who grew up among a family of tapestry repairers and went on to become a world-renowned modern artist. We hear about Louise’s relationship with her mother, how she became an artist and what kind of artwork she made.

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It’s also about how one turns moments of adversity into something that can be a life’s work. Although my three-year-old probably doesn’t understand all the nuances of the story, she often brings it to me and asks me to read it to her.