A legacy in progress

Nicole Schoeni is building on her father's love for Chinese contemporary art

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2013, 5:13pm

Twenty years ago, hard though it may be to believe in these crowded days, you could easily count the serious galleries in Hong Kong on the fingers of one hand: Alisan Fine Arts, Plum Blossoms, Hanart TZ. Into this sparse landscape there arrived a German called Manfred Schoeni who loved food, wine and cigars, and came here to work in the hotel industry. He married a Hong Kong woman, through her became interested in antiques, and started travelling to China. In 1992, he met a group of young artists who were camped in the ruins of Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing. Their names were unknown and their stomachs were empty. They were hungry for what Schoeni could offer.

"People were starving," says Nicole Schoeni, Manfred's daughter, sitting in the Old Bailey Street gallery that bears the family name. "My father came from a humble background, he'd had to work very hard and he understood, and sympathised with, artists struggling. He tempted them with food and money."

Two decades later, the Schoeni Gallery is marking its 20th anniversary with an exhibition, "Latitude/Attitude", in both Old Bailey Street and the original gallery on Hollywood Road, as well as with Saturday workshops in its project space in Chancery Lane.

If you want a crash course in the recent history of Chinese contemporary art, this is the place. Liu Wei is here, so is Zeng Fanzhi, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Yang Shaobin: even if the names aren't familiar, you'll probably recognise their style because the masked faces, the manic grins and physical contortions say much about the body politic of 1990s China, and have been much imitated. Seeded among these stalwarts are newer artists, using newer art forms (video, photography), that the gallery is cultivating.

Also on display is a cigar case belonging to Li Guijun, whose 1998 painting, Red Wine, hangs nearby. It was given to Li by Schoeni who, by 1998, opened a restaurant called Ashanti in Beijing. It took its name from the vineyard he co-owned in South Africa, and you get the impression that an entire generation of Chinese artists was introduced to tobacco and alcohol there.

A lively documentary film about Ashanti, called Fly! Fly!, which was shown at the 1999 Venice Biennale, is in the exhibition, along with one of the restaurant's menus. But it's a little Li painting, hanging next to Red Wine, although not listed in the catalogue, which perhaps holds the greatest poignancy: Sketch of Annecy depicts the house in France that Schoeni bought and spent years renovating, and where Li spent several weeks one summer.

The painting was a gift that became a memento of happier times when, in May 2004, Schoeni was murdered on the Philippine island of Boracay. (Three others were also killed in what was presumed to have been a robbery gone wrong. No one has ever been convicted of the crimes.)

"A lot of the paintings in this exhibition come from the house in France," says Nicole Schoeni, staring at the Li work. She thought of selling the house after her father's death, when she was struggling under a mountain of administration. But she's kept it ("It's the one place where I can think") just as she's kept, and expanded, the business.

When he died, she was 23 years old, a student of Chinese and economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her parents separated when she was 16, but he was "fantastic", generous with time and money.

"There was a plan," she says, hesitating. "Mum and dad had discussed the idea of me going back to Beijing, where I'd been in my second year, to spend six months polishing up my [Putonghua] and seeing the artists. It was to encourage me to come into the business, but it wasn't being forced upon me. It wasn't set in stone.

"So I was a typical spoilt Hong Kong kid, with no responsibilities," she says.

Overnight, her life changed. How did she cope? "Honestly? I threw myself into the gallery. Because my dad was such a strong personality, I was quite shy, a bit intimidated. But I had to come out of my shell, keep myself busy. There were a lot of things against me."

She knew that the older artists, the ones her father had helped out of near-penury and into auction houses, would be taken aback by these new circumstances.

"From quite a young age, from when I was about nine or 10, I travelled with my father on his trips to China. He wanted to include me so I'd understand better how hard he had to work. So when I did start, the artists knew who I was, but a lot of them saw me as a young girl who'd changed to being the lao ban, the boss."

Unlike Manfred Schoeni, she didn't see herself as the life and soul of the global party. "It was quite difficult to compare myself with his charm and personality." But she's a self-confessed workaholic, she has a strong team ("They put up with my tantrums"), her businesswoman mother, Wai-yin Schoeni, is "my wisdom, my support system", and for all the wobbles at the beginning, the impression now is of a smart, driven individual stepping out from under a shadow.

The anniversary show, of course, has given her perspective on the past and the future. It was a genuine shock, she says, when she realised that of the gallery's 20 years, she'd been running it for eight. About half the works are from the family collection, and not for sale: "I wanted to show it was more than a commercial business, that it was about friendships and relationships."

She brought in a curator, Huang Du, to complement the works by her father's artists with artworks by the younger artists she's now nurturing.

"I do wonder if emotional involvement is a hindrance," she says, thoughtfully. "That's why I've started to work with curators. Once I'm involved in a relationship with an artist, it's more than working - it's about family, and if they need financial support I'm there."

That could be her father speaking, except that Manfred Schoeni probably never remarked, as his daughter does, "I'm like a mother hen trying to protect them".

She inherited "about 15 to 20" artists from her father's stable but, like him, she sees her task as discovering what's new out there. She goes to Beijing every two or three months to spend an intense week studio-hopping - a universe away from the days of the Yuanmingyuan Artists' Village.

"It's quite exhausting managing the younger artists' expectations," she says. "They're seduced by the market, and I don't blame them, but you have to tell them that if they want stability, there's a way to do it."

In the exhibition, there's a wonderful video installation, The Day of Perpetual Night by Yang Yongliang, from Shanghai, and some remarkable sculptures (particularly by Cai Lei, from Jilin) - art forms that Manfred Schoeni didn't feature in the early days. Back then, there wasn't much interest in Hong Kong either. That's changed. "We're a Hong Kong-based gallery, my mother is from Hong Kong, I was born in Hong Kong, and I feel a responsibility to support artists here. They've been overshadowed."

These days there are about 90 galleries in Hong Kong. After Manfred died, "I didn't have a complete picture of who my father was", Nicole Schoeni says. This exhibition doesn't show the whole man, but it certainly conveys a singular attitude, and the direction - from north to south - his daughter intends to take it.



Latitude/Attitude, Schoeni on Old Bailey (21-31 Old Bailey Street) and Schoeni on Hollywood Road (27 Hollywood Road) until Feb 2