ANTONIO Mak Hin-yeung, the sculptor who died last year at the age of 41, was an man with a strong sense of irony - a quality reflected in two exhibitions of his work which start this week at the City Hall and the Fringe Club. But the biggest irony about Mak's work is that it is not until now, six months after his death, that it is getting the recognition his fellow artists and friends feel it deserves. Mak was one of the few Hong Kong artists who concentrated full time on his work, although occasionally he produced props for movies and taught at the University of Hong Kong. Despite several successful exhibitions his pieces were not widely collected, and was little recognised outside his circle until now. 'It is unfortunate to wait until an artist is dead to take them seriously,' said sculptor Oscar Ho, co-curator of the City Hall and a friend of Mak's. Both Ho, who is also exhibition director at the Arts Centre, and Fringe director Benny Chia, another long-time friend, also pay homage to the lightness of touch that was also characteristic of Mak's work. 'What struck me in the photos [which make up the Fringe show] ... was Antonio's sense of humour, which he really only allowed to show in his work,' says Chia. 'He loved a kind a word play, fond of puns that were sometimes folksy in origin, sometimes intellectual.' Ho remembers when he first met Mak: back in 1986 at the now notorious Out Of Context exhibition in Kennedy Road, where a group of avant-garde artists spent a weekend producing the most unexpected pieces of work. 'Ricky Leung spent the weekend naked in a cage,' Ho remembers fondly. '[Antonio] gave the impression of being crude, detached, a somewhat cynical person. His piece was called in Chinese, Heavenly Book, the English name was Flying Elephant; it was this huge book. Nice touch of irony in a damn serious exhibition.' The two Mak exhibitions show both the scope of his work and the personality of the man. The larger show, at City Hall, features 300 sculptures, sketches and drawings, while the one at the Fringe Club comprises around 30 photographs Mak took when he was a student in London. The sculptures are Mak's public face, often ironic, always striking figurative bronzes of people and animals, the impressive, confident work of an artist in his prime. The pictures, in contrast, are a touching insight to a younger, rawer artist, exploring the themes that were later to dominate his work. 'These photos he took were a kind of photographic sketchbook,' says Chia, 'where he explored quite a lot of things in his formative years.' They come from Mak's days as a student at Goldsmith's College, London, from 1971 to 1975, and show him long-haired, in thick glasses and leather bolero jacket, staring intensely into the camera from in front of his early paintings, or posing with a friend in the gardens of a suburban house. Alongside these very personal images are the themes that became his trademarks: duality, expressed in two hands - one black, one white - a pair of arms entwined in one another, and again in nude female figures facing one another. For Ho, these trademarks were the core of Mak's work. 'Last year, he invited me to see all his work, and I was surprised to see how certain themes keep appearing again and again. He was obsessed with certain searches in his work, used figures of tigers, horses, that had a symbolic significance, representing a state of human existence, a kind of ambiguity,' he says. 'Antonio loved reflection, and he sometimes used it even in sculpture, making mirror images. He was really interested in reality and illusion. Later in some pieces from the 1990s, The Sleepwalker, Tangoing With A Tiger, there were some political implications there. Sleepwalker is someone who behaves in a state of illusion, so there is always the implication of people who are unaware of reality.' Mak's dedication to his art may also have contributed to his early death from cancer, says Ho, although he concedes there is no way of proving it. 'For small sculptures he worked at home. Bronze-casting involves so many chemicals and in a poorly ventilated room it's not good for the health.' Safety was often a worry for artists in Hong Kong because of the small spaces they work in, he said. And that's not the only worry - gaining recognition is also a major difficulty. 'The problem is there are only two public venues in Hong Kong, and the Museum of Art doesn't concentrate on Hong Kong artists,' said Ho. 'And here at the Arts Centre, we always need sponsorship. For Picasso I can always find sponsors, but for local artists it is very difficult.' Chia echoes the concern, but points out that no structure exists to support artists like Mak. 'He could have been better recognised. Among artists and that circle, we all knew him, but nobody knew the extent of his work and what he had covered.' Clearly, this is something Chia and Ho hope to remedy. Image-maker, Early Photography by Antonio Mak Hin-yeung, opens on Saturday until March 1, from noon until 10pmat the Fringe Gallery, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central. Retrospective Exhibition of Works by Antonio Mak Hin-yeung, February 25 to March 1, Exhibition Hall, Low Block, City Hall. At Expo Hall, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, from March 4 to 26.