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International Women's Day

Hong Kong women artists get a show of their own

A Sotheby’s exhibition timed for International Women’s Day features contemporary ink paintings, video installations, neon art and holograms by artistic veterans and relative newcomers alike

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2018, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 April, 2018, 11:44am

An exhibition unveiled at international auction house Sotheby’s this week hopes to highlight the often-overlooked contributions of Hong Kong women artists from different generations.

Titled “Women in Art: Hong Kong”, the week-long exhibition is the culmination of a year’s research into the experiences of several Hong Kong contemporary women artists active during the past 50 years.

The project is a collaboration between New Hall Art Collection, part of the University of Cambridge’s all-female Murray Edwards College, and the Asia Art Archive. The former is known for being the largest collection of artworks by women in Europe.

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This will be the first time work by such a diverse group of Hong Kong women artists – from veteran Choi Yan-chi to younger artists such as Angela Su – will be exhibited together, according to Katherine Don, Sotheby’s head of contemporary ink.

The works are from a wide range of mediums: contemporary ink paintings, video installations, neon art and even holograms are featured. Some pieces have been lent by the artists or private collectors.

“What we’re showing here is not gendered artwork, but a completely diverse range of artists and artwork which could be made by men or women,” says Eliza Gluckman, curator of New Hall Art Collection and joint lead researcher of the project with Phoebe Wong from the Asia Art Archive.

Choi, who has been active in the local art scene since the 1980s, says she is “thrilled” to be exhibiting with these artists, many for the first time. “This is an important exhibition for Hong Kong women artists,” she says.

Inspiration for the research behind “Women in Art: Hong Kong” grew organically out of Murray Edwards College’s long-standing links with Hong Kong, as well as Gluckman’s existing friendships with several women artists in the city.

“Essentially we really wanted to get some work into our collection that reflected the students at our college,” says Gluckman, who did her PhD dissertation in Hong Kong and has been visiting the city since the early 2000s. “We were interested in making the collection more international, and now it seems very timely to be putting a spotlight on women artists.”

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Common themes are visible in the works, despite the differences in form and style, such as the artists’ experiences of Hong Kong as a migratory city, says Gluckman. Only one of the artists had both parents who came from Hong Kong, while others have lived elsewhere for long periods. Many artists, such as Ellen Pau and Ho Sin-tung, were also inspired by the iconic film culture of the city.

Gluckman hopes that the exhibition and research launch – timed to coincide with International Women’s Day 2018 – will carry forward the momentum from the landmark #MeToo movement, as well as the growing global awareness of gender-related issues such as sexual harassment and equal pay for women.

“I think there is a feeling in the art world that we are egalitarian and somehow liberal, so we don’t have to take in the issues that are seen across different industries in society,” she says. “But we are in fact just the same and we need to address them.”

Works by Hong Kong women artists make up only 2.4 per cent of the collection at M+, the future museum of visual culture expected to open in West Kowloon next year. And while women make up the vast majority of fine arts graduates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, their representation in Hong Kong’s commercial galleries can be as low as six or seven per cent, Gluckman and Wong found in their research.

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“As Hong Kong has become more international with perhaps more Western curators taking over posts [at galleries], the knock-on effect is that therefore you’d have fewer local artists showing, and it’s the women that seem to miss out,” says Gluckman.

It is not just gender that may be limiting their visibility, says Don at Sotheby’s. “Not all of these galleries include Hong Kong artists in their programmes. I’d actually venture that the majority of these galleries don’t show Hong Kong artists,” she says.

But a few art experts have doubts about the pioneering all-female exhibition.

“I have found that many Hong Kong women artists are reluctant to be identified by their gender, largely because they want to, quite rightly, be seen first as an artist,” says associate professor Koon Yee-wan, of the University of Hong Kong’s fine arts department.

“But I also think that the dominant feminist art discourse is more a Euro-American story and not so relevant to Hong Kong and the experiences of women artists here.”

Frank Vigneron, chair professor of the department of fine arts at Chinese University of Hong Kong, has qualms about gender-based exhibitions.

“No gallery in their right mind will do an exhibition of male artists and say it’s because they are all men. Exhibitions that show women artists with little in common with each other could trivialise the matter and reinforce stereotypes,” he says. All-women shows that have a common theme, such as political feminist art, are an exception, Vigneron says.

Additional reporting by Enid Tsui

Women in Art: Hong Kong is on until March 11 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 5/F Pacific Place One, Admiralty