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Art Basel 2015

Rule of the Frog King: the Hong Kong artist who 'chats' to amphibians

Signature sunglasses framing his face, Kwok Mang-ho is the unabashed alter ego of the frog

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 2015, 5:08am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 2015, 9:13am

You may not notice his pieces among the thousands of artworks displayed in this year's Art Basel, which opens to the public today, but you are unlikely to forget him if you meet him.

Donning a pair of frog-eye-like sunglasses and a colourful multipattern costume, he is "Frog King" Kwok Mang-ho.

The 69-year-old local artist may even share his special sunglasses with you, but he is just as likely to break into an improvised performance, yelling "action" with outstretched arms as he talks.

Watch: "Frog King" on his art and philosophy of life

In his 40-odd years of working in the field of art, Kwok said, he had created more than 5,000 projects, including paintings, sculptures, installations and the performing arts.

"He can't exist without making art every day," said Katie de Tilly, owner of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Soho, which hosted Kwok's solo exhibition last year. "He is incredibly passionate in a performing way."

Born in Guangdong province and raised in Hong Kong, Kwok started his love affair with frogs at a young age.

He found a frog along a river one day, but the creature did not seem to be scared. "I felt I had a special ability to chat with the frog," he said. "I grew up into an adult, like a tadpole evolving into a frog. Now that I am old, I'm 'Uncle Frog King'."

The bulging eyes of the amphibian entered Kwok's artistic consciousness when he studied ink painting at Grantham College of Education - a precursor of the Institute of Education - in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Then in the 1980s, he lived in New York, where, under the influence of graffiti artists, he designed his signature frog image. Its triangular eyes represented a cross-cultural bridge between east and west, the artist said, while its smiley mouth was derived from Buddhist philosophy.

Inspired by Hongkongers' mixed use of English and Chinese in daily life, Kwok combined Chinese, English and other languages and, along with frog images and other traditional Chinese patterns, created the "Frog Font", which is written with traditional Chinese ink and brushes.

"The general message of my art is integration and happiness based on Eastern philosophy."

Between 1989 and 1999, the artist asked tens of thousands of people from different parts of the world to wear wacky frog-eyed sunglasses he designed and took pictures of them.

"It does not matter if you are a president, an ordinary citizen or even a pig, you are equal when you put on the Froggy Sunglasses," he said.

Kwok said he loved sharing his art with others because he believed art was for everyone, rich or poor.

He gave away many of his works until his financial situation deteriorated in recent years. He has been struggling to pay the rent for his three studios, which are filled with his creations and raw materials collected from the local community at Cattle Depot Artist Village in To Kwa Wan.

"If I can give people a moment of joy, then my life is worth living," he said.