Hong Kong is often defined by its gleaming glass and steel skyline, seen as a living monument to the financial sector. However, scratch its dazzling surface and there is a rising individualism where a desire to assert identity is fomenting among the city’s youth and its diaspora.
Ever since the world’s biggest art fair, Art Basel, added Hong Kong to its portfolio in 2013, the city has found its place on the international art map. Each year, Art Week brings the galleries to life and refreshes the public’s appetite for art. What it fails to do, though, is turn the spotlight onto Hong Kong’s own creative scene, forcing those involved in it to think beyond traditional frameworks in order to get noticed.
One such way is to take to the streets and change the appearance of the city itself, something that collective HKwalls knows all about. “Before HKwalls, it was relatively rare for street or graffiti artists to be given opportunities to paint legally in Hong Kong,” the team explains. “To paint larger, more detailed work, many street and graffiti artists would go to abandoned buildings where they could paint for hours without being bothered; the problem being that the general public never gets to see any of it.”
“So we decided to create an event that would provide artists with legal walls in the city, where they could share their work with the public. We chose to host it during Art Week because there was already a lot of buzz around art with the Art Fairs and exclusive VIP openings, and other events, but those events had very little if anything to do with street art or graffiti. So, in contrast, we created HKwalls, a street art, graffiti and mural festival, which is completely free, open and accessible to the public and focused on the art and artists.”
Like all art, street art is an important form of communication, particularly when it emerges from an ecosystem that values a top-down approach. “Regardless of what compels the artists, the nature of the art form is that it is free of outside influence (i.e. galleries, investors, corporations, authorities), self-driven, and a way for people to express themselves and ideas, which no doubt are influenced one way or another, by the very city and environment they live in and make their mark on,” say the HKwalls crew.
By addressing the legality of graffiti, HKwalls has succeeded in altering perceptions of what would once have been dismissed as vandalism, and has gone some way toward deconstructing the elitist paradigm associated with big-ticket art, no mean feat for a city so preoccupied with household names.
Yet, this evolution is not exclusive to the art world, with fashion designers and photographers also taking control of the image they present. From homegrown brands like The Private Label Clothing, which unites retro athleisure looks with quintessentially Asian silhouettes, and Yat Pit, which proclaims to make clothes for Chinese youth in a world where Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution never happened, to Hong Kong-raised photographer Alexandra Leese, who has documented a fluid approach to masculinity among a new generation of Hong Kong males, the city’s creatives are finding their voices, asserting that they are not afraid to use them. Better still, people are responding to them.
As Hong Kong wrestles with its own identity, caught between its Chinese heritage, the hangovers of a colonial past and a dated deification of commerce, it is essential that the inheritors of its future continue to develop their own language of expression and channels by which they can communicate.
There is hope, though. At Art Basel in Hong Kong this past year, I was particularly struck by one piece — a masterful line drawing that celebrated the poetic beauty of Chinese ink paintings but in a contemporary, and ultimately, unique way. After speaking with the gallerist, I was shocked to discover that the artist, called Chan Kwan-lok, was just 26-years-old and was from Hong Kong. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. He, like many of his peers, understands the value of expression and the need to be heard. I just hope the city’s creatives don’t outgrow the scene they have helped establish before it fully matures itself.