Fostering Talent - A Creative Decade
The Art For All Society commemorates its 10th anniversary
The world of art is a beautiful yet challenging one, full of pressures, choices, insecurities, successes and failures, inspirations, solitude and loneliness.
And in a small city like Macau, that is so focused on industries like tourism and gaming - and all the wealth that comes along with it - it is hard to imagine that any local artists might actually exist, or that someone might decide to pursue a career in this field.
But in fact, today in the city there are many active artists – painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers and more – both young and older, all with their own unique approaches and styles.
And for the past decade, many of them have been supported and promoted by one key organization in town, the Art For All Society (AFA). Last December, AFA celebrated it’s 10th anniversary with a series of talks, exhibitions and the screening of a documentary by local artist and current president of AFA, Alice Kok.
“We had three days of celebrations starting on December 12. We had the opening of the exhibition and invited the artists to donate some artworks for fund raising for AFA. On the second day we had an art talk, with invited art gallery managers, streamed live on facebook. Then on Day 3 was the documentary screening,” says Alice when we meet with her at the current home of AFA, the very centrally located Tak Chun Macau Art Garden.
“And earlier, in August, we had the founding artist’s exhibition, with the five of the founders of AFA: Konstantin Bessmertny, James Chu, Tong Chong, Bianca Lei and Ng Fong Zhou,” she adds.
Since it conception in 2007, AFA has had a number of homes, but has struggled to find a truly permanent base, something that one of the association’s founders and former president, James Chu laments.
“Thirteen years ago, we started to look for spaces for artists,” he recalls. “The first casino opened in 2004 and we realized things were going to change. Things were very cheap and we found some good spaces, but we couldn’t reach an agreement by which to share the space and costs, so we missed a lot of chances at that time.”
Ultimately, the first location was in building close to the base of the Ruin’s of St. Paul.
“On the third level they had six rooms, so we had to find six artists who were willing to move in and start this project. People ask me why we only had six founders. Because we had six studios!” James laughs. “ If there had been ten rooms, maybe we would have had ten founders.”
The building not only provided the artists with a place to work, but also offered a single location to present the works of multiple artists to visitors interested in buying some local artwork.
“Beforehand, we didn’t have such a space. Everyone worked in their homes, so whenever a buyer or curator came from Hong Kong or Taiwan, they always wanted to see what interested them, but they had such a short time they could only see one or two studios,” notes James. “If we could have a space to group together and a better working environment and a centre to display the artists’ artwork, then we would have more chance to get exposure and introduce the artists.”
The primary mission of AFA is help local contemporary artists develop their careers and to promote the overall growth of Macau’s art scene.
“Ten years ago, I had just come back from India and Paris, and there were not many art galleries, just Ox Warehouse which was very important, but very few art spaces,” recalls Alice. “Today we are a platform so that artists can develop their careers. We provide spaces for them to work, we have studios, exhibition space and galleries. And we apply for the funding from the government on their behalf, so the artists don’t need to do that. Now we are 49 artists spanning painting, photography, video art, sculpture and installations,” she explains.
In the early stages, the goals were less defined, and James admits that sales were not really a major focus for them: “But later on we realized that sales were the only way to survive as an artist.”
Fortunately for the young association, they didn’t need to rely on sales for their survival initially.
“In the beginning we didn’t ask for any sponsors, but after a few months it happened that people from Macau Foundation came to see our space and asked us if we needed any support,” says James. “In the third year after we were established, we received 700 thousand patacas in private funds, so we decided to use this money as a scholarship. At that time the government wasn’t doing anything, so we started sponsoring people to study abroad.”
Today, the association has a seven-year contract for it’s current premises, which it shares with three other associations to use this building.
“Alexis Tam agreed to provide the funding for the renovations, and the company Tak Chun is a sponsor of the Art Garden,” says Alice.
Ongoing financing is always an issue for the society however, which primarily relies on the Cultural Institute for support.
“Every year we submit our annual proposal and they let us know which projects they will support and we work with that, but the system is not really transparent. Sometimes they give, sometimes they don’t. We don’t actually know their criteria,” Alice notes.
In her first year as president, one her first decisions was to close down an art gallery being run by AFA in Beijing.
“That year our funding was particularly low, but we didn’t know why and they didn’t tell us.”
Alice remembers other challenges facing the group when she took over from James Chu as president in 2014.
“When I became the president, there was a crisis at AFA, in terms of management. James was quite alone, things were tired, he got tired, and the participation of the artists was not very active. And we were forced to move location too and we didn’t know if we would manage to find a new place or not.”
With only a few members on the board of directors and an outgoing president, it was up to Alice to lead a reformation of the group.
“The future of AFA was very much in question. My job was to reunite and invite new people to the management. We were 11 members and now we are 14, 15, with more younger artists participating. We have monthly meetings, and with Wechat, we can communicate better. So that was a turning point and it has been very successful,” she says.
“The goal is to strengthen and share the workload and develop more artists to take on curatorial roles. AFA needs a strong curatorial team.”
Despite the challenges along the way, AFA has undoubtedly had a very positive impact on the contemporary art scene in the city. The association holds exhibitions of local artists on an almost monthly basis, as well as taking artists internationally to participate in art fairs.
“These are really important because we bring the artists outside to Singapore, New York, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China to many different places,” notes Alice. “We went to Portugal several times, thanks to the Orient Foundation as part of a collaboration we have with them at the Orient Museum in Lisbon, which is also very important for us.”
AFA also works with the Orient Foundation in the annual Autumn Salon, awarding an art prize every year to one local artist who then has the opportunity to go to Portugal to present a solo exhibition.
“This helps a lot of our artists to get international exposure. This year we would like to try Berlin too. We have some connections there, but because we don’t know how much funding we are going to have, we haven’t finalised anything yet.”
All these activities cost money though, and how active AFA is, really depends on the decisions of the Cultural Bureau.
“Last year, we got funding for three out of six art fairs. We were at the Affordable Art Fair in New York for a couple of years, but our funding has been cut for that now. Even our funding for Taipei has been cut, so now we only have Hong Kong,” Alice laments.
“I’m not very optimistic for 2018. For big exhibitions we might get around 100 thousand patacas, but that’s the good case. For the whole year we might have one like this, or two. Then we might have some smaller exhibitions for around 40 thousand to 60 thousand. Barely a million for the whole year, which is really not a lot, considering the salaries for the personnel and the rent of the space and many other fees that we need to pay every month.”
Looking back at the first ten years of AFA, James Chu believes the biggest achievement has been the establishment of an effective contract system for selling local artwork.
“In the past, nobody wanted to buy art, they just wanted it for free or wanted to exchange artwork for something,” he recalls. “Some other galleries tried to develop contract systems but they all failed. We are not a commercial gallery, but now other galleries are using our example and methods. And the artists are happy with the commission system that we offer,” he observes.
Appearing in Alice Kok’s documentary Ten for Perfection, James reflects: “The good thing is we have made something together with our good will. It has had concrete results in helping Macau’s art development. There are many more young members and young artists and I see that there are more opportunities for them. When we grew up there were no such opportunities. Nowadays the whole society and environment is different. And they are doing better than us. This is to be happy about.”
Looking ahead to the future, he has three main visions for the city’s art scene: “First I hope that the exhibitions and artwork can be more influential and be part of the contemporary art history of the city,” he notes.
“Second, in terms of sales, I would like to see an improvement. Now I think Macau art is still underpriced, but again we lack promotion. We need more professional people to find professional buyers, then the works could sell better.
“I wish that today, the new middle class that already has a better standard of living, would buy paintings from local artists, instead of from Taobao or Ikea. It’s just a matter of taste, the taste of the city, which takes a long time to develop. We are just waiting for the city to grow up with us together,” he observes.
And if James’ first two visions are achieved: “then artists can have a better living, a better environment for creating their works, and they will be more united. Working as an artist in Macau is still very difficult and it shouldn’t be like that, especially in a city that is so rich”.
The documentary by AFA President Alice Kok, entitled Ten for Perfection, features ten prominent local artists, reflecting on their artistic journeys and experiences over the past decade, and their feelings about the local art scene, AFA, and bigger questions about the overall meaning and value of art.
“I invited ten artists from the age of 20 something to 60 something, each one of them representing an expression in Chinese according to their number,” explains Alice. “I interviewed them, and talked about their art, what they have done in the past ten years, what they have gone through, the problems they have dealt with on their artistic paths, all different depending on their age and stage of their career.”
“Because the space of our studio
is very limited, the only way
to make large scale works
is by using small pieces.
This is the relationship between
the environment and the artwork”
Lai Sio Kit
The one-hour film was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of AFA and was screened in December as part of the annual Local Viewpower documentary series, which was itself incorporated into the International Film Festival and Awards Macao.
“I hope the story of the person
I sculpt will go on when we are gone,
so I put a lot of imagination and creativity
into the work”
Wong Ka long
In creating the film, Alice chose ten different themes to represent each artist, to give them a focus for their part in the whole, beginning with ‘Single-mindedness’ for Erik Fok at number one, and progressing through to ‘Perfection’ at number ten with Konstantin Bessmertny.
“My artistic search is about simplifying
The simpler the artwork,
the more powerful it becomes”
“It was interesting for me to go through all their stories, and I start as artist zero. I put myself in the documentary because I needed someone to link all of them, since I’m the one interviewing them, filming them and editing,” she describes.
“The spirit of the artwork should reflect what you are.
My artwork exists. Why should it be explained?”
Pakeong Fortes Sequeira
For their parts, each artist brought a very different perspective to the overall story, much the same way as their individual artistic styles combine to make up the tapestry of the local contemporary art scene.
“AFA has strived to create a
so-called ‘market’ which allows artists
to concentrate more on their creative works”
“I’m happy with the final result. Every artist was very sincere talking about their doubts and society. We talked about social stability, the art market, how the artists are working, how it affects their health,” notes Alice.
“I communicate with others through my paintings.
It is the reason for my existence.
I never thought of doing anything else”
Erik Fok, for example, described how at the age of 25 he already has troubles with his eyes from concentrating for too long on the very fine details of his works. Sculptor Wong Ka Long talks about how 10 years ago, he was an activist demonstrating in the streets.
“Everything I do is about pleasure.
I am very lucky because
I don’t need to please other people
with my paintings.”
“Later though he reassessed what it means to be radical on social media, and as a teacher in a school, he found he was inciting the students, and questioned whether this was a good thing or not.”
“I worked too hard,
but when you’re
just starting your career
it has to be like that.”
Finally, at number 10, Konstantin Bessmertny expresses his frustration with what he sees as a corrupt global art market.
“To adapt, we are constantly evolving
and this points to how our existence is so fragile”
“He even said that he didn’t like what AFA has turned into, because he feels artists are addicted to sponsorship and are not independent,” says Alice.
“But the audience really liked their outspokenness and frankness. It was the meaning of the documentary, a really substantial reflection. We didn’t want to make something that just said everything is good.”
“Artistic perfection is like a road somewhere.
The biggest dissappointment would actually be
reaching the peak”
The documentary will be screened again at AFA later this year, and the Macau Cultural Centre has also expressed an interest in touring the film around local schools.