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The green touch

Joyce Yip meets some of the artists, and a curator, who have spent decades trying to draw attention to environmental concerns through their works.

By Joyce Yip | HK EDITION | Updated: 2024-06-14 16:19
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Jaffa Lam’s Trolley Party, on show at Art Basel Hong Kong 2023, is made out of recycled umbrella fabric, pieced together by local seamstresses. (PHOTO COURTESY OF AXEL VERVOORDT GALLERY)

Jaffa Lam's most recent Hong Kong exhibition was held at the Central showroom of cosmetic and home-ware brand Aesop in March and April. Called Dusk to Dawn, the loosely hung patchwork tapestry, made up of recycled umbrella fabric in myriad shades of blue, tries to capture the transition of sunlight during a day. The piece is Lam's tribute to the resilience displayed by "the city's unsung labor force".

Dusk to Dawn was put together by Lam's long-time collaborators - the seamstresses of the Hong Kong Women Workers' Association (HKWWA). The 14-meter-long canopy in her installation Trolley Party - a highlight of Art Basel Hong Kong 2023 - is also the handiwork of the same group. The grand-scale piece sent out powerful messages about concepts of labor, identity and the collective spirit of Hong Kong to the viewers. The HKWWA seamstresses, with whom Lam has been co-creating since 2010, were honored guests at the high-profile international event.

"When I invite the workers to partake in my art, they always laugh and question whether anyone would appreciate their craft in an upscale exhibition space," Lam says. "But then they bring along their children to play next to my work. Nothing makes me happier than seeing this.

"People call me an environmental artist," Lam continues. "Sure, I work with 'trash'; but my work has been about the communities, diaspora and the collectives that have been lost through migration or gentrification."

In April, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government implemented the first phase of its program aimed at achieving carbon neutrality before 2050 by banning single-use plastics. The move was meant to serve as a prelude to a proposed municipal solid-waste-charging program, which has since been put on hold. While policymakers scratch their heads looking for solutions to managing the massive solid waste generated in Hong Kong - 1.51 kilograms per person per day - artists like Lam have long been singing a green gospel, not just by repurposing trash into art, but also by reinventing them as emotional artifacts

She believes that the label of "eco-artist" caught on with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a time when the lack of social contact made artists - like everyone else - reevaluate their relationships with nature, and, generally, curtail their needs. However, Lam didn't have to make an effort toward adapting to a conscious lifestyle. Having grown up in a family with a modest income, she was already used to living within her means.

"I didn't use a straw because I didn't find it necessary," she laughs, reminiscing about her younger days. "Young people today are used to more-luxurious lifestyles. Those who have been using straws all along must stop now in the name of environmentalism."

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