Alisan Fine Arts: 40 Years Old and Still Pushing the Envelope

Daphne King says it took three iterations to get the current exhibition at Alisan Fine Arts right. “It was a difficult show to curate,” she recalls on February afternoon, standing in her gallery. “I put the pieces up, then took them down, then rearranged them. I thought of putting one artist on one side of the gallery, the other artist on the end, but it wouldn’t have been as interesting.” 

Celebrating Friendship is an exhibition of Hong Kong artist Walasse Ting and American artist Sam Francis, life-long friends who met in New York in the late 1950s. While Ting’s work is cloying and shimmery, the energy in Francis’ pieces is subtler, with balls of energy lying in wait at the corners of canvases. A glass cabinet containing letters that Ting had penned to Daphne’s mother, Alice King, is a highlight of the exhibition, paying tribute not only to the friendship between the two, but also offers a glimpse of the important role the gallery played in Hong Kong art history. 

Set up by Alice King and Sandra Walters in 1981, Alisan—a portmanteau of Alice and Sandra—was one of the first commercial galleries in Hong Kong. At the time, art exhibitions were limited to the Hong Kong City Museum and Art Gallery, now the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The city’s first commercial gallery was the short-lived Chatham Galleries, which was open 1962 to 1966. Alisan came next, and it was alone on the scene until Johnson Chang opened Hanart TZ in 1983.

At the time, Alisan focused uniquely on art from the Chinese diaspora, inspired in part by the founders’ own multicultural upbringings. Since the 1980s, the gallery has played an important role in introducing Hong Kong audiences to a legion of Chinese artists living around the world, including Chu Teh-chun, Zao Wou-ki and Walasse Ting. While Alice King would later become a patron of contemporary Chinese ink art, among other areas, the gallery’s notoriety was rooted in those diaspora artists. 

Daphne joined Alice in 1997, after she left an advertising job in New York and moved back to Hong Kong. Soft spoken and humble, she inherited her mother’s love of curating and research. One is more likely to see her engaged in conversation about different curatorial approaches she’s struggling with for her next show than talk about all the soirees she’d attended in the past month. 

Like her mother, who grew up in a household frequented by the likes of Chinese painter Pu Ru—cousin of Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty—King grew up in a household where artists came and went. “There wasn’t as much funding for the arts back in the 80s,” she says. “Whenever an artist had to fly in, my mum would put them up in the house.” That kind of casual intimacy had its perks: King was gifted a Walasse Ting painting when she turned 18. She has never exhibited it. “It has a special place in my heart,” she says. 

And yet it never crossed her mind that King may one day take over her mother’s gallery. It wasn’t until she left home that she truly became interested in art. She remembers wandering the halls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, feeling for the first time like she was enjoying the art on her own terms – not her mother’s. She took one art history class during her freshman year but dropped out when she didn’t get an A. “By junior year I regretted that decision!” she says. After graduation, she interviewed for roles in art and marketing – “Something I was also interested in,” she says. She was eventually hired by an ad agency. “My parents had very strong work ethics and they instilled that in me,” she says. “I wanted to make it on my own first.” She finally decided to return home and join her mother at the gallery in 1997.

It was a chance to rekindle her relationship to some of the artists her mother was close with. She recalls Ting—who passed away in 2010—for his exuberant personality. “He was this larger than life character, compared to something like Chu Teh-chun, who was super serious. I think this shows in their art too. Ting loved to eat, drink and entertain. Whenever he sold a painting, he’d just spend every dime of it. And he’d call up my mother to ask if she’d sold another one of his paintings yet!” 

Talk about the Hong Kong art scene from the 1980s to the 2000s and Alice King’s name inevitably comes up. Not only because of her founding of Alisan Fine Art, but also the Ink Society—a group dedicated to promoting ink art—and her patronage of a dozen other cultural societies. “My mother was a huge patron of the arts,” says King. “She was on the board of Asian Cultural Council, a trustee of the Friends of the Hong Kong Museum. And now I’m doing all that. In a way, I’m doing what my mother did.”

Those are surely big shoes to fill – something not lost on King. In those early days, “I felt like everything I did, people were looking at it or judging it through the lens of my mother’s achievements. I built up my confidence over the years,” she says. While King is now stepping up as her own gallerist, it also comes tinged with wistfulness. “In a way, as it seems like the younger generation of collectors, those in the art world, don’t know much about my mother. That’s actually one thing I’m planning to do – I want to write a book about my mother. I just need to find the time to do that,” she says with a laugh.

For the time being, King has her hands full. Like her mother four decades earlier, she is working hard to build her own legacy. Alisan 40th anniversary programming is a celebration of the past as well as a looking forward to the future. The gallery is mounting five exhibitions on five of the artists they’ve worked with over the years, including the current Walasse Ting show and upcoming exhibitions of works by Chu Teh-chun, Zao Wou-ki, Lui Shou-kwan and Chao Chung-hsiang.

While these shows are modest compared to its 35th anniversary celebrations, when the gallery hosted a week-long exhibition at the Hong Kong Central Library, they are no less exacting, with King digging into the gallery’s library for letters that artists wrote to her mother, as well as clippings from old magazines and other archival materials. 

That legacy is secure. How the gallery is projecting itself into the future is another matter. We now live in a time when artists are promoting their works via their websites and social media accounts, but King still believes that Alisan has an important role to play in the art scene. “A gallery can place artists in a broader context,” she says. “It could be placing works by a young artist next to older ones, or what we’re trying to do with the current Walasse Ting and Sam Francis exhibition – to engage their works in a conversation, to tell a story.”  

While it may once have focused on the diaspora, Hong Kong artists are now the bedrock of the gallery’s roster. In an age when it can be difficult to tell if an artist is from a specific place, King believes that Hong Kong art is unique, thanks in large part to the city’s colonial past. She points to ink art as an example. “Hong Kong artists always have this East meets West element,” she says. That blending of influences is a way for Hong Kong artists to breathe life into traditional mediums, something King explored in her show Uniquely Hong Kong – A Celebration of Hong Kong Art last summer. It featured three generations of Hong Kong artists, from Lui Shou-kwan and Chu Hing-wah, to Hung Hoi and Kam Chi-keung, to a newer generation of artists such as Hui Hoi-ku and Cherie Cheuk.

King is now planning to create another dialogue crossing generations in May, when she will exhibit works by six local artists. She will ask four of them to create response works to a French surrealist exhibition that will open that month at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. By drawing a line—albeit a loose one—between early 20th century surrealists and a crop of local artists whose art displays surrealist elements, the exhibition will raise questions about originality, art history and history itself. King says art’s greatest power lies in its “open-endedness.” It is perhaps through this ambiguity that the best conversations happen.

 

Celebrating a Friendship is running until April 30th, 2021 at Alisan Fien Arts, 21/F Lyndhurst Tower, 1 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, Hong Kong. For more information visit here

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