Many of Hong Kong’s most successful artists have made the same pilgrimage over the past five years. It’s not been to the cultural capitals of New York or London, or even to the emerging art hubs of Los Angeles or Seoul, but to Basel, a small city on the Rhine in northern Switzerland.
They have been drawn there by Angelika Li, the president and co-founder of PF25 Cultural Projects, a non-profit organisation that aims to connect Basel and Hong Kong through art exhibitions, talks, cooking classes, film screenings and other events that promote intercultural understanding. Li was inspired to establish PF25 soon after she relocated from her hometown of Hong Kong to Basel in 2017 to be with her husband, Donald Mak, a Hongkonger who has lived in Switzerland for more than a decade and currently works at leading architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.
Li founded PF25 in 2018, naming the organisation after her first address in Basel, Pfeffergässlein 25. She has now organised more than 30 events around the city, all of them guided by two key beliefs: that people in the creative industries in Hong Kong are creating meaningful, important work that deserves to be promoted internationally, and that artistic projects that cross cultures help build understanding, trust and respect between people from different backgrounds. “But it doesn’t have to be very academic,” says Li. “Our organisation is more about getting people together, sharing creative energies. Having fun together is good.”
Li selects artists and other creatives for PF25’s projects based on her deep knowledge of Hong Kong’s art scene. She grew up in the city and was a prominent figure in its art community for years, working as the first director of Sotheby’s Hong Kong Gallery and, after that, as the founding director of the Mill6 Foundation, the non-profit arts organisation behind the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile in Tsuen Wan. Before she had formalised her plans for PF25, friends and colleagues from Hong Kong were flocking to Basel to see her. “In 2017, I think we had more than 20 guests come to visit us, including artists, writers, curators, journalists,” she says. These Hong Kong creatives were curious about life in Basel, while Li’s Swiss friends were fascinated by the work her Hong Kong friends were doing. “It made me think that we should form an organisation to bridge these two cities,” says Li. “People are very curious to understand more about Hong Kong.”
This year, Li has worked on some of PF25’s most ambitious projects yet. Backed by new funding from local foundation Christoph Merian Stiftung, the organisation has partnered with scholarship programme Atelier Mondial to organise residencies in Basel for Hong Kong artists Angela Su, Oscar Chan Yik-long and Isaac Chong Wai. Those artists took part in the group show Homeland in Transit: Carried by the Wind at Salon Mondial gallery in June alongside three Swiss artists. Su also participated in Hong Kong Video Night in May, at which Li screened 12 works of video art made by nine different Hong Kong artists between 1989 and the present day, including Su’s This is Not a Game (2021).
This weekend, PF25 is taking part in Kunsttage Basel, a city-wide festival for which galleries, museums and art organisations run special programmes to encourage locals and visitors to engage with contemporary art. It will be hosting two events: a performance by Isaac Chong Wai on September 4, titled Difference/Indifference, and an exhibition of new video works by Hung Keung, who shot eerie streetscapes of Hong Kong using a 360-degree camera while the streets were empty during a Covid-19 outbreak. Keung’s work will be exhibited in the office windows of Raymond Gaetan, an architect and real estate developer. The videos will be shown on large screens, giving pedestrians on Basel’s quaint streets a glimpse into Hong Kong’s cyberpunk cityscape. “When people are walking by, we want them to be like, “‘Whoa, what’s going on there?’” says Li. “‘Where are those streetscapes?’”
Li has been consistently impressed by how locals in Basel have engaged with art from Hong Kong. “The audience crosses different generations, from high school students to retirees,” says Li. Artist Oscar Chan Yik-long, who finished his three-month-long residency in Basel in July, was moved by how deeply people in the city engaged with the black-and-white ink paintings he made in Switzerland, which feature scenes from films by the legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. “One visitor was a girl, an artist herself, and her reason for coming was simply that she felt a bit stuck in her own work and wanted to see some other things,” says Chan. “After seeing the show, she was crying. She said the show was so touching. I was a bit shocked but also touched.”
Chinese ink on canvas by Oscar Chan Yik-long, 2022 – Photos courtesy the artist
Although Basel is a relatively small city, its 175,000 residents have plenty of access to art and culture. Switzerland has more museums per capita than any other country in Europe, and Basel is its most museum-dense city, with roughly 40 squeezed into the city limits. Among the institutions are the Fondation Beyeler, which is the most visited art museum in Switzerland; the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was the first public museum of contemporary art in Europe; and the Kunstmuseum Basel Basel, which was the first collection of art ever made accessible to the public when it opened in 1661. Basel is also the headquarters and namesake of Art Basel, which was founded in 1970 and now runs annual art fairs in Basel, Miami, Hong Kong and, for the first time later this year, Paris.
“I can tell that people in Basel are used to seeing art and talking about it,” says Chan. “Many of them had read the information about the show, the curator and the artists before coming. Therefore, their conversations with me, as one of the exhibiting artists, could directly go to a deeper level instead of just getting stuck with factual information.”
It’s not only locals who engage with PF25’s projects. Art Basel draws tens of thousands of curators, collectors and critics to the city every year from around the world. Through PF25, Li hopes to introduce these visitors not only to Hong Kong culture, but to another side of Basel. “Some people have been coming to Art Basel for 15, 20 years, but because they’re here for the fair, they just shuttle between Messeplatz, where Art Basel takes place, and then maybe Campari Bar or a museum,” says Li. “Some Japanese gallerists told me that coming to a PF25 show was the first time they’d ever set foot in the old town of Basel.”
PF25’s projects are increasingly being noticed by prominent institutions around the country, some of whom have now asked Li to contribute to their own programmes. In January, Li gave a talk at Asia Society Switzerland and, in June, worked on the public programme for a major exhibition of American abstract artist Brice Marden at Kunstmuseum Basel. “Brice Marden’s direct inspiration is Cold Mountain, a Tang dynasty poem, so there’s a lot of calligraphic inspiration,” says Li, who invited Hong Kong artist and professor Kurt Chan to discuss Marden’s work with curator Kelly Montana. “Kurt can translate both worlds, American abstract expressionism and Chinese calligraphy, these literary arts and traditions.”
It is this mixing of cultures that drives Li to create ever more ambitious projects. In late October, as part of Basel’s annual Herbstmesse, an autumn festival, PF25 is taking over a shopfront on one of the city’s busiest streets for an initiative called Hands Project, featuring a variety of handmade art and crafts made by Hong Kong and Swiss creatives. “We will have books, we will have ceramics, we will have glass pieces,” says Li. “We will have a Chinese herbal traditional wellbeing workshop, where people will learn how to make Chinese soup and Chinese tea.”
Li seems as comfortable working on this retail project as she is collaborating on academic talks with Switzerland’s leading institutions. What she cares about is that all her projects, no matter how big or small, get people talking. “Our organisation is about getting people together, sharing creative energies,” says Li. “Conversations are precious to me – they build bridges.”
Hung Keung’s Streetscapes 24360 will be exhibited at Raymond Gaetan, Jungstrasse 33, 4056 Basel from September 1 to 4, 2022.
Isaac Chong Wai’s Difference/Indifference will be performed at Basler Münster, Münsterplatz 9, 4051 Basel, Switzerland from 16:00 to 16:45 on September 4, 2022.
Updates and corrections: This story was updated after publication to reflect the cancellation of a winemaking workshop. It also provided a correction to a quote referring to “a Campari bar,” which in fact referred to Campari Bar located on Seitzergasse in Basel.