Asia Art Archive at 20: How Claire Hsu Built a Home For Asia’s Own Stories

The Museum of Art has been rebuilt and expanded. M+ is putting the finishing touches on its enormous new home in West Kowloon. JC Contemporary has brought provocative art to the formerly walled-off compound of Tai Kwun. The past few years have given Hong Kong a new wave of eye-catching art institutions, but one of the most important organisations is discreetly tucked away on the 11th floor of an unremarkable office tower on Hollywood Road. 

That’s where the Asia Art Archive (AAA) has assembled a valuable collection of records from artistic practices across Asia. There are more than 4,300 items related to Ha Bik-chuen, a seminal Hong Kong artist whose practice ranged from printmaking to photography, sculpture and painting. More than 1,200 objects illustrate the career of pioneering Singapore performance artist Lee Wen. 235 records shed light on the artists’ colony that blossomed for one short year on Oil Street.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The archive contains more than 100,000 records, including exhibition catalogues, artist monographs, periodicals, zines and the ephemera that are crucial to putting an artist—or an art scene—in context. Without the AAA’s collection, curators and researchers would struggle to piece together exactly what has been happening in Asia’s art world over the past several decades. “All of us working in this space owe a great debt to the organisation,” says Robin Peckham, a curator and the co-director of the Taipei Dangdai art fair. 

“Asia Art Archive is a sanctuary,” says curator Chantal Wong, who runs cultural programming for Eaton HK. “[It] challenges the notion of borders, provides tools to counter xenophobia, racism and prejudice, and is an exercise in questioning systems, ideologies and dogma that rob us of our humanity.”

Christina Li, the former curator of Spring Workshop, says the AAA has excelled in “offering new perspectives and filling gaps in existing historical narratives, where new interconnections between practices, practitioners, spaces, temporalities, and geographies are also generated in the process. It complements and supports the local art ecology by critically reflecting on the recent past.”

None of this would have been possible if not for the efforts of AAA director Claire Hsu, who co-founded the archive as a fresh graduate from the University of London. “I was 24 when I started the archive,” she says. “I was quite young. There was nothing to lose.”

Born in London to a Chinese father and an Austrian mother, Hsu moved to Hong Kong when she was ten. In those 1980s boom years, venues for making or exhibiting art were scarce, and like most Hongkongers at the time, Hsu was completely unaware of what little existed. “I don’t have that story of growing up as a kid surrounded by art and artists,” she says. “I don’t even think we even did a school trip to the Museum of Art.” 

Claire Hsu – Photo by William Furniss for Zolima CityMag

Her awakening came later, when she used her gap year to study Chinese in Beijing. “It was my last night there and a few of us foreign students were at a restaurant,” she says. They ended up bumping into a group of artists who lived in an artists’ village near Peking University. “Living in Hong Kong, you had no idea there was this avant-garde, experimental art scene in China. It was not the China we had been taught in school,” she says. 

As she embarked on her studies in London—first a degree in Chinese history and language, then a degree in art history—she found there was little awareness of what was happening in China. “Chinese art history was not part of an art history course,” she recalls. “You might find a paragraph or something, but the way China was represented in art history, it was something in the past. But contemporary art was interesting to me as a lens through which to better see society and the world.”

That’s what sparked the idea for an archive that would document exactly what was happening on this side of the globe, far from the art world’s gatekeepers in London and New York. “People in the field were very receptive to it and very generous with their time,” she says. Existing non-profit art spaces like Para Site and 1a Space became “instant friends.” Hsu’s stepfather, former Hong Kong Stock Exchange chairman Ronald Arculli, lent his support. So did curator and gallerist Johnson Chang, who donated a book based on his influential exhibition, China’s New Art Post-1989. Jack Wadsworth, an investment banker and cultural philanthropist, paid for a thousand copies to be printed and sent to potential donors. “It was a three kilogram book,” says Hsu with a wry smile. “We sent it out and asked for money, or else to send the book back. When a three kilo book lands on your desk, it’s easier to write a thousand dollar cheque than it is to send it back.”

The Arts Development Council pitched in with a grant, and soon enough, the AAA was up and running. Hsu had her work cut out for her. In 2000, Hong Kong was still often described as a “cultural desert.” It was never an accurate label, but you could understand why it was so often repeated: art was far from the mainstream of Hong Kong life. “There were very few visible institutions,” says Hsu. She saw that as an opportunity. “There was a feeling in Hong Kong that everything was possible. There were no rules. When you look at art systems in the West, it’s very coded already – this is a museum, this is a Kunsthalle, this is what an archive does, this is where it’s situated. [In Hong Kong], you don’t have to be cookie cutter.”

Hsu was eager to shed the colonial baggage associated with many Western art institutions. “Being from a mixed cultural background, it’s inherent in one’s self that the world is more complex than one history or one culture,” she says. “You want a multiplicity of stories and you need a multiplicity of perspectives.” That meant focusing not just on Hong Kong, not just on China, but on anywhere in Asia where there were artistic practices going undocumented and art-related stories being left untold. “So many countries had not recorded the development of art within their countries,” says Hsu. “We use the term ‘generous art histories’ because we want to be generous in representing a multiplicity of voices.”

As part of that goal, the AAA keeps only a limited amount of physical material in Hong Kong, and about 45 percent of its records can be accessed online. “We decided that we would not buy archives and take them out of their countries of origin because that would be another colonising process,” says Hsu. “The Asia Art Archive is really only possible in the digital era because we get permission to digitise archives, but we don’t possess them. We shine light on them and preserve them through digitising them.”

How has that approach paid off? Hsu points to a recent case in which the AAA was approached by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for support on a project about art writing from South Asia. It was drawn to the archive because of an earlier initiative to document art writing in 14 different languages. “We had researchers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh put together a multilingual bibliography,” says Hsu. “We usually know Indian art history through two languages, or even just one – English. When you open it up to all these different languages the histories look very different.”

A lot has changed in the 20 years since the AAA was launched – and not just for the archive. “I’m a mum,” says Hsu. “I have three daughters. That takes up a lot of time—voluntarily and with great joy—but it also makes the archival work more enriching. You think of how to explain the work. Kids will really tell you what’s important or not.” When she isn’t with her family or working on the archive, Hsu studies yoga and spends time meditating, which she describes as an opportunity to reflect on the AAA’s values and how its activities reflect them.

Those values are particularly important now that the context in Hong Kong has changed so much. If the general public was only dimly aware of contemporary art when the archive first opened, that is no longer the case. The AAA laid the groundwork for a robust art ecosystem that is finally bearing fruit. “As an institutional leader, Claire has done more than almost anyone to put contemporary art on the map of the mainstream consciousness in Hong Kong society, enabling the explosion of interest and support that’s come to pass over the past decade,” says Robin Peckham. New institutions like M+ and Tai Kwun have picked up the slack, which Hsu says has enabled the archive to better focus on its core mission. Instead of running youth programmes, for instance, it now focuses on working with art educators.

The Joan Lebold Cohen Archive forms a collection of documents about art and artists in and from Mainland China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Hong Kong from the 1970s to the early 2000s

“It’s less about adding to the list [of things to do] than it is about going in depth,” says Hsu. “One area is women in art history. Another is ensuring we look at practices that are less visible, more ephemeral, or less represented in the commercial art scene.” Hsu says that universities and museums in Asia have often neglected local art histories, which means organisations like the AAA need to fill the gap. “So we look at exhibitions because from there you can start tracing connections, and that’s how you write an art history,” she says.

That work has been complicated by the pandemic, which has limited in-person activities and research. But it has also opened up new possibilities. Hsu says the way the pandemic has normalised remote working and online communication has been a boon to its relationship with India, where it runs a space in New Delhi. “Before we were always stuck on certain things like how we bring people here, how to pay for it, but now there are new opportunities for working together. We had these tools before the pandemic but we weren’t using them in that way.”

Nilima Sheikh’s archive focuses on her research and travels to document “traditional” or “historical” art forms from the 1980s to 2000s.

Another, more ambiguous challenge is Hong Kong’s shifting political landscape and how it may affect the AAA’s work. Robin Peckham says Hong Kong has long been able to “act as a hub at the intersection of [different art] scenes without belonging wholly to any one of them.” Critic and curator John Batten—who served as an academic advisor to the AAA for its first nine years—says that role was enabled by Hong Kong’s “unparalleled infrastructure, freedom of expression, rule of law and transparent information systems.” The new National Security Law, with its restrictions on free speech and politically sensitive material, throws all of that into question.

Hsu says it’s not clear what impact the law will have on art institutions like the AAA. “Most important is for us to make clear that our priority is to continue to be custodians of all of these histories that have been given to us and put into our care,” she says. “Our key thing is to make sure these can be shared and made publicly accessible. Right now there’s no indication that that would not be possible under the National Security Law. Of course, you can come up with a million different things that might happen, but it’s complicated.”

Hsu says the AAA was built to be resilient. “If I was to move on from the archive and everything collapsed, that would show we have not built something that is very sustainable,” she says. “But we have an incredible team, the structure is very horizontal and we have an incredible governance structure. It’s very independent from me. It will live on beyond me. I’m excited to think of a new director who will come in with a new perspective.”

Whatever happens, she says, “the mission of the archive will stay the same – to contribute towards generous art history. To give space to all of these stories that need to be told.”

Update: In January 2021, Claire Hsu announced that she will step down as director of the AAA while becoming co-chair of its board. One of her last efforts as director is Portals, Stories and Other Journeys, an exhibition based on AAA’s work, which runs from April 23 to August 1, 2021 at JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun. 

The Asia Art Archive is located at 11/F, Hollywood Centre, 233 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. Please consult its website for opening hours and more event information including AAA’s annual fundraiser, exhibition and workshops.

AAA team members in the above photos:

Editorial, research and digital teams (from left to right): Karen Cheung, Ali Wong, Chelsea Ma, Mark Dequito, Chuong-Dài Vô, Garfield Chow, John Tain (front row) Paul C. Fermin, Paco MA. Collections team (from left to right): Stephen Lam, Samantha Chao, Ethan Lo, Ding Chu Ardan, Jane Cheung, Gabrielle Chan, Charlotte Mui, Siu Wan-chi, Nicole Lai, Lydia Lam, Elaine Lin. Communication, administration, HR and finance teams (from left to right): Rachel Yu, Cheung Shuk-ha, Sallly Lee, Debby Tsui, Queensi Chu, Wendy Ng. Programmes, learning and participation, administration and development teams (from left to right): Collin Wu, Samantha Kwok, Hayley Wu, Helena Halim, Susanna Chung, Özge Ersoy, Ruby Weatherall, Alexandra Seno, Crystal Li.

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