It’s not unusual for art world movers and shakers to have grown up dreaming of making art for a living, only to realise that the realities of life as an artist might not be quite the fit they had imagined. That’s certainly true for Catherine Kwai. While making art had always been her first love, she says that playing a supporting role for the artists she represents brings a sense of satisfaction that more than makes up from missing out on the highs, lows and peculiarities of an artist’s life.
“It’s difficult to be an artist, they need to have a distance from reality, and their lives need to be different from ours,” she says. “Not everyone can be a top artist. You need talent, spirit and devotion, and it’s a lonely life.”
Convivial and charming, one can see how a life of contemplative solitude might not have suited Kwai, who opened Kwai Fung Hin in Happy Valley in 1991, when art galleries were thin on the ground in Hong Kong. After working her way up the corporate ladder as a banker, Kwai decided to start a gallery when her first child was born, in order to spend more time closer to home.
Kwai Fung Hin has since moved twice, first to a site in Aberdeen, and in 2004 to the space it currently occupies, on Ice House Street in Central. Despite these relocations and its many years in operation, a common thread runs through the story of the gallery, one defined by Kwai’s commitment to her own vision, and unwillingness to chase unscrupulously after trends or commercial success.
The gallery started off showcasing French contemporary art, striving to build ties between Europe and China. One of Kwai’s early efforts took her to Shanghai, where she curated a retrospective show on artist Marcel Mouly in 1996, at a time when knowledge of Western art was far from widespread on the mainland.
“Starting a gallery was so, so much harder than I had imagined,” she recalls. “The first couple of years were a real struggle, and of course, so many people wondered why I took this path. It was quite unusual back then.”
But the strangest spell of hardship the gallery underwent was during SARS in 2003, when the city shut down for months as authorities struggled to contain the respiratory disease. “In nine months, zero visitors came. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just read a lot of books,” says Kwai.
These days, Kwai is often told she is something of a trailblazer. Hong Kong’s gallery scene has blossomed as the world has taken a greater interest in Chinese art and more Chinese collectors have turned their focus westward.
“I choose distinctive artists and works but not trendy art, ” says Kwai. “I started a gallery when it wasn’t popular to do so, I focused on ink painting when it wasn’t trendy. I realised it was more important for me to be professional rather than just commercially successful.”
Those attitudes are underpinned by the respect she has for the artists she works with, and the feeling of purpose she derives from supporting their creative growth and commitment to their own craft, without their having to fixate too much on the whims of the art market. “I feel like I speak for the artists, I want to help the artists,” she says. “It feels like a family – artists need us,” she says.
The close bond between gallerist and artist seems palpable between Kwai and Chinese realist Ai Xuan, whose ink works are currently on display at the gallery. “I can give him a push sometimes,” she says. “He sometimes gets a bit depressed, and I need to encourage him. Yesterday he told me, ‘You lift me up, this exhibit lifts me up.’”
As a high selling artist who has received numerous accolades, it seems strange that Ai Xuan would fall prey to passages of despondency, self doubt and inertia. The son of lauded Chinese poet Ai Qing, and the brother of contemporary Chinese artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei, Ai Xuan has depicted works are rooted in a realism that takes heavy reference from oil brushwork of Russian painters he grew up learning about, while also taking note from the traditional Chinese ink art aesthetics.
Speaking alongside Kwai at a lunch marking the opening of the show, Ai Xuan’s rather taciturn demeanour is offset by Kwai’s lively hostessing. Ai Xuan admits that his process is long, arduous, and prone to stalling. He appears to enjoy Kwai’s dynamic and encouraging company.
Many other gallerists would jump at the opportunity to work with Kwai. Ai Xuan is rather popular in Chinese collector circles and his works are highly sought-after. For Kwai, the challenge is not about how to sell the works but how to position Ai as an artist. “The thing about established artists is that you don’t need to convince everyone that their work is good, but you do have to start thinking about their legacy,” she says.
Indeed, preserving the legacy of her artists is a pursuit that Kwai is particularly invested in. Around 2005, she set her mind on putting together books of the established Chinese artists she represented, noticing that there was a dearth of literature on influentially contemporary Chinese artists, especially when compared with that of the Western canon.
To offset that, she has put together a number of painstakingly researched English-Chinese coffee table books to accompany exhibitions and help foster education around her gallery’s artists. Along with Ai Xuan, there are books on well known artists Zao Wouki, Ma Desheng and Walasse Ting.
“This is my biggest achievement – I feel like it’s important to make a contribution [to society], and this way I help preserve the legacy of these artists,” says Kwai. As a longstanding player in Hong Kong’s cultural sphere, she also serves as an advisory member of a number of arts and philanthropic organisations. But making books is her favourite job.
“I get to learn a lot. I enjoy the process, and when I finish a project I feel depressed. The whole process gets me excited, and at the end I feel lost and I think, ‘What’s next?’ I’m always eager to start another project. I am lucky that I find work that I enjoy. I like what I do and I do it well.”