Why Was Jaffa Lam Going to Burn All Her Art?

Jaffa Lam spent last year planning a major event for her upcoming 50th birthday: she was going to gather all the unsold art cluttering her studio, everything that she had made over her 22 years of working as an artist, and burn it. “I saw no hope,” she says. “Occasionally someone would invite me to take part in a group show, but afterwards the work would always be sent back to me. No one wanted to buy it. I was so frustrated. I thought, ‘This is enough. I need to take a break. I don’t want to be an artist.’” 

But overnight, everything changed. In 2021, Lam had been invited to take part in a group show organised by writer and curator Chris Wan Feng at Axel Vervoordt Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang. Months after that closed, Lam got a call from Mariko Kawashima, the director of Axel Vervoordt in Hong Kong: the gallery wanted to give Lam a solo show. “My jaw dropped open,” says Lam, laughing. “I said, ‘Are you serious?’” 

Lam’s first solo exhibition at the gallery, Chasing an Elusive Nature, ran from October 2022 to this January, showcasing a selection of Lam’s hard-to-categorise art, which often takes the form of abstract installations made of patchwork fabrics, metalwork and rocks. In March, Lam is exhibiting her latest large-scale creation at Art Basel Hong Kong. Lam says that even a year ago she couldn’t have imagined being part of the show. 

This story of struggle might be a surprise to anyone who has heard of Lam, who for decades has been a leading figure in Hong Kong’s creative community. Since 2002, she has been a much-loved and widely respected teacher at local universities, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Baptist University of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Art School. Lam has been academic head of the latter for the past five years. Her work has also been exhibited at various galleries in the city, including at Nicole Shoeni’s disConnect HK and at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, as well as at museums and non-profit exhibitions around the world, such as the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum in Denmark and at the prestigious travelling biennale Manifesta when it took place in Italy in 2018. 

It was commercial recognition that Lam was always missing, although she insists it was never about the money. “My teacher’s salary is more than enough for me. I live alone, all I spend money on is making my art,” says Lam. Rather, it was the growing pointlessness she felt making art that would be seen by so few people, or never seen at all. “Being seen is very important for me,” Lam stresses, repeating the sentence multiple times during our interview. Visibility means so much to Lam partly because her work has a purpose: Lam uses her art to explore a variety of social issues, with one recurring topic being the decline of craftsmanship in Hong Kong. 

Lam’s interest in crafts goes back to her childhood. She was born in Fujian in 1973; her family moved to Hong Kong when she was 12. Her parents had hardly any money and the family lived in an illegal structure built on a rooftop in the industrial area of Kwun Tong. To help, Lam was sent to work at the age of 12, even though the legal working age at the time was 14. She got a cash-in-hand job at a local clothes factory, where she was given the task of cutting loose threads off the finished items, most of which were jeans. 

“I got HK$1.30 for a dozen clothes,” says Lam. “People might see it as a bitter time, but I quite enjoyed being there. I was amazed by the ladies who were [using] the sewing machines. In the whole factory, they were the coolest. There was a kind of glamour about them. That was my impression when I was 12.” 

In 1993, Lam got a place to study art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she was taught by the acclaimed sculptor Cheung Yee, who Lam has previously described as being “like a father” to her. In the years after she graduated, Lam lived something of a nomadic life, taking up artist residencies in places such as the US, Bangladesh, and Germany. When she resettled in Hong Kong in 2008, she was shocked to discover just how drastically her childhood home of Kwun Tong had changed. “All of the factories had moved to mainland China,” says Lam. “The workers had all lost their jobs. Some had retired early, some were working as cleaners, or in not very decent jobs. It was a sad story. I thought, ‘maybe I can do something to show them how good they are.’” 

Lam reached out to the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association (HKWWA), which connected Lam with a group of seamstresses who had lost their jobs. Lam used money from a grant she received in Germany to commission these women to collaborate with her on an installation, for which she wanted a large parachute made from fabric scraps that she had scavenged from around Hong Kong. The collaboration was a success and Lam has worked with the HKWWA ever since to make the large patchwork textiles that dominate much of her work. 

To Lam, the act of collaboration — and of employing these women — is as important as the finished artwork. She calls this ongoing series her Micro Economic works. “These women lost their jobs because of big economic change,” says Lam. “I can’t do big things. I’m an artist, a small individual. But the art industry is making money, so I try to shift the money from art to these declining industries. It’s really about labour, and how people always forget about individual labourers. These people are professionals – they have a craft.”

Seamstresses are Lam’s most regular collaborators, but she has also worked with welders, many of whom have also been put out of business in the city. Lam worked with both groups for her installation at Art Basel Hong Kong, which is titled Trolley Party. The work features six shopping trolleys “partying” under a large patchwork canvas. Some of the trolleys are standing upright, some of them tilting to the side as if they’re drunk. The textile canopy is covered in stars, with each star representing a woman who worked on the patchwork. Lam describes the installation as a celebration of all overlooked labourers, both men and women. 

“The canopy is very feminine, and the trolleys are like muscular workers,” she says. “Art Basel is such a big event. If people at Art Basel can see Hong Kong labourers, how we work, that’s very important to me. It’s a very important message: we should not only focus on technology — art tech, AI, VR — because we are still human. I’m trying to show what a human can make. So the work, with all of the defects, with all of the drunk trolleys, with all of the patches in the patchwork – it’s human. There is a human touch.” It’s normally frowned upon to touch artworks, but Lam hopes that visitors will touch the trolleys, which are anchored in concrete bases that have been sanded silky smooth. She wants visitors to feel the materials that her collaborators work with. 

Lam stresses that her projects are not simply an act of charity for which she pays her collaborators to carry out a task. She learns from these craftspeople, too. Similarly, Lam sees her work teaching at the Hong Kong Art School as both as another way for her to give back to society and as a way for her to keep expanding her mind. 

“The classroom is another experimental lab for art,” she says. “My students keep me updated on the whole art scene. They’re making experimental work, working with new materials, new ideas. There’s so much energy. Also, I am from a poor family. Art changed my life. I think I can be a role model to tell students that poor people definitely can make art – not just middle-class people, not just rich people. I feel like this is something I can do for society.” 

Lee Suet-ying, an installation artist who studied under Lam, says that she was deeply inspired by the moral stance Lam takes in the making of her art. “I admire Jaffa’s work and [how she] collaborates with marginalised communities,” says Lee. “She is the kind of person who will speak up for and take action towards positive change. I think that’s what I learned from her most.”

Lam’s next project after Art Basel is a solo show at Axel Vervoordt’s gallery in Antwerp later this year. She is still planning exactly what she will do for the space, but is currently experimenting with concrete, possibly for a new series of works. Lam says Axel Vervoordt’s team put little pressure on her, for which she is grateful. “The team give me so much encouragement – they’ve helped push my work further,” she says. “I always say, we are like a team, we all support each other. Support is so important in my life. I’ve never had confidence in myself. That’s why I’ve worked with so many other collaborators, to have that team spirit, that confidence and courage.” 

Lam’s tactile work fits neatly into Axel Vervoordt’s programme, which has a focus on the handmade and the elegantly imperfect. Vervoordt is a renowned antiques dealer who began working in 1969 and has since shaped much of contemporary interior design with his talent for creating sparse but luxurious rooms filled with striking objects. In 2011, his son, Boris, established Axel Vervoordt Gallery, which represents artists including the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, famous for his shimmering pieces made from bottle tops; the Korean conceptual artist Kimsooja; and a string of abstract Japanese artists who rose to fame in the Gutai movement of the 1950s and 60s, including Yuka Nasaka, one of the few female members of the group. “It has always been my favourite gallery in Hong Kong,” says Lam. “Even before I worked with Axel Vervoordt, I used to go to the gallery and just sit in the gallery’s library and look at their books.” 

Now Lam sees her own work in that gallery, which sometimes makes her nervous. Occasionally Lam worries that her newfound success will come crashing down, and that once again she will sink into obscurity. But mostly she’s excited – and determined to push herself, and her art, to even greater heights. “I’m so lucky they found me at 49. At 50, I would’ve burned everything,” she says. “I’m taking nothing for granted. I’m so grateful to have all these opportunities. I will work harder every time. Every time, I will try my best.”

Jaffa Lam’s installation Trolley Party (2023) will be exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong, which runs from March 21 to 25, 2023. Click here for more information.

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