Street Art: May Wong

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS. 

Creative expression comes in all forms and can appear in the most unexpected of places. Riva Hiranand meets four individuals who are turning Hong Kong’s streets into their personal canvas and creating a thriving new art scene across the city. Portrait by Nic Gaunt.

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It was a seemingly mundane walk down New York’s Prince Street almost 10 years ago that helped spark May Wong’s love and appreciation of street art. “It blew my mind,” recalls the founder of Above Second Gallery of chancing upon street artist Swoon as she was applying a wheat paste portrait to a wall. “It was so delicate. If one piece of it fell, the whole thing would be destroyed. That showed me the impact and promise of young artists, and the beauty and surprise of creating things on the street.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated at the Rhode Island School of Design, Wong worked as a brand designer throughout her 20s while she lived in New York. Prior to moving back to Hong Kong about eight years ago, Wong travelled to Copenhagen, which sowed the seeds for Above Second. “I was inspired by the art fairs in Denmark and met a gallery owner who showcased young, emerging artists,” she explains. “There was a gap for it in Hong Kong.” She opened Apostrophe in 2008, a nomadic gallery that moved from space to space and featured emerging international artists. Above Second opened in 2010, after Wong met her co-founder, Jasper Wong.

Named for its previous location that sat atop Second Street in Sai Ying Pun, Above Second has since relocated to First Street. It has been instrumental in the growth and appreciation of contemporary art, and particularly street art, in Hong Kong. The gallery displays everything from illustrations to graphic design to graffiti. Recent exhibitions have featured renowned street artists like Nick Walker, Cyrcle and Alec Monopoly, as well as contemporary artists Javier Martin and Montreal-based Sandra Chevrier.

“The public only knew about the Chinese contemporary art that was being displayed on Hollywood Road. You know, the photos of laughing babies and of Mao,” says Wong with a cheeky smile. Currently exhibiting (until May 7) is Les Cages, a solo exhibition by Chevrier that highlights the struggles of modern oppressed women by combining acrylic female portraits with collages of powerful comic book scenes.

Being in Sai Ying Pun has aided Wong’s goal of making art accessible. “I wanted art to be more accessible and affordable, and for young people to understand they could buy art. Instead of fostering a fear of art, we created a comfortable space for people to purchase and talk about art,” she says.

Above Second mostly operates as a gallery, though it didn’t always. “We didn’t want to add ‘gallery’ to the end of the name [at first]. In the back of the old Above Second, we had a studio for artists to work in and there was a gallery area in the front,” Wong says. The current space also serves as a meeting point for much of Hong Kong’s creative community, allowing them to engage in meaningful discussion or just enjoy the art over drinks.

Does street art lose its meaning when in a gallery, though? Wong shakes her head. “Changing their medium to a canvas or a smaller size allows the artist to be more detailed because they aren’t having to work in the night, or in pollution or traffic or bad weather. It doesn’t lose the original meaning, idea or aesthetic,” she explains. “We’re also trying to redefine street art and make people understand street artists aren’t vandals – they know what they are doing!”

Above Second’s artist residency programme gives visiting artists a space in which to work and the chance to transform its gallery space. Wong also works with local businesses and brands looking to commission murals around the city, for example the one at Chachawan restaurant by Belgian-Chinese artist Cara To.

Wong is adamant, however, that this process requires stringent curation and conversation. “I do the best I can when we do private commissions for murals so that both the artist and client understand each other,” she says. “There’s a missing link in the form of conversation between artists and curators, and the people they create for. The subject matter is important, and the community needs to understand the message.”


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