Art and culture

Thought Leaders: ‘Art is a visual language’

Alice Mong, executive director of the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, on using the arts to build cultural understanding. By VANESSA KO

Asia Society was established in the US as a nonprofit to educate Americans about Asia. How has that goal evolved?

In 1956, philanthropist John D Rockefeller III founded Asia Society in New York. Today we have five offices in the US, six in Asia and one in Europe. What has evolved is now we aim to understand Asia in a global context. In Hong Kong we also promote the understanding of Asian countries among each other.

What determines your programming?

When the Hong Kong centre was established in 1990, it was to promote Hong Kong as a global hub, and our programming was primarily about business and policy. That shifted after 2012, when we got our new centre, which has a theatre, a multipurpose hall and a gallery. So we now have 60 to 70 percent arts and culture in our programming.

What role does art play in our understanding of cultures?

The arts are vital in our understanding of cultures. We may not always understand each other’s language but we certainly appreciate art as a visual language that crosses geographic boundaries and time. Art was also the genesis of Asia Society: in its founding, Rockefeller created a museum, donating the art that he and his wife had collected from Asia.

Tell us about the current exhibition.

It’s called Painting Her Way and features the ink art of the late Fang Zhaoling, a painter and calligrapher who was born in China and started her professional career in Hong Kong. We decided to focus on Hong Kong artists this year to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover to China. This show also kicks off our new series, 20th Century Chinese Female Artists.

Why focus on female artists?

Women artists are underappreciated. In the history of art, female artists have only recently been talked about. Mrs Fang was hard working and well-trained, counting Chinese master Zhang Daqian as a teacher, but she was not well-collected in her lifetime, despite being just as good as her male counterparts. Our mission is educating, so we’re asking the question of why she was not well-appreciated and focusing on some of the achievements that were not recognised.

What upcoming events are you most excited about?

We have our annual gala on 14 December, with former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard as speakers. I look forward to the insights on world affairs.

Painting Her Way: The Ink Art of Fang Zhaoling is held until 31 December; asiasociety.org

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