People of all ages were literally bouncing up and down at the opening of the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (Chat) at The Mills in Hong Kong recently.
They had been put to work by a Malaysian artist collective, Pangrok Sulap, whose name in the Malay language means “punk rock rest hut” and whose members have made a number of large woodcuts about the city’s marginalised artisans during a residency at Chat, housed in former cotton mills in Tsuen Wan.
The volunteers bopped to the beat of Pangrok Sulap’s own folk music and used their feet to create a banner from one of the woodcuts covered in ink on the floor of the centre’s three-storey glass atrium.
Six eight-metre-long vertical scrolls made earlier from woodcuts were hanging around the atrium, catching the eyes of the crowd that had come to see the new space, whose opening is one of the highlights of Hong Kong’s art month, which culminates in the annual Art Basel art fair.
The images on the scrolls were inspired by Pangrok Sulap’s visits to the Yen Chow Street fabric market in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po district – soon to be demolished – and to the 72-year-old Chi Kee Sawmill and Timber, a business threatened by the development of the northeastern New Territories.
Members of the collective also spoke to former textile factory workers still living in The Mills’ neighbourhood. A defiant ribbon of text in Chinese and English runs through them: “Our Life”, “Our Culture”, “This is our Land”.
These banners do not merely echo the growing calls to preserve Hong Kong’s unique identity and concerns about the impact on the city of various large-scale development plans. Pangrok Sulap members from Sabah in Malaysia said they recognised the same forces at work in Hong Kong as in their home state.
“When we talked to people in Hong Kong, we feel that they face similar issues as we do in Sabah,” said Jerome Manjat, a Pangrok Sulap member. He referred to aggressive land grabs by property developers and palm oil plantation owners, and to Sabahans’ lengthy battle to get the Malaysian federal government to respect their rights and culture.
The group has also spoken out against censorship, another hot topic in Hong Kong, such as when their Sabah Tanah Airku, a work about corruption and excessive logging, was removed from an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 for being too provocative.
Indonesian artist Ade Darmawan’s new work in Chat’s opening exhibition is also a comment on Hong Kong’s socioeconomic conditions. Patchwork Regulation, a collage of 10 custom-made carpets, includes symbols that link economic growth with changes in living habits.
There is a floor plan of the Mei Foo housing estate in Kowloon, a line plotting Hong Kong’s gross domestic product growth and another set, going in an altogether opposite direction, the city’s “happiness index”.
“The introduction of carpets came to Indonesia and Hong Kong because people began to have air conditioning at home. In this part of the world, carpets are luxuries, a status symbol, and therefore a symbol of global capitalism and how it has an impact on the domestic space,” said Darmawan.
Darmawan is a member of Ruangrupa, a socially engaged Jakarta art collective which has recently been named as artistic director of the next Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. He was in Hong Kong with fellow Ruangrupa member Reza Afisina, who brought a wall display of magnified T-shirt tags that he has annotated with words or figures of particular significance to the place of origin of each.
Once they are blown up to the size of a tea towel, these normally insignificant appendages to workday garments demand attention and implicate consumers in the problematic global supply chain.
“T-shirt tags are really mini monuments that communicate directly with you, the wearer,” he said.
Labour rights is also something that Jakkai Siributr’s Fast Fashion (2015/2019) deals with. He has transformed fast fashion tops by adding intricate embroidery that criticises working conditions in fast fashion factories as well as protecting workers like talismans, he said.
The mannequins used in the exhibition are wrapped in stunning traditional sarongs to highlight the dying out of traditional skills.
Nearby, a large section displays dolls and books made of felt by Hong Kong domestic workers who took part in a months-long community art project organised by Filipino artist Alma Quinto.
These are just a few of 17 artists whose work features in Unfolding: Fabric Of Our Life, an exhibition that reminds everyone what Chat is supposed to be: an institute that serves as a bridge between art and the textile industry’s history and contemporary reality. – South China Morning Post/Asia News Network