Model and artist Afa Lee is equally at home in front of a canvas or a camera. We meet her on set and at a gallery cafe, where we talk at length about solitude, Yayoi Kusama and Hieronymus Bosch.
Afa Lee talks with equal ease about Rembrandt and Dali as she does about Vuitton and Dior, just as she can expound at length about the odd parallels between Japanese Ukiyo-e art and that of the Baroque period, both of which began around the same time – in the late 17th century. We, for our part, offer polite nods that feign comprehension. Let’s start at the beginning.
Afa Lee, Model and Artist
Where did you study art?
I didn’t study fine art but design. I have my BA Honours in Visual Communication from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I was an art director in an advertising agency for a few years after graduation, then I quit and became a full-time illustrator, then more recently a visual artist.
Describe your art.
When I try to explain my style of work to others, I say it’s kind of disturbing but with a candy coating. But when people describe my work, they see it as sweet, creepy and scary at the same time. Actually, there was a period when my work was much more explicit and unsettling. Like many artists, I’d gone through different stages and styles – but the themes I circumnavigated ended up being more or less the same: always about solitude, distance among people, our longing for connecting with each other, fear and all desires. I paint about feminism, too. I like to stare at all the undercurrents behind the veil.
Who are your favourite artists?
I like Salvador Dalí, Hieronymus Bosch, Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama and Ukiyo-e art. They all inspire my work. I like art that expresses consciousness and the deep fear of humanity by way of distorted human forms.
If you could go to any gallery anywhere, where would we find you?
My favourite galleries are the Uffizi in Florence, the Saatchi Gallery and Tate Modern in London, and The Power Station of Art in Shanghai. And it’s always been on my bucket list to visit the Salvador Dalí Museum in Barcelona.
What challenges do you face as an artist in a commercial city like Hong Kong?
It’s said that Hong Kong is a place for trading in art but not art itself. I’d have agreed with that in the past, but no longer. Commercial, short-sighted, money-minded, lack of cultural vibes are easy and lazy expressions carried over from the past, but they don’t reflect contemporary Hong Kong – the vibe in recent years has changed completely. People here have started to realise the importance of humanity in a city, and are thus starting to appreciate art and culture as a means of recording and healing. All the shocks or difficult times that we’ve experienced have nurtured and provided content for our creations.
Art units, collectors and even auction houses have started looking out for Hong Kong talent, which is a huge encouragement to local artists. I’m happy that I’ve been an in-house artist with JPS Gallery since last year. It’s a new space, but they’re energetic and aggressive and, most importantly, they have the vision to promote and support Hong Kong artists, which I appreciate a lot. The best way to support artists in Hong Kong is to help us make a living, so we can continue to create. I know I’m lucky, I can live on my art and keep doing what I want to do.
What’s been the oddest request you’ve had to paint?
Someone I hated very much once asked me to draw him in the form of Yokai Monsters [a late-’60s trilogy of Japanese horror and fantasy films written by Tetsuro Yoshida]. Back in those days, I kept drawing my friends in the form of monsters, based on their personalities and characteristics. And I showed that work in an exhibition. For some reason, I couldn’t refuse his request but it was really hard for me to draw someone I had no feelings at all for – it was like lying to myself. I felt that work was so insincere, so fake. I hated it. It was terrible, full of hesitation and guilt. Eventually, I found some excuse and didn’t show it in my exhibition.
Who’s your ideal buyer?
Tony Leung [bursts out laughing], because he visited our booth at Art Central in May earlier this year, but he left five minutes before I arrived, so I missed him. I hope one day he can collect one of my pieces because he’s been my idol for so many years.
What are you working on, and what’s coming up next for you?
I’ve been quite busy this year. Soon after my solo exhibition in December last year, I joined two group shows at Belowground, Landmark – co-presented by Belowground and JPS Gallery – and also Art Central in May. I’m currently preparing for my solo show, which will take place in Tokyo at the end of the year.
Where can we see or buy your work?
To see my work, you can simply search my Instagram account (@afa_annfa) or my website. People who want to buy my art can contact JPS Gallery. And if we can all travel again soon, my first solo exhibition in Japan is in the works. Here’s hoping for a better 2022.