By Zabrina LoMay 12, 2020
The annual Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize, which returns this month, shines a light on injustices in the city and abroad
Curator Chantal Wong has always been impressed by the powerful works submitted to the Hong Kong Human Rights Arts Prize (HKHRAP)—especially those by individuals who might not have come from a particularly arty background. She vividly remembers Ophelia Jacarini’s embroidered female bodies that explore women’s sexuality, empowerment, freedom and trauma in 2018, as well as the 2013 black-and-white images laying bare the physical abuse suffered by Hong Kong’s domestic workers by photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani, a former maid herself.
“Some people are formally trained, some people are not, but that does not define the value of the artwork,” says Wong, who co-founded Learning Together, a charity that supports young refugees and asylum seekers in their education, and is director of culture at the Eaton hotel. “This is one of the few prizes where people don’t have to be trained, and that really does add an element of unexpectedness. It fundamentally shifts the way we think about who is an artist in society,” she adds.
Instead of just admiring the works again this year, Wong is serving as a judge for the first time for the sixth edition of the prize, which takes place this month. The HKHRAP has been hosted annually by the Justice Centre Hong Kong since 2013 and is open to all Hong Kong-born or based visual artists who address local or international humanitarian issues in their work. A panel of judges draws up a shortlist of submitted works, which are exhibited to the public—this year at the Goethe-Institut in the Hong Kong Arts Centre—before they announce one winner and two runners-up. The winner receives a cash prize of HK$35,000. On top of the main event, this year there are two additional awards: a new award sponsored by German cultural association Goethe-Institut for the best short film or video work, as well as a student award.
Wong sits on the judging panel with renowned local artist Kacey Wong; English conceptual artist Jeremy Deller, whose politically motivated art has appeared at Tate Britain; fellow artists-turned-judges Katie Vajda and Christy Chow; and Peter Augustus Owen, a human rights commissioner for the city of Palm Springs, California. Together, they are tasked with narrowing down this year’s pool of 97 entries to just one winner.
“The way artists see things can help us to understand our situation better,” says Raquel Amador, co-founder of the Justice Centre Hong Kong and a Hong Kong-raised immigration, asylum and human rights lawyer who has been helping people fleeing persecution and other human rights issues in the city for nearly two decades. “Artists are the ones who use their own lives to feel the world,” she adds, quoting Ai Weiwei, whose film Human Flow was screened in 2017 as part of the HKHRAP.
This year the submitted works explore a wide range of topics, such as discrimination against ethnic minorities, refugees, migrant domestic workers, marriage equality and slavery. The spectrum of issues addressed “really brings home that the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights covers 30 fundamental rights held in equal importance,” says Wong. “Some [rights] will hold more significance than others to any given individual, but for every right there will be people who feel they are not free without it. The wide range of issues covered by the works submitted demonstrates this principle to me.”
Rooting For The Underprivileged
Since its inception, the prize has shone a spotlight on creators in the city who may ordinarily have struggled to break into the art world. Wong recalls that she was particularly impressed by the work of Filipino photographer Bacani, whose piece Burn was selected for the Justice Centre Choice Award in 2013. Bacani’s work depicts the stark reality of women from Southeast Asia coming to work in Hong Kong.
“As a child of a migrant worker and a migrant myself, I have insights into both sides of the migration divide. My motivation is knowing that my works have become a platform for these untold stories,” Bacani has said.
“I may not have discovered her if she didn’t win,” Wong says. “I’m very inspired that the prize has given her that platform.”
Australian-born artist Katie Vajda won the prize in 2014 for her photography series Can you see me yet?, which explores the idea that the workers who form the backbone of society are often invisible. She says the prize is about “not just producing something that might sit on the wall in a gallery”, and is instead “an important initiative for Hong Kong to have a platform for artists who are making work that is not necessarily immediately going to fit into the commercial models of the local art world”. Vadja adds: “Art can have a huge impact on human rights and social issues if artists are given a chance to discuss it in a public forum, and use civic imagination to come up with different ways to live.”
This year, the prize is open to all Hong Kong-based secondary school pupils for the first time, with a new student category. “It’s very important that young people can begin to engage with and discuss these subjects,” says the Justice Centre’s head of fundraising and interim executive co-director Melanie McLaren. As digital media have become more popular, there will also be video category this year, where entrants submit a 45-second video that represents a key human rights issue in an accessible way.
Art and activism have long gone hand in hand: the civil rights movement in the US, the antiapartheid movement in South Africa and the global feminist movement have all inspired works that in turn have brought clarity and influenced conversation around these topics. “The prize is unique in that it encompasses all issues,” says McLaren. “It encourages people to speak up on a whole range of issues. Everyone has different interests, priorities and awareness, and so we get a great education. The prize is a more effective way for us to engage with the wider Hong Kong public on the issues that we work on, and try and spark interest, enthusiasm and desire to create change and hope for the future.”
Hong Kong Human Rights Art Prize 2020 Winners
Hong Kong Human Rights Art Prize 2020: Kam Wa Magus Yuen (HK), Hong Kong Symposium 2019
First Runner-up Prize: Benson Koo, video work Dream Criminal
Second Runner-up Prize: Chan Kiu Hong, Mo Soeng
New awards for 2020:
The Justice Centre Award: Ben Kostrzewa, The Portrait Project
The Student Award: Cristiana Papadopolous, Perpetual Climb
‘45 Seconds for Human Rights’ Award: Man Chi Loy Armechan, Popo Dragon
All shortlisted and winning artworks are now on view at the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong in an exhibition curated by Hong Kong artist and writer KY Wong. Audiences can join a virtual walkthrough of the exhibition on the Justice Centre Hong Kong Facebook Page. All works will be available to purchase via online auction through 6 June 2020, from which all proceeds will go towards the prizes for the winning artists and to support the important non-profit work of Justice Centre Hong Kong.
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