Each month, we bring you an interview with an art activist who’s caught our eye. This month we talked to Leo Jac, a social artist based in Hong Kong with a background in arts and education. Her work usually touches on themes of female identity, mythology and eastern philosophy, and she takes a multifaceted approach to creating art in relation to other disciplines such as film, writing and performance. In recent years she has begun to expand her practice to further explore the role of aesthetics in relation to political culture and the role of art within social renewal.
Throughout her creative life, Leo has maintained a belief in the healing nature of art and in the altruistic use of art for positive personal and social change. She therefore recently began the ‘Social Arts Cooperative Hong Kong,’ a voluntary project for individuals interested in expanding the field of art and social responsibility through cooperative action and visual communication. She also runs the ‘Global Arts Outreach Project,’ a project providing free therapeutic workshops in the arts for young learners whose communities have suffered trauma from political conflict and socioeconomic instability, resulting in issues such as forced displacement, human trafficking and neglect.
Read our interview below.
Hi, Leo! Thank you for talking to us. Please tell us a bit about your work – where do you work, and why did you choose that place/medium?
I live and work in Hong Kong. I have been inspired by the far east and eastern philosophy for many years now, so to live and create in this part of the world is a great source of inspiration. In terms of painting, I have been transitioning from a more controlled, decorative style, influenced by the tones and flat perspectives of Japanese prints and Korean illustration – to a style that is looser, more dynamic, incorporating spray paint and text. I have also been broadening the scope of what it means to be an artist, and the artist’s role within society, through developing social projects.
The Umbrella Revolution here in Hong Kong was a real turning point for me, as I had the opportunity to experience pro-democracy allegiance- through free artistic expression, practicality, and co-operative action. It was at this time that I felt particularly inspired to shift my role as an artist to one of a more integrated and active role in society, and to expand my practice to become more active in social settings. I like the idea of spectacle, the unexpected and the rare or peculiar, the potential for wonder, and the encouragement of developing new relationships towards the environment. I also like to feed creative ideas into the community and into the environments I find myself within. Now it’s all about the merging of materials, and media and performance elements to build conversation and co-operative practices within the spaces I inhabit.
In the new year I will be working in a centre for special needs children developing a 3D arts curriculum. It will be in a six story building and so I will have a lot of space to help create some large scale projects. But even more exciting, is the fact that I will be able to be a part of something unique, offering a healing and creative space for those children who struggle in mainstream education here in Hong Kong. Part of my creative work also involves travelling to nearby countries such as The Philippines to work with minority group, refugee, orphaned or child victims of trafficking, through art, as a means of empowerment and rehabilitation.
What drives you to create?
My creative drive comes from a desire for balance, within myself and within the outer world. For example, I like sharing free resources, as it is for me, another way to balance out the predominant attitude we often face in society of equating time and resources with monetary gain. What I learnt at Occupy Central is that what is often absent within an environment can begin to emerge quite spontaneously given the chance, and this creates a balancing out process, a natural emergence of what is most lacking. I think the creative drive is a natural drive for balance. For example, images and sculptures appeared spontaneously at Occupy Central for the sake of enhancement and general expression. But what was interesting, was that these art works placed for the purpose of reflection with no obvious political message or meaning, gained an aspect of influence none the less; whether intentional or not, they were part of the political framework.
The Umbrella Revolution here in Hong Kong was a real turning point for me
I think my drive also comes from the desire to engage with possibilities and to ask questions, which may not need conclusions, but rather- exploration. I view life as a creative process; generating new ideas, restorative projects and creative ways of thinking.
Tell us about the political component of your work.
I have recently adopted ideas from Occupy Central; the importance of focus of attention and how a certain political stance can be demonstrated through cooperation; an active demonstration of an overarching ideology. This is a powerful counter force to any opposition because problems are solved through actions driven from the force they are aligned with- everyone expressing their allegiance through their actions and participation.
I guess you could say that the Global Arts Outreach Project is a creative response to the impact that political instability has on communities, focusing on the traumatic consequences of this. I felt that this would make the most practical impact as an artist, and is the greatest political component of my work as a social artist, so to speak. It is not about using art to shape society from the perspective of public dialogue, or as a tool to expose economic and political injustices, but more about offering a healing component, a way to practically and creatively deal with the impact of socio-political instability, the corruption of political culture and the devastating impact and consequences it has on the future health of individuals living within such chaos. It is about using art as a catalyst for positive change and transformation, for empowerment. A space of mutual support for creative expression, can give communities a sense that creative power can rest with the individual.
In my more performative work I have started simple actions that challenge the status quo and through approaching social interaction as art. For example, by holding up a sign in a social environment that acts outside of the narrative, so to speak, there is an opportunity offered to change perceptions, to create a rupture within the accepted narrative. We are seeing this kind of public spectacle emerging more and more. It helps us to recognize the nature of consciousness in the public realm and the need for more spontaneity and less rigidity.
Of course we all know that artists and those participating in art of any political or controversial nature in China, face more fears and opposition due to government censorship and brutality
When I have completed my latest work, it will be exhibited in one of Hong Kong’s MTR Stations. The MTR’s community art galleries display work by artists from non-profit organisations and by students from local schools, bringing a part of the creative community to the MTR. I like the idea of being reminded that the MTR is a community, that someone coming home after work may see a painting that inspires them and makes them see life differently for a moment. These may only be fleeting moments, but I don’t think we should underestimate the power of that. The importance of such moments within our dulling routines are potentially transformative, because they encourage us to examine life in a different way. The effects are gradual but have the potential to become widespread.
Where does your interest in eastern philosophy come from?
My interest in eastern philosophy also comes from a need for balance. A lot of eastern principles are about wholeness and finding peace, living in harmony with the divine, with nature, and with yourself. There are so many states of being and emotions that we must navigate our way through in this life, that the fundamental principle of everything being manifest from a oneness, an ultimate reality, has not only helped me to develop an awareness of the interconnected nature of life, but has also helped me to gain perspective by maintaining a broad vision. I am always trying to evolve my thinking and creativity, so I have found these to be useful and expansive philosophies. Eastern philosophical principles will often be at the heart of my work in some form or another.
In my more performative work I have started simple actions that challenge the status quo
I am also interested in Japanese aesthetics, the interplay and incorporation of philosophical ideas within art, the rational and the emotional understanding, the bold and luminous expressions. I also like Wabi-sabi, an aesthetic approach that emerged out of Zen Buddhism, but it can also be considered a way of life; living simply, finding beauty in simplicity and in impermanence. I have always felt drawn to understand the east, the culture, society and the underpinning principles of the societies here.
Tell us what you think about the role of art in healing processes.
The role of art in healing processes is in my view, very effective. Art gives us the opportunity to grow and develop self-awareness through self-expression. I feel that art can help us to play, to be curious again. I have worked with children who, at the beginning of a painting session, are unsure of how to express themselves but through an environment of trust and encouragement become totally absorbed and engaged in the creative process as they begin to safely make contact with their emotions, expressing those internal states that they could not previously access through words. Collective creative exploration raises awareness of such states, building a sense of safety and trust as self-assurance gradually grows through the process of sharing and expressing thoughts and feelings.
I believe that art can restore and develop a sense of self but in a broader sense I believe that art and artists play an important role in the healing and restoration of society. By creating community, uplifting and empowering and by nurturing a sense of identity, artists and their work can help us to look at our institutions of power in different ways and help us to construct new systems. If we view our systems more as works of art we might be able to help society move beyond competitive consciousness too (which is another aspect of society that needs healing). We can move from a consciousness of separation to that of the collaborative, this can be useful to model new restorative and healing behaviors on both the individual and collective level. Art can help us to envision not only new aesthetic formations but social formations, community can become a work of art that serves as a participatory public platform with the potential to heal and reshape aspects of our society.
I will be part of something unique, offering a healing and creative space for those children who struggle in mainstream education here in Hong Kong
Which Asian artists/activists should we know about?
Ai Weiwei is one of the most well known and influential Chinese political artists currently working to raise awareness on the refugee crisis, human rights and many social issues. He is an open critic of the communist government and has thus been threatened, beaten, arrested and had his studio raided by the authorities. He has risked his life for freedom of expression. He could well be one of the most important contemporary Chinese artists of our time.
Kong Ning is a performance artist in Beijing who raises awareness on air pollution issues in China. She paints and creates vivid elaborate dresses using materials such as face masks as a form of performance protest- she does this in the hope that she can make a positive impact on anti-pollution laws.
An interesting photographer who I recently met in Hong Kong at her exhibition Girls is Luo Yang. She has come up against opposition in attempting to show her work in China as the images are considered indecent. Themes such as femininity and strength are presented like fashion images or film stills, and at other times in a more raw, honest aesthetic. The images present a generation of Chinese girls that seem to be ahead of their time and beyond traditional society, breaking away from the conformity of Chinese culture. She has said that she hopes to help women in a more practical way in the future, through setting up a centre for women in need.
Of course we all know that artists and those participating in art of any political or controversial nature in China, face more fears and opposition due to government censorship and brutality. I have the greatest admiration for such artists who are willing to take a risk in their expression, and stand up for what they believe in.