By Jonathan Evans
In contrast to its hypermodern neighbour Hong Kong, the contemporary face of Macau is sometimes overlooked in this city of rich tradition and heritage buildings. Casual observers of the territory may believe that the closest it gets to modernity is the neon-lit casinos and plush hotels around the Cotai Strip, or nightclubs such as SKY 21. But despite its diminutive size, Macau has a highly regarded contemporary art scene, with multinational artists and venues ranging from large exhibition spaces to small yet influential independent galleries.
Art in Macau has always come from a wide variety of sources, right back to the 18th century when Italian missionary and artist Giuseppe Castiglione began to transform Chinese portraiture by blending European and Oriental painting styles. In the 19th century, European artists such as George Chinnery and Auguste Borget helped create the “China Trade” style of paintings, while in the 1940s Russian artist George Vitalievitch Smirnoff moved to southern China and portrayed Macau in watercolour. A few decades later, during the final decades of Portuguese rule, an equally pluralistic scene coalesced with the support of the Cultural Institute of Macau (now the Cultural Affairs Bureau).
Macau Museum Of Art
Cultural Institute of Macau
The leading lights of this movement in the 1970s worked in a variety of styles and became figureheads of the local art scene. Carlos Merreiros, a noted architect, joined other young avant-garde artists in the Friends of Culture Circle, which brought exhibitions of Macanese artists to countries around Asia. As a curator, Merreiros became a key figure in safeguarding Macau’s cultural heritage. The Luis de Camoes Museum launched the Annual Macao Artists Collective Exhibition to promote the work of local practitioners, and spawned a new space, the Leal Senado Gallery, in 1985 to continue its mission.
Among the major artists of the time were Ung Vai Meng, an oil painter who depicted multicultural Macau with a boldly modern approach verging on abstraction; Mio Pang Fei, a Shanghainese painter who challenged traditional Chinese art during the Cultural Revolution and immersed himself in Western contemporary styles after settling in Macau; and the late Kwok Woon, a radical artist from Guangdong, who used mixed materials and mediums to portray the intersection of cultures he discovered in his adopted city.
More recently, a new breed of émigré artists have invigorated local art with considerable stylistic diversity. Russian-born Konstantin Bessmertny has exhibited globally with work that has become increasingly provocative in recent years, moving away from painting and into the realm of mixed-media installation. Fernanda Dias, a poet and teacher from Portugal, uses canvas as a diary to record her memories and impressions in a highly individualistic way, juxtaposing materials with abstract painting. Prolific Australian artist Denis Murrell, meanwhile, uses paper, acrylic paint and ink to build large-scale, free-form compositions marked by vibrant colour.
Today, a wide variety of contemporary exhibition spaces explore the changing artistic perspectives of Macau. Tap Seac Gallery covers multiple disciplines including photography and poster design in an unmissable 1920s baroque mansion, and sponsors the annual Macau Visual Artists Exhibition. Another outstanding space is the pioneering, five-storey Macau Art Garden, the first building in the city devoted to local creation, which boosts the efforts of artists through exhibiting and selling their work.
Dare to Dream Art Gallery, a beautiful boutique opened in 2014, aims to broaden the artistic scope of visitors with a more international line-up of emerging artists. Further south, Taipa Village Art Space moved into a traditional shophouse in 2016 in this increasingly popular district, and carries a comprehensive range of shows covering photography, film and video art aside from paintings. But the newest space in town is Navy Yard No. 1, which took over the premises of an old shipyard near A-Ma Temple last year, and showcases performance art as well as visual art from local and international creators.
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