Past/Present: Artists use Intricate Paper Cutting to Make Political Statements

Hong Kong is covered in vibrantly-colored paper, and no, it’s not billboard ads!  Coming up next week is the Moon Festival (also called the Mid-Autumn Festival), which is celebrated as a time to enjoy the successful harvest with food offerings and watch the moon, a symbol of harmony and unity.  A big part of celebrating the holiday is carrying brightly lit lanterns.

Photo Courtesy of CNN

The lanterns fall into the storied tradition of paper art in Hong Kong.  Paper art includes papermaking, paper cutting, and origami architecture.

The traditional folk craft of papercutting (jianzhi) was once passed down in every household from mother to daughter as a way to decorate homes with tissue-thin red flowers, symbols, and zodiac animals.  In China, there are still men and women practicing the traditional craft, such as aging masters Uncle Man and Chan Kwei-chow.

However, contemporary artists are also choosing to use the traditional medium of papercutting to convey challenging and politically-charged modern concepts.

On a recent jaunt around Chai Wan, I stumbled across the Paper Affairs exhibition by Laura Li Nogueira at Artify Gallery.  Li’s papercuts playfully satirize (and criticize) current political affairs that have dominated the headlines in Hong Kong.  She melds political scandals (especially surrounding land ownership and education) with icons of consumerism and celebrity culture to create intricate and thoroughly-thought-out designs which she then laboriously cuts out by hand.

“Miscellany” by Laura Li Nogueira (Size: 100cm x 120cm). Click to zoom.

The design takes much longer than the papercutting itself – months – whereas traditional papercutters might be able to create their works on the spot because the same themes come up: raising families, staying wealthy and healthy, weddings, celebrations.  I think in order for papercutting to progress, there needs to be a crossover of concept and skill. Women nowadays are thinking about more contemporary affairs.

(quote from interview in “Paper Affairs” in Time Out Hong Kong)

Hong Kong artists are also bringing this medium beyond the region’s borders and continuing to explore its conceptual depths.  Bovey Lee, originally from Hong Kong and currently based in Pittsburgh, creates highly intricate papercuts on rice paper by hand (no laser cutting machines involved) and then backs them with silk.

Detail from “Tsunami Enmeshed” by Bovey Lee

Lee working on a paper cut in progress

Lee’s recent work is informed by our precarious relationship with nature in the twenty-first century, i.e., what we do to the environment with technology and what nature does in reaction.

She views her work as drawing with a knife and roots her aesthetic in Chinese calligraphy and pencil drawing.  The visceral nature of cutting paper appeals to her affection for immediacy, detail, and subtlety.  The physical and mental demand from cutting is extreme and thrilling, slows her down and allows her to think clearly and decisively.

These artists are reinventing the aesthetics of the traditional art form of papercutting while still respecting the time and quality associated with it — and thereby invigorating the art form with new energy and introducing it to new generations and a global audience.

What other artists do you know who are using traditional techniques to create artwork responding to current political and social issues?

[Oh, and I want to live in this “Atomic Jellyfish” world.]

Click to zoom

“Atomic Jellyfish” by Bovey Lee.  Click to zoom.

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