Paper Affairs

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Ysabelle Cheung speaks to three papercutting artists about their different takes on the craft and explores its rise as a fine art form in Hong Kong

Current wisdom has it that the Chinese invented gunpowder, noodles and the compass. But perhaps China’s most versatile discovery came about in 105 AD, when a court eunuch boiled and pounded some natural bark and other organic materials together to create pulp. Thousands of years later, this pulp can be found in every desk and drawer: in the form of paper. 

It is only fitting, then, that the Chinese are all cut up about the material. The traditional folk craft of papercutting (jianzhi) was once a common skill in every household, passed down from mother to daughter as a way to decorate homes with tissue-thin red flowers, symbols and zodiac animals. In China, there are still a few women and men practising the traditional craft, but papercuts in Hong Kong are increasingly popping up in exhibitions and galleries instead of at market stalls. Contemporary artists from both the West and the East are using the traditional medium to convey modern concepts; it seems Hong Kong is on the brink of embracing the traditional folk craft  as a fine art. 


The Web by Laura Nogueira (2011)

Twenty-seven-year-old papercutting artist Laura Nogueira says the concept is the most important step in her creative process. The Hong Kong-based artist first explored papercutting five years ago for her final year project at the Academy of Visual Arts, taking inspiration from tableside conversations between her grandmother and aunts. “At that time, we were all talking about the chemical scares in food, especially from the Mainland,” she remembers. “In my first papercut, I asked ‘Why can’t we eat anything from China?’ My papercuts always relate to current affairs.” The half-Portuguese, half-Chinese artist stages her third exhibition, Paper Affairs, at Artify Gallery in September, featuring huge A0-size papercuts depicting political scandals from 2012 as well as pop culture references from the SAR. “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, celebrationsm,” says Nogueira. “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.” 


Papercut by Percy So

Local bookbinder and art teacher Percy So practises papercutting in her Causeway Bay studio and also takes on commissioned projects. Her grandmother practised the traditional craft, but So decided to evolve from the scissor technique and, although she collected Chinese papercuts as a child, her designs today reveal little trace of Asian influence. She cites popular British paper artist Rob Ryan as one of her inspirations – the artist’s highly embellished romantic prints have been commissioned by Paul Smith, Time magazine and Vogue, exposing commercial potential in the art form. “I carve with a knife because it ultimately gives me more control,” So says. “Chinese papercutting used to be a necessary craft for women. Because of its history in the East, I don’t think it’s really been considered as a high-art form in Hong Kong yet, although that’s changing.” She adds, “It’s all about how you market yourself – Bovey Lee is a very popular artist based in America who uses Asian forms in her work. Then I see women in Mongkok papercutting, and they charge something like $100 per piece. They’re seriously undervalued.” 


Face Maze 005 by Lu Shengzhong (2010)

Traditional papercutting artist Lu Shengzhong is one of the few who started by practising the folk craft and has since progressed to contemporary forms. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and, as a counteractive response to aggressive growth and change, turned back to the gentle folk art of his native land. Shengzhong has exhibited at the V&A in London and Chambers Fine Art in New York, as well as numerous other galleries across Asia and Europe throughout his illustrious career. His most prominent work features thousands of red handcut frog-like figures, strung together to create a larger image. “I found that papercutting does not require superb skill, but it has a superiority beyond what other types of artistic skills cannot replace,” the 61-year-old artist says. “When I first tried the craft I found that it suited the way I wished to express myself.”

Also a professor at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Shengzhong teaches the folk craft and its history to students, and feels that Hong Kong in particular lacks the deserved recognition for papercutting. “Having been an English colony for so long, Hong Kong is a melting pot, but knowing this has also shown that tradition is very stubborn. You can still see some papercutting in funeral parlours,” Shengzhong says. “The skill of papercutting itself will never be lost; it will simply need to transition from originally being of peasant origin to become more artistic and mainstream, even if at the moment it is on the periphery. Today the working women are not the needleworking housewives of before.” Sounds like they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Paper Affairs Artify Gallery, Sep 6-Oct 17, artifygallery.com.

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