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Jaffa Lam

By Caroline Ha Thuc /

A socially engaged artist, Jaffa Lam (b.1973) has always valued the process of creation more than finished works. For more than a decade she has been collaborating with an association of former workers in the Hong Kong textile industry, creating collective sculptures and art installations that have mostly been exhibited in public spaces. She mainly works with recycled materials: wood and trees from building sites, fabric from old umbrellas and natural elements found at the sites where she works. She treasures any form of craftsmanship and always tries to connect with local know-how. Inspired by her early training as a classical Chinese painter, she retains the poetic spirit of this tradition while anchoring her work within today’s social and political fabric. A free thinker, she maintains some distance from the art market, inviting the audience to resist a cold, efficient, money-driven system that tends to invade everybody’s lives.

Caroline Ha Thuc: You began your art practice as a sculptor, working with wood from crates and other recycled materials, and engaging socially with local communities. Now it seems you want to expand your practice to performing arts and theatre. What was your first experience with the stage and why did you start working in theatre? Jaffa Lam: Whenever I move on during my art practice, following my brush as if I were wandering in my early Chinese landscape paintings remains a key creative direction for all my installations. What is amazing with Chinese landscapes is that you can create paths to walk, trees to hide or kiosks as shelters to take a rest and enjoy the scene. For me, walking in my installation is an experience of travelling in such a landscape. The elements I add reflect the completeness and richness of the journey, and do not necessarily nurture understanding: instead, they enlarge imagination, just as if you were walking inside a huge, windy, soft bag. 

I actually don’t really enjoy the stage in the theatre, since it is a limited space, but I am also curious about and appreciate its limitations. Somehow, it bears connections with a landscape drawn on rectangular rice paper.

As for the body movements and sounds that I integrate into my work, they also respond to a necessity. I have a lot of memories about sound, maybe because sound is our first and probably last contact with the world. Sound comes out naturally when I imagine how I walk in my landscape, and then the body moves naturally with it.

CHT: Could you tell us about your experience with Wandering in the Dream (2018), a multimedia work involving a recording of Sichuan Opera played in a garden?
JL: The inspiration came from a feeling of empathy after visiting this giant empty heritage house, Duanjia Dayuanzi in Guang’an, Sichuan; the daughter of the owner only could stay on a little upper floor with a very tiny window. 

It reminded me of the classical story The Peony Pavilion, in which a young lady dreams of a love affair and later dies because of it. I think the original story is not that romantic: the girl was probably so sick of being trapped there that she began to develop illusions. Dreams and reality entwine tragically.

Weaving Rock by Jaffa Lam. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: You have rewritten this classical story focusing on this feeling of confinement and mental illness. For you, what does this woman embody in our contemporary society? 
JL: In a broad sense, this metaphorical situation applies to all minorities or to anyone whose views do not match the current standard of morality. Rewriting an existing story means above all questioning. Many tales could be updated to better reflect today’s society. 

Even the idea of evil has changed over time. What has not changed is that thereare still people who are marginalised or judged as evil just because they are different from others. This is a strong obstacle to creativity, too: many young people refrain for fear of being outcasts if they do something too creative and too original. 

Weaving Rock by Jaffa Lam. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: People could either sit and listen to the recording or wander freely in the garden as if they were taking part in the installation. There are many vessels containing water and reflecting the sky: is this a reference to life as an illusion?
JL:  Yes, that’s right. When you walk on pebbles that come from the ancient river, you reach a part of history that is older than the house itself. 

The water tanks connect also to another, more recent part of history. I collected them from various families’ trash stores, where people discarded them when a water pipe was installed in the village. The reflection of the sky in the water reminds us of the illusion of the distance of things, when you feel things are closer just because you watch their mirror image. Yet they all embody channels to reach back in time, and the work invites people to enter this time tunnel through these different media.

CHT: For Weaving Rock (2019), you installed a loom and a rock into a temple in mainland China, alluding to the legend of the creation of Earth and the beginning of silk production in the country. The fabric you exhibited was the last piece woven before this type of craftsmanship was banned during the Cultural Revolution: why do you try to reconnect ancient tales with contemporary history?
JL: I believe that manual work allows people to be smarter. If you think back to the evolution of human beings, you can see how our ancestors progresively liberated their hands, not just surviving and making functional tools but also creating. During the Cultural Revolution, arts and crafts were forbidden precisely to prevent people from thinking. I am using this tale to connect back to ancient times and invite the villagers to create again. It worked as a kind of enlightenment: they suddenly felt that they possessed a treasure they need to protect.

CHT: How did you engage with the local population, and why is it so essential for you to immerse yourself in the local?
JL: There are so many forms of social art that can still be explored. I also wonder why I have been doing social art for so many years since I am a relatively shy person. Maybe I am a collector of stories.

For me, art is a tool to explore the world. Recently I’ve focused more on the inner self, and making art is not so important. 

This is why I can leave the works I create on the site of their creation: in the case of this piece, I left the rock in the temple. What matters is the encounter with the local people, the experience of making the work in specific sites.

CHT: This weaving rock seems to represent a pillar of tradition, even though you transformed it with UV light so that its form became contemporary. Does it embody the persistence of tradition?
JL: Yes, exactly. There is a very famous rock cave nearby, dating back more than 2,000 years. I chose a smaller piece from the mountain, whose size approximately coincides with my size when I sit in the temple. According to the local people, every rock there could be an ancient god. This is also why I used it and convinced them it is a weaving rock, so that they would be convinced they need to go back to the art of weaving. I hope that people believe in the power of nature and not in any other form of authority.

CHT: The gesture of weaving has always been present in your work, starting from your early pieces where you stitched recycled material together. How does this gesture resonate for you?
JL: The first craft I learned was embroidery. My neighbours taught it to me when I was a kid living in China. I only drew later, when I was in school. Maybe this is why I keep working with soft material: I come back to thread and needles naturally. I guess that in the end the inner power of the tiny thread will overcome and cover the giant rock. This might also be a metaphor for civilisation.

Wondering Dream by Jaffa Lam. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: You work with basic elements, such as water, stones and even air through the diffusion of sound: is this a way to reconnect with nature?JL: Yes, water, stone, air and of course wood are elements I like, maybe because I grew up in a rural town, very close to nature. I used to rest in the melon field, climb up the trees, sleep with dogs in dry hay and play with rocks around the riverbank. In contrast, I have never been interested in fire. When I was a kid, I lived near the hospital where my mother worked as a doctor. I remember seeing people burnt all over from a medical factory explosion. Fire is so scary. For me, it means destruction.

CHT: Why do you feel it might still be relevant today to draw from tradition, and especially traditional Chinese culture?
JL: I cannot forget the place and life I lived, compared to the urban life I had later and still have. I always remember the old feeling, even if I know that Fuding, the little town I come from in Fujian province, is not the same any more. I still dream a lot about it but never go back, being afraid of destroying this dream.

We should not forget the past: what we see today are still traditions but covered with new packaging. I am a traditional person and I enjoy all the crafts. How to transform these cross-generational traditions into contemporary forms, and exploring people today’s attachment to them, is my long-term topic of study. It is a form of meditation, like going back to the temple of the soul. Of course, since I come from China, I cannot avoid
traditional Chinese culture, which is my cocoon. I don’t know what I could do without art, and I have the same feeling with traditional Chinese culture.

CHT: You have been working a lot recently at heritage sites such as the Sam Tung Uk Museum, a typical Hakka walled house in Hong Kong. Do you feel history tends to be forgotten?
JL: Yes, people either forget or vulgarise history. In this house, the couplets [lines of poetry that are hung on the sides of the doors] have disappeared. Besides, the lantern should never have been installed in the middle of the hall because it covers the very important family horizontal board, which was an award from the emperor. Government officers still ignore these cultural customs. I cannot change them but at least I can participate in projects that allow history to be told. For this exhibition, I took down the lamp and installed an LED couplet in the main hall. 

Sam Tung Uk, Performance. Courtesy the artist.

CHT: Last summer, with Re-Rub Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you organised a collective performance involving women revealing by frottage the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Who were these women?
JL: This was not just a women’s activity; it just happened that more women showed up. This public performance aimed at releasing people’s anxiety, anger, disappointment, fear and regret that originate from our chaotic social situation. 

CHT: Working with women has always been an important part of your practice, especially former workers. Is this still a priority? 
JL: Yes. I recently made a white “housewives” flag for Manifesta 12’s flag project Across the Border, initiated by Filippo Minelli in Palermo [Sicily]. I chose white because it means surrender, but also because although invisible, it stands out among all the colourful flags. And I am still very much involved with the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association. 

CHT: To which extent do you feel that your art practice is or will be impacted by recent events in Hong Kong?
JL: This is hard to say now. A few years back, I made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the first of July march. Singing under the Moon for Today and Tomorrow, exhibited at Taipei MOCA 2015, was inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Movement. This time I cannot work too fast as the issue is more complicated. My art cannot respond quickly to events: it is more about deep reflection and observation. I am concerned with the emotional impact of events and I am focused on healing; I cannot change the world as much as an activist or a politician. I try to give people a space free from judgement, boundless and open.

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