In the finale of the Smashing the Glass Ceiling series, Hong Kong-based artist Vivian Ho (HKUST MBA Alumna 2018) reflects on her journey in the art world and how she navigates the local art scene as a woman.
I was judged by the boss of a well-known gallery saying he wouldn't invest in a young female artist.
One of Vivian Ho’s earliest encounters with the art world back in Hong Kong in 2012 after returning from studying art at Wesleyan University in the United States was less than positive.
“I approached a well-known gallery and the boss was like: ‘Why should I invest in a young female artist when she’s just going to get married in the future and stop being an artist?’ I had just come from this transgender-friendly campus, and was now hearing a man judging me based on whether I was going to get married off.”
It was a rude awakening but not one to deter the young artist. So far things have gone well and, first impressions aside, the Hong Kong art world has not been unkind to Vivian. Success came early on, with her art piece is now exhibited at the new M+ museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, fulfilling her dream “to be a museum artist”. Her works have also appeared in some unexpected locations across the city, including Sheung Tak Market in Tseung Kwan O and Hin Keng Market in Tai Wai. She currently has an exhibition at a gallery in Paris, though the pandemic has meant she has been unable to travel for it.
Vivian’s art is sharp and vivid, realistic yet faintly surreal, drawing on the familiar iconography and staples of Hong Kong life, such as neon signs, cha chaan tengs and fish-heads. Her unique style was forged during her time doing studio arts and economics at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut where students were given free rein to “build their own major”, and has also been heavily influenced, she says, by a life-long love for illustration and Japanese manga.
While at the gender-inclusive campus, Vivian learned from a number of women mentors, particularly her painting professor Tula TELLFAIR, whom she describes as “crazy smart” and whose “imaginary” landscape paintings had a strong influence on the turn Ho’s art would take after she graduated. The contemporary British painter Jenny SAVILLE, whom Vivian says “might not be outspokenly feminist but is really bold in her subject matter,” is also among the various illustrious female artists who have influenced her works.
I used to hate anything commercial and related to money, now I understand the importance of managing the money side of the art world.
Admitting that she was experiencing a “bottleneck” a few years into her career, she decided to pursue an MBA from HKUST in 2015 to add more worldly skills to her proficiency as an artist. The business education, she says, helped her gain confidence, more negotiation skills, and allowed her to navigate the complexities of the art world. “I used to hate anything commercial and related to money, now I understand the importance of managing the money side of the art world: ignorance is not bliss,” Vivian says. She has now embarked on a partnership with a Hong Kong-based company to provide designs for phone cases and other accessories and has other commissions, including a mural for a Jockey Club betting centre in Kowloon City.
I do have a feeling that because I’m a girl my career might not last as long as a man’s.
When asked about her experience working in a field that females tend to be under-represented, Vivian says she has not yet come up against a glass ceiling in her career, but admits that perceptions of female artists in the art world do worry her.
“I do have a feeling that because I’m a girl my career might not last as long as a man’s. If a man is 40 or 50, they might think, oh, he’s in his mid-career. But what if I become a mom, what will brands think? That is what worries me. So I’m working really hard on securing my portfolio so it will transcend beyond my immediate future.”
But Vivian is nonetheless optimistic about the general prospects for women in the art world. While acknowledging that a handful of male artists sit at the top of the “pyramid”, as she calls, in Hong Kong’s art market, she thinks it’s an untenable situation in the long run, given the gender composition of classes in art school.
“Nearly all the people studying art are girls, so I don’t see how the old-school mentality is going to hold up in the future. I feel things are going to get a lot better.”
Never one to shy away from more adventurous routes, Vivian has recently become interested in the new revolution of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs––non-physical digital art traded online using blockchain technology, which she hopes will open up new possibilities for artists, even if she is cautious at this early stage, given it is largely male-dominated, by sometimes rambunctious “tech bros”.
Ten years into her career, Vivian is doing well for herself and has quelled any doubts she might have for her career building. The advice that the non-conformist artist would have for young aspiring artists is to keep learning and to broaden their scope of interests, and also to interest themselves in newer outlets. “The more you learn, the more you know, and the more you can draw,” says Vivian.