Greater than a gallery

A former abattoir becomes the cutting edge of Macao’s art scene. (April 2012)

Macao’s art scene is flourishing in the most unlikely of places – in the old slaughterhouse near the Canidrome. You can’t miss the building, just behind the Canidrome, where Avenida Almirante Lacerda crosses the busy Avenida Coronel Mesquita. Passers-by find their eyes drawn to the ageing yellow building with its brown windows, its former incarnation as a slaughterhouse still evident. In here, the rustic and the contemporary rub alongside each other in the most peculiar way. Art is created here every day, and artists thrive in the atmosphere of learning, sharing, caring and a sense of freedom regardless of nationality or boundaries. The place is called the Ox Warehouse and is the brainchild of photographer and artistic director Frank Lei.

We meet Frank on the 2nd floor of the Ox Warehouse, in a cosy staff room next to a showroom where an exhibition is on display. The artists who exhibit here are usually young people just starting out on their careers. Surrounding us hang pictures of groups of people, plus posters, and bookshelves full of art books.

“When did you move here?” I ask. “In 2003,” replies the artistic director. “It started out as just a group of four or five friends.” These friends became the members of the Ox Warehouse, which operates as a private, non-profit art association, formerly known as The Old Ladies’ House Art Space.

“The Government provided us with the building. In Macao you usually have to seek the support of the government to obtain this kind of space,” the artistic director explains, seated on a yellow and brown seventies-style sofa. The artistic group asked the government to lend them the building with a view to turning it into a cultural venue. Although the association wanted a long-term contract, it had to content itself with a yearly contract signed by the Municipal and Civic Affairs Bureau (IACM). The Bureau oversees any maintenance work that is needed in the building.

Despite the temporary nature of the contract, the Ox Warehouse was born. It took a lot of work. “At the time, the building was not in use. It was empty even though it is very, very nice. It has now undergone a huge transformation,” says Lei.

Before moving to the old slaughterhouse, the artistic group had their base in The Old Ladies’ House in the São Lazaro neighbourhood. The group also took the name of The Old Ladies’ House as their association name, though they recently changed it to Ox Warehouse. “We stayed in the Old Ladies’ House for two years. The place was empty and in disrepair and didn’t have the right conditions. But we still organised a lot of activities and exhibitions at a time when these kinds of activities were scarce in Macao,” Lei recalls. “When we started our events, many people came. We also invited artists from outside of Macao – from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the USA, etc. They stayed at the Old Ladies’ House and organised a lot of things, such as performances, movie screenings, etc. We made the venue very active.”

Now the group operates from their new address, which, despite being “very special”, has a significant disadvantage. “We are very far from the city centre,” Lei admits. But although the artistic director is concerned that it is not as close to the tourists, on the other hand he believes it is a good opportunity to become closer to the permanent residents. “This place is near to the Northern District. Whenever we can, we organise something close to the people living around here. Although we run our activities mainly inside the Ox Warehouse itself, in the future we want to take it out to other places. Art is not limited to this building.”

A place for reflection

The Ox Warehouse exists because of, for, and with art. This is why the concept of a cultural venue is not merely limited to being a museum or a gallery. The group wants to be more active by not only providing a space for exhibitions but also being an intermediary for meditation, discussion and creation. One of its guiding principles is cooperation between local and non-local artists. “We like to invite artists from overseas every year to work with our local artists, because it means we can see training, practice and collaboration in action. It pushes local artists to accomplish something along these lines,” he says.

Thus the Ox Warehouse also serves as an artistic residence. “The artists work here in our workshop. They stay for a month or two, and we watch how they create, as well as sometimes collaborate with them. For example, in previous years we have invited artists from Korea (and also took some of our artists there), Switzerland, France, mainland China and the USA,” says Lei.

In terms of local talent, the association is interested in encouraging a connection between itself and the city. They achieved this last summer with their exhibition ‘The Disappearing Neighbouring Villages – the Rediscovery of Hengqin Island Photographic Exhibition’. The project involved Lei inviting 18 local artists to capture their view of the place that he describes as “closely related yet still unfamiliar to Macao”. It led to the artists discovering Hengqin Island in a creative sense, by searching, exploring and using monographic photography. The exhibition included scenes of village life, the mangrove area under destruction, a bird’s-eye view of wind turbines on the mountain-top, as well as quiet landscapes that were once popular but may eventually disappear. “We don’t want only to show works of art, we want to have ideas and make people think about the things they see here,” says Lei.

Space to create

At the bottom of a narrow wooden staircase is the reception area of the Ox Warehouse, where receptionist May sits behind the counter amongst a plethora of books, leaflets and exhibition catalogues. Some of these publications are to sell, and some are just for people to browse. Lei picks one up. It is ‘Cuba, Cuba’, a book about one of his solo exhibitions based on a trip he made to the Caribbean island in 1992.

As we go outside, the artistic director leads us to the workshop area. There are lots of buckets of paint, brushes, plastic bags and pottery wheels left behind after what we imagine were many hours of creative work.

“Every weekend we have pottery classes, but the students can also come here during the week and use the materials,” Lei explains. The classes are only offered in Cantonese. “For now,” says Lei. Next to the workshop there is a large showroom boasting high ceilings and a generous amount of space. It was originally a cow-shed. “It was for the cows and animals to eat in, but in the 80s they moved the animals somewhere else and the building became empty,” Lei tells us. He points to the windows. “You see those? We can physically change them whenever we need to, depending on the exhibition. You can cut things; move things; have windows; not have windows,” he explains. There’s only one thing that’s really missing, he says. “Air-conditioning. Especially in the summer. It’s very, very, very hot.”

Packed with projects

Every year the Ox Warehouse carries out at least one big group project. Last year’s EXiM 2011 – the Asian Experimental Video Festival in Macao – and the Macao International Performance Art Festival are examples of such projects. “It depends on the yearly plan that we have to present to IACM every year in December,” says Lei. Thanks to their financial support, every exhibition held at this cultural venue has had free admission. Only the workshops are paid-for events, in order to cover the cost of the materials.

Currently eight people work voluntarily at the Ox Warehouse. Frank, Tong Chong and Gigi Lee work as exhibition curators, Ng Fong Chao and Bianca Lei work as curators and artists, and Cora Si as the programme curator. Anson Ng, a local like all the others but currently living in Taiwan, is the music programme curator for concerts and sound workshops. Jane Lei, Frank’s sister, is involved as an artist and theatre programmer for both adults and children. “We can all use the office and we share the work,” Lei says.

Most of the workshops held at the venue are held in Cantonese. “During the summer we have a project with children. They come from schools, and work with our artists. At the end of the project we put on an exhibition to show the final results. Last year’s was the third such exhibition that we’ve held,” says the artistic director. Lei sees working with the children as a focus on the present that prepares the way for the future. It is a future that Lei envisages continuing “in the same direction”, producing new and refreshing ideas, and “maybe one day growing physically”. There is a part of the house that is still used by the IACM. “We have already asked to use the space, because often the artists that come from overseas to work with us don’t have enough space to create in. But they haven’t given it to us as yet,” he says. “For us it would be invaluable. We need to develop, to continue working on more projects.”

Some projects are already scheduled and underway for this year. The season opened with Yolanda Hao’s illustration exhibition in January. Chinese artist Huang Xiaopeng will be the artist-in-residence in July and August, followed by Irish artist Chad Kay in September and October. The summer will also be the time for the theatre season at the Ox Warehouse, and Gukzik Lau will have a solo exhibition of her contemporary artwork in November. She is a graduate of Toronto’s Ontario College of Arts, with a Master’s Degree from the Royal College of Art in London. She currently lives and works in Hong Kong, focusing on creating art and art education. The Macao International Performance Art Festival will also return in May, at the same time as the exhibition of Hong Kong-based writer, art critic, curator and organiser, John Batten. The Asian Experimental Video Festival returns in mid-October.

The Ox man

Frank Lei is a dreamer. Back when he was a student he dreamt about the Nouvelle Vague, (the French ‘new wave’) and moved to Paris. Later he dreamt about making art flourish in the city he loved, and felt he could not stop until he had done it.

Frank was born in Beijing, as was his younger sister. His parents are from Macao but moved to the mainland to work. The oldest daughter (artist Jane Lei) remained in Macao.

“Those were hard times, with the cultural revolution and all. The first time I saw my older sister, I was six years old,” Lei recalls. Four years later he found himself returning to Macao. “That was in around 1973,” he says. But he didn’t stay long. Years later, Lei left the city again, this time on his own, to study journalism at Jinan University, in Guangzhou. “There weren’t many options to choose from. My character was not even suited to journalism, but I liked to write and to read, so I thought perhaps it would be the closest to what I was meant to be,” he says.

After Lei finished his studies, he worked for the Chinese-language newspaper Macao Daily News for a year. But then he decided to leave again. “I really liked cinema at the time, so I went to France to study cinema. It was kind of a dream to go to Europe. I loved the Nouvelle Vague.”

Lei ended up studying at the Sorbonne University first, and then at the Fine Arts School in Paris. After that he returned to Macao with two new passions: photography, and his current wife.

In Macao, Lei started teaching Photography and Graphic Design at the Macao Polytechnic Institute. “They were just starting out,” he says. “We opened an art school there.” But it was not enough. “We also wanted to do something connected with art for the people. So some friends, my sister and I started organising things, even when we didn’t have a space to do it in. There wasn’t even an Art Museum in Macao at the time. There was nothing. It was then that we thought that if we found an empty building, we could use it.” That building was The Old Ladies’ House Art Space. Together with Comuna da Pedra, the non-profit cultural organisation of the same name established in 1996, they worked to create and promote the dramatic and visual arts.

Over a couple of years around 200 local art activities were held in the house in the São Lazaro district. They included exhibitions, art fairs, artist-in-residence schemes, movie/video screenings, lectures and seminars, theatre and musical performances, workshops, overseas art exchanges and art-promotion activities.

In January 2003 the association was given notice to move out and stop operating, as the building was due to be closed for maintenance. That was when this group of Macao artists changed its name to Ox Warehouse and moved to the old yellow house on the crossroads between Avenida do Coronel Mesquita and Avenida Almirante Lacerda.

But dreaming about a lively, dynamic and free art scene in Macao is not easy in Lei’s opinion. He regrets that, for example, Macao’s art teaching “is still very traditional”. This even includes MPI, where Lei teaches graphic design. “I would like to train some young artists but the school is traditional. Macao needs a real art school, with teachers from other places besides China.” That is where the Ox Warehouse has a part to play. “If I find that the work of one of my students is interesting, I invite him to come to the association and exhibit it there, or to do a workshop.”

Lei admits that in the last decade the Government has been doing a lot for arts and culture in Macao, but he believes that things must be done in a more sustainable way. “These days they give you money for you to pursue projects, but for us it is more important to have sustainable and long-term financing. By which I mean funds for development, not only for immediate purposes,” he notes. He also has little time for the mercantilist approach of creating art mainly for profit. For him creation is the most important thing. “We like organising exhibitions not only because it is our work, but to make people think, to stimulate them. Even if we use simple materials, creativity is still within them.”

He is a fan of the masters Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, and has held several solo exhibitions in and outside of Macao, such as ‘Night in Paris’, ‘Rencontre Fortuite’, ‘Sleeping City: Macao’, and ‘Cuba, Cuba’. He has also taken part in group exhibitions such as ‘City-Sight’, ‘Biennale Off’ and ‘Another Photographic Vision in Trip’. In 2006 he published a photography and literary book entitled ‘Watching While Walking’.

By Filipa Queiroz in Macao
(Issue N. 11, April 2012)

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About Filipa Queiroz

Jornalista. Nascida em Coimbra, criada em Braga e a viver em Macau.

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