James Chu: From painting to talking politics

Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Issue 783, Page 10 – 11
Word count: 2103
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

James Chu Cheok Son, Director of local art troupe Art for All (AFA) Society, believed that Macau’s art and culture could blossom, if the government is determined to set out a solid and long-term cultural policy and the public funds can be spent on the right place.

The full-time contemporary artist came into contact with art in 1990 when studying in the Macau Academy of Visual Arts and afterwards taking a graphic design course at the Macao Polytechnic Institute.

After graduation he was first the creative director in an advertising company, but then entered the civil service as a designer in the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM).

He was later promoted to be the chief of the IACM cultural facility division for three years mainly to establish the library system in different communities.

Between 2006 and 2008 James became the curator of the Macao Museum of Art (MAM) where he set up a permanent site “Art Square” for holding workshops.

During the same period he also went to Hong Kong Lingnan University and completed the Master of Cultural Studies program.

In 2007, the artist founded AFA with an aim to promote Macau’s contemporary art. And then last year James set up AFA Beijing Contemporary Art Centre as a way to increase cultural exchange with overseas and facilitate local art creations.

Speaking to the Macau Daily Times in AFA’s new studio near the Three Lamps District yesterday, James said that starting October eight AFA artists will give exhibitions in the IPOR Bookshop for a period of one year.

And at the end of August, the art troupe will make a debut in the Taipei Art Fair by showcasing six Macau artists’ (including James) works including 12 paintings, a sculpture and two videos.

Yet, the 35-year-old certainly still has energy to spare. As this year he decided to step inside the political scene and run for the direct legislative election in a hope to bring local artists’ demand to the government.

Reporter: Let’s start with the basics – what made you decide to run for the direct legislative election this year?

James Chu Cheok Son: When looking into the past, just the past five years, in regard to culture and art, the government seemed to have gone through, you can’t say it was wrong, but an unnecessary long way. Especially the government spends a lot of money on this area every year, but why no result is seen? Of course many people say Macau has a lot of performances, exhibitions and a lot of people engage in artistic creation – yes, it’s part of the fact – but we can’t see any talents or particular painters or performances that can stand out and represent Macau. This reflects the insufficiency of the government’s cultural policies. Inside the Legislative Assembly, the only culture-related agendas that had been discussed were only about education and protection of world heritage. The Assembly never paid attention to culture and art. This is a very important reason to drive me to participate in this year’s legislative election.

It wasn’t that we didn’t speak up, didn’t do or didn’t fight for it, but no one attaches importance to us.

The wrong perception people usually have on artists is that they do art just for fun and hobby and on a freelance basis. But in fact it’s not like that. People are now talking about cultural industry, this is what we have been doing in the past years, why suddenly they think it’s an industry? If I didn’t make a living as an artist, how could I survive?

R: Why do you partner with Agnes Lam Iok Fong this time?

Mr Chu: I have known Agnes for many years. Last year we had talked about how we could do more for society, not necessarily through running for the election, so that more civilians, especially the middle-class or professionals, could group together and strengthen their voice in society.

Then we set up the association Civic Power which has launched an internal forum and will hold regular round-table discussions. It’s very essential particularly for the cultural sector, which has neither money nor power. Most of the time no matter how brilliant our ideas are, we’re just alone. So we need to unite all these voices and make it a big power to tell the government what we want to say.

Early this year Agnes decided to run for the election and thus we started formal discussions about our beliefs and how to execute them.

Our goal is that through participating in the election, we can send out a clear message that even though we just represent a very small power, we will stand up and try to do more for Macau. We want to set ourselves as an example so that more civilians are willing to speak up and contribute to a better social environment. I always reiterate that citizen participation is the most important.

It’s not really about being able to win or having one or two of our members elected. Even though we can enter the Legislative Assembly, we represent just one or two seats out of the 29. The influence is sort of limited. But it’s a start. Even if we lose the election, our work will continue. We’re ready for a persistent battle because the reforms we want will not happen within a short period of time.

R: How confident is your team of getting a direct seat?

Mr Chu: We’ve big confidence. We already think that we’ve won the election. Since we announced our participation in the election, we found that many people still have hope in Macau and believe that Macau could do better. We can find more people to work with us together. But if after a few months there are still eight or 10 of us working and no one agrees with us, we think we’ll have a big chance to lose.

R: How will you describe the change from being in the art scene to the political scene?

Mr Chu: There are certainly changes for me, but so far they aren’t as big as I imagined. I’ve been using other channels to push forward changes especially in the cultural area. But in the past, no matter painting or making other kinds of artistic creation, it was a personal matter and most of the time I just needed to look at my own ideas and preference. As for now in running for the election, even though I’m going to paint the future of Macau, the task cannot be completed just on my own. I need to concern about different voices of different people and have to think more comprehensively. The longer I do it the more difficult I find. It’s hard to reach a consensus because people have many deeply rooted concepts in their mind. If we had a longer history of establishment and were one of the traditional associations in Macau, our work would be easier to carry out.

R: What do you think about Macau’s third Chief Executive?

Mr Chu: To be honest inside the current government structure, Chui Sai On has relatively ample administrative experience. I think it’s unlikely to see a replica of Ao Man Long scandal happen again but it’s hard to say whether there will still be transfer of interests between the government and businesspeople. He had made a lot of commitments regarding this during the election campaign and we have to wait and see whether he can uphold his promises. We’ve to have faith in him nevertheless.

As for the cultural sector, I hope he can carry out massive reforms. There is no related policy and having been the secretary for social affairs and culture for 10 years, he should have the first-person experience of how one competence is being distributed to multiple departments.

The current art and culture subvention system only makes room to support lazy people. The government either approves the applications or rejects but never gives you reasons. No one ever knows what the assessment criteria are. There is no expert to monitor or assess whether the organisation deserves such amount of funding. This is not something new and I think every advanced country will do like this. The government can’t just aim at distributing the same amount of subsidy to each applicant. In such way Macau can never train outstanding artistic talent and it’s also not advantageous for the building of the whole market. If the government just sticks to the old way to give away funding, no one needs to work particularly well. We’re talking about several billion of public funds every year, the money has been spent but the effectiveness is so low.

You can see that the government lacks the vision to develop local art and culture. It always has only annual plans, but developing art and culture isn’t something that can be done in one or two years. Many people want to do art on a full-time basis but they’re reluctant to quit the current jobs as they’re not sure whether they can get the government funding every year. That’s why many can just be a freelance artist and thus the development is being restricted.

They government needs to have a solid policy and vision so that people will know what will be achieved after a year and what level culture should develop to after five years. A lot of money was spent but [the competence] is being distributed to many departments or secretaries. Every question you ask, they can pass it on to the one beside and then the person will say it’s none of his business. As such, they all have money and power but no responsibility. Hence they will just do superficial work – the more high officials or important people in an exhibition’s opening ceremony, the more influential it is.

We’ve been saying that there must be an accountability system even in the development of culture. They can’t just say this number of people attend an exhibition and claim it’s successful. We have to see whether the money is spent in a right way.

We also hope to push forward reading habits in Macau, the new central library project and a reform in the entire library system. If a place doesn’t respect reading and the promotion of reading facility, I don’t believe creativity exists there.

R: What should be done first and foremost in order to solve the problems?

Mr Chu: The most important is that the government must have to be determined to set out the cultural policy together with the involvement of industry practitioners and experts. Every year the government spends a lot on organising activities, the International Music Festival and the Arts Festival, this is a policy itself, but it doesn’t tell you what the long-term goal is. If we have a goal, then all departments will work based on it and plan appropriate strategies, and money will not be put on something that doesn’t worth it.

R: What made the government fail to do it all the years?

Mr Chu: I think the government doesn’t pay much attention to how culture can affect a society. Economy is always the priority. People think culture is just a kind of entertainment industry and to enrich residents’ leisure time. But a cultural policy should be able to help a city increase competitiveness and creativity. Culture is the cornerstone for a city’s development. Even when building public housing, it’s also related to culture, you have to consider the users and to look at the overall design.

After the handover, there are a very limited number of officials who really understand art and culture. The functional constituency concerning culture in the Legislative Assembly never talked about how to improve the cultural industry. If cultural can only develop in order to accommodate tourism, we’re just teaching people to emphasis on superficial work and publicity as it’s what tourism is about.

R: In what ways is culture important to society?

Mr Chu: If people don’t have a social identity they won’t have faith in their country. If culture is able to let you understand what your root is, during your personal development you will have a track to follow. Without culture, you won’t know who you are exactly, and what your weaknesses and strengths are. We encourage creative education so that people will have a flexible mind and independent thinking. When people know how to respect the others, even animals, plants and their city, they will know what’s right and wrong and not spit on the street or damage public property.

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