Pui O-based artist Martin Lever presents his latest Hong kong landscapes

Patricia Jover sits down with Pui O-based artist Martin Lever, as he prepares to present his latest Hong Kong landscapes at the Asia Contemporary Art Show in September.

Do you have to be ethnically Chinese to create contemporary Chinese art? Absolutely not according to one rising talent on Hong Kong’s internationally celebrated art scene, UK-born Martin Lever.

Martin has made Hong Kong (now Pui O) his home for the past 37 years, and his abstract canvases are all about the city he grew up in. Working with metallic acrylic paint and oil on textured canvases, his style (simple, bold and symbolic) is as Chinese as his subject matter. Vibrantly hued and iridescent, the landscapes embody Hong Kong’s “colourful spirit,” as well as its “incredible contrasts”.

Martin sketches his designs with a chopstick, before painting directly onto the relief, and each canvas is emblazoned with the chop of Li Wah, a name given to him by his father’s co-workers back in the ‘70s. “I sign my work using a traditional Chinese chop engraved with my Western surname – it’s a simple, symbolic nod to the contrasts my work celebrates,” he explains.

Celebrating the city

Moving from the UK to Hong Kong as a schoolboy in 1979, Martin was educated at Island School in Mid-Levels. After studying History at Keele University, he dived headfirst into the world of advertising – still his day job. A fan of many styles of art, from the bold graphic power of Pop Art to the haunting figurative sculptures of Antony Gormley to the comic self-portraits of Yue Minjun, he recalls years of “threatening to paint” but it wasn’t until his mother died 17 years ago that he actually picked up a brush. “My mother’s death kick-started the art,” he says. “It was a very cathartic time in my life.”

From the offset, Martin’s paintings have expressed his fascination with Hong Kong and his personal connection to the city. Early works focused on Hong Kong’s working-class heroes, from the sampan boy rowing across Aberdeen to your local neighbourhood lady pushing her four-wheeler trolley. Today, Martin is best known for his Above/ Below collection – a series of bold, visually dynamic, abstract landscapes that take a fresh look at Hong Kong’s most iconic locations, such as Hong Kong Harbour, Victoria Park, Happy Valley Racecourse and The Peak.

“A lot of the magic of Hong Kong is under the surface, it’s not the tourist clichés, so I hit on the idea of looking at Hong Kong from a different perspective – from above,” Martin explains. “It’s created a fresh and very graphic visual dynamic.”

Martin’s work came under the spotlight in September 2015, when he held his first solo gallery show (at the PubArt Gallery, Central). A month later, he was presenting 24 of his canvases at the Asia Contemporary Art Show. This September, he is again exhibiting at the internationally celebrated Hong Kong show – 30 canvases this time, including a dozen of Lantau.

In Above/ Below, Martin tells “stories that are meaningful to [him] about Hong Kong” and this is clearly resonating with big local corporations, such as The Wharf (Holdings), and private collectors alike. The collection has also led to multiple commissions from the likes of Hong Kong AIA Great European Carnival, but Martin remains modest about what he calls his “professional hobby”.

“Art’s a funny thing – what one person likes, somebody else sees nothing in,” he says. “It’s a very personal thing. I believe the people who admire my work feel a unique connection with Hong Kong, in the same way I do.”

The Lantau collection

In July of last year, Martin, his wife Max, daughter Remi and dog Khali, made the move to Pui O. “After so long living in the urban areas, with the pressures of space and rent, it was time for a change of scene,” he says. “And we absolutely love it. Living here feels like Hong Kong has doubled in size.”

The Lantau move has provided Martin with fresh inspiration for his work, and he is busy applying the Above/ Below theme to some of his favourite Lantau locales, such as Pui O, Tai O, Mui Wo and the Tung Chung Road.

For Martin, who recalls attending school camp on Lantau, aged about 10, not a lot has changed on the island. But he has concerns about the future. “The hope is that the government has some kind of balanced vision of things and doesn’t destroy the natural assets that don’t need developing,” he says. “I really hope they don’t ruin what is a very special place.”

Martin’s latest collection, Home, is inspired by the fast-disappearing architectural heritage of Lantau. Admitting to being obsessed by the beautiful village houses with their traditional Chinese sloping roofs, Martin says, “I want to celebrate all that before it disappears.”

You can view paintings from Martin Lever’s Above/ Below and Home collections at the Asia Contemporary Art Show, September 15 to 18, at the Conrad Hong Kong, Admiralty. Visit www.asiacontemporaryart.com. To see more of Martin’s work, visit www.asiacontemporaryart.com/artists/artist/Martin_Lever/en/.


Ark Eden in Lantau, a world-renowned environmental education resource

On writing: encouraging children to write creatively