Argentine transplant Carolina Kollmann holds an acrylic-and-oil mirror up to Hong Kong’s marginalised. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
The weekend was a pleasant one: a few clouds, a mild sun, and a warm breeze blowing in off the water. Or it was on Buenos Aires native Carolina Kollmann’s back lawn. Carolina is a DB artist gaining some traction for her not at all controversial, controversial paintings of Hong Kong life, and she’s also Argentine to the core. It’s a holiday weekend Friday. No guest is coming into her home without being served fat green olives, snapping chips and a cool glass of pinot grigio.
“My paintings are somewhat controversial in Hong Kong [because] people don’t want to know anything about real life or poverty,” Carolina theorises of her so-called notoriety, David Bowie wafting gently from the studio inside. While that may be the case for some – she was surprised that a local Chinese language daily balked at writing too much about her focus on domestic helpers – it’s the reason a lot of Carolina’s art is getting the attention it is.
Portrait of the artist
Carolina has an artist’s inquisitive mind and a penchant for (sometimes) brutal honesty, asking as many questions as she answers. She’s effortlessly sophisticated but her words are peppered with hilariously colourful metaphors. Carolina clearly doesn’t sufferfools, but she’s never arrogant, and she’s quick to put herself in the hot seat.
“I got bored of not having much to do quickly,” she says of her early years as a mother (to Max, now 10). “I’m not crazy about exercising, and it’s too late now to make me look 20. It won’t get any better,” she adds with a dismissive chuckle.
But it’s easy to see why Carolina, now 48, has no time for nonsense – anyone who came of age during Argentina’s Dirty War years wouldn’t. “I remember when I was very little, my grandmother would tell my dad: ‘She has to study art.’ I was drawing and painting with my markers, watercolours or whatever I could find, but I had no idea what an artist was. I liked the attention and the reaction of my teachers, friends and family to my art pieces. I do remember that. When I decided I wanted to study painting my father initially said no, I think because of the military government disappearing many students from the art school just before that.”
With her grandmother’s help, Carolina persuaded her father on art school starting at 14, eventually completing programmes at the National University Institute of Art in Buenos Aires and then London’s Central Saint Martins on a scholarship. It was in London she met Paul McCartney because Stella was downstairs in design at the same time, and later her husband Matthew. They followed his finance job (art and commerce do mix) to Singapore and finally Hong Kong. All the while Carolina pursued her art, working as a teacher and setting up a mural business.
Relocating to Hong Kong in 2009, the couple hoped to find a home with room for a studio so that Carolina could combine her art with raising a family. “We looked around in Central in the beginning but I couldn’t imagine myself in Mid-Levels or anything like that. No sidewalks, cars, the traffic,” she recalls with a roll of the eyes. “You’d wind up just staying there with the little one. When I came to Discovery Bay it was easier to picture it. It was like a country club.”
Resort life helps for work too; art is a solitary pursuit. “DB is lovely, Carolina says. “Sometimes when I get to painting, teaching or group work and the day has gone all wrong and I think, ‘My life makes no sense!’ it’s easy to text a friend. ‘I so need a drink!’” she admits with a knowing laugh.
Carolina’s studio is crammed with easels, canvases, inky cloths, drying brushes, and of course completed work. Chief among them are the centrepiece of a series on the SAR’s domestic helpers and a quasi portrait of DB’s widely discussed – and mysterious – ‘garbage lady’. Having watched her push her trolley from Nim Shue Wan to the plaza and back every day for years, Carolina has painted a vibrant homage that expresses the concern, intrigue and admiration felt by so many residents. “She smiles and you get this impression she’s okay,” Carolina says.
Carolina’s focus has varied over time, ranging from dried fish and tropical fruit, to cityscapes and people. Her work is defined by vivid colours and fluid lines, landing somewhere on the spectrum between the robust still life of Cézanne, the observational realism of Hopper’s Nighthawks and the hyper-stylised fluidity of Barnes.
Carolina’s art also pops up around town occasionally. She’s worked with Artists Abroad (AA) for the past year, the collective dedicated to community outreach and cultivating new artists, education and artist interaction. This December, she showed her work at AA’s 22nd annual exhibition, Kaleidoscope, at the Rotunda, Exchange Square. Speaking of the show, she is quick to mention fellow DB-based AA member Eleanor McColl and Pui O’s Martin Lever, who was the guest artist at the recent Rotunda show.
As satisfying as AA is – it has donated murals to the Duchess of Kent Children’s Hospital, the SPCA and the Chi Heng Foundation – Carolina has started toying with the idea of going bigger for herself. “I don’t want to be unfair, but I want to focus on my own exhibition next,” she says. “Let’s see what happens.”
Artists often talk about influences, but Carolina prefers to talk inspirations, which right now are the everyday comings-and-goings around her in DB. While admitting to a lack of blinding ambition (which she supposes is a bad thing for an artist), Carolina is thankful for her healthy sense of expediency. “Life has given me many good opportunities along the way and I took them, and I’m inspired by what I see and experience,” she says of DB in particular.
DB’s much-admired garbage lady and the subculture of domestic helpers are two such inspirations. Domestic helpers creep up in most plaza conversations, and their Sunday rituals “fascinate” Carolina.
The enigmatic garbage lady’s determination is what she hoped to capture on canvas.
Carolina’s next subject is likely to be a boy looking out of a bus window, after that it’s anyone’s guess. One thing is sure, it will be as honest as Carolina herself. “I’ve always done what needed to be done, and worked when I had to. But I’ve never compromised my art. This is my stuff,” she finishes, looking the most serious she has all afternoon. “You can never compromise your own truth.”
• Carolina Kollmann, www.carolinakollmannart.com