According to Mexican gallerist Adriana Alvarez-Nichol, owner and founder of Puerta Roja—Hong Kong’s first and as yet only space exhibiting Latin American art, since it was launched in 2010—China and Mexico face similar social challenges, an observation vital to her decision to bring such art to this region. We met at Puerta Roja, which she refers to as her “private art space"—a two-floor gallery in Sheung Wan, located in an alley parallel to Hollywood Road—to discuss her vision for the gallery and for Latin American art in Asia.
How did you come to collect and exhibit art?
Though I was raised to appreciate art and was exposed to art, I studied mathematics, economics and business, and worked in the banking sector. It’s interesting because they say that a lot of people who like mathematics like art and not the other way around. Through the years, my initial exposure to art turned into passion, and that passion for art, in particular Mexican art, kept growing, as well as my interest in buying art.
[In terms of wanting to exhibit art] the key issue for me was the fact that I moved away from Mexico 18 years ago. When you’re abroad, you develop a different appreciation of the arts from your region or things that express, more emotionally or contextually, where you’re from—which you may not find where you currently are living. In a way, I began to feel a need to showcase art from Latin America in my home, and that created a lot of informal interest from people in Europe, which led me to start brokering, arranging commissions and basically sourcing art for European collectors, initially friends and then more formal collectors. That’s what first led me toward the business of art.
Why Hong Kong, and why now? Do you see Hong Kong as a gateway for Latin American art in Asia?
Hong Kong is a good gateway for art in general and the process of change that the city has gone through [these past 10 years] and how it has embraced the art gallery, the art fair, and the art auction world is unparalleled . . . [I seized] the opportunity to come to Hong Kong because: for one, I love Asia, I’ve always felt comfortable here; and also because there was no one exhibiting or representing Latin American art—at a time when a change started to take place in how people in Hong Kong perceive art and how they collect beyond national borders. This is part of the normal process of collecting that we can see happening everywhere. Essentially, collectors start with a focus on national art, which tends to be more static, easier art, and as they get used to other art forms and educate themselves, these collectors start developing an individual taste and curiosity for art. They will naturally start expanding the boundries of what they’re willing to see, appreciate and eventually buy. I think although it is still in the early stages in Hong Kong, we’re really starting to see that happening.
You say collectors in Hong Kong are beginning to branch out, to explore artistic expression outside of their comfort zones. What aesthetic and cultural links do you see between Latin and Asian art that may be facilitating this exploration?
Although Latin America and Asia are very far away from each other, if you go back in history, there have always been points of contact that have created some interesting historical links. If you go back to the colonial times, some of the largest cargo ships were traveling to and from Mexico, the Philippines and China, and through that a huge amount of influence went back and forth, in terms of food, for example, but also in terms of aesthetic means of expression.
In a more contemporary setting, a lot of Latin American countries have done something that now China is trying to do, which is embrace a past and incorporate it into a contemporary language. Latin American artists have been doing this for a very long time both through the use of local craft and the selection of imagery that tends to be more social in nature. We see this also happening in Chinese and Asian art now, after the Cultural Revolution. Artists in many places today are trying to figure out how, through a contemporary language, they can reflect on their heritage, so it doesn’t get lost. Those types of links allow me to bring things that may have a resonance with a Hong Kong viewer. Also, Latin American artists are not shy about being emotional or intense in the way they portray themselves, and I think that is very well accepted here. People are hungry for that intensity, after the minimalism of the 1980s and 90s.
Do you see other Latin American galleries coming to Hong Kong or going to other cities in this region, such as Singapore or Beijing?
Yes. It’s taking a little bit of time, and I would say Latin American galleries are slower than others to respond to opportunities in Hong Kong, which have brought a wave of European and American galleries. But they are definitely starting to show an interest in coming to Hong Kong.
As I’ve said, Mexico and China share many difficult social challenges, which artists on both sides of the pond are trying to address. Issues, such as problems with migration into urban centers, are being addressed by artists on both sides who share that experience, which is not necessarily one that resonates with the realities in Europe or in the United States. So, it is a shared experience in the Southern Hemisphere that doesn’t have to go through New York or London in order to establish a cultural dialogue.
People will definitely come, and one of the things we want to do is generate more interest by exposing the Hong Kong public to works from various Latin American artists. Puerta Roja not only focuses on the artists that we represent or sell, but we want to create a foundation for Latin American art [in Asia]. We are communicating with other galleries encouraging them to come to the Hong Kong Art Fair and we’ve also made an effort to promote the international galleries that brought established Latin American artists’ works to the last Hong Kong Art Fair. Doing this is very important because the artwork these galleries bring to Hong Kong shows how Latin American artists have been a part of the very developed network of the art world for over one hundred years.