Hong Kong’s art history has traditionally been overshadowed by its status as a trading post for galleries and institutions showcasing internationally established artists. “Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys,” an exhibition organized by Asia Art Archive (AAA), brings different stories to light by exploring what archives are and can be.

Claire Hsu and Johnson Chang founded AAA in Hong Kong in 2000, with the objective of documenting existing and developing Asian art histories from Asian perspectives. Their action anticipated wider movements advocating the reclaiming of historical narratives, which have in recent years dominated discourses engulfing the art world and cultural sphere. Now home to one of the most valuable and comprehensive collections of materials pertaining to recent and contemporary Asian art, AAA demonstrates how crucial archives are to local art ecosystems, as well as to artists’ practices. By making the process of documentation accessible, they make the unseen seen.

Curated by Michelle Wong, a former researcher at AAA, this exhibition stems from a project initiated by the institution in 2014, delving into the vast personal archives of the late self-taught Hong Kong artist Ha Bik Chuen (1925–2009). Ha’s collection of printed materials including exhibition catalogues, art books, and photographs—known as his “thinking studio”—is characterized by his distinctive documenting method. From the 1960s to the late 2000s he attended around 2,500 exhibitions, photographing people in an almost performative act which blurs the lines between artistic and archival practices. AAA further obfuscates these boundaries by commissioning five artists (Banu Cennetoğlu, Kwan Sheung Chi, Lam Wing Sze, Raqs Media Collective, and Walid Raad) to create works responding to and reflecting upon Ha’s archives—which moved after Ha’s death from their original location in the To Kwa Wan district to an industrial warehouse in the Cattle Depot Artist Village in Fo Tan—alongside “sets” which recontextualize objects and documents from the archive itself.

A sofa, draped in a faded metallic silver and gold fabric, with a fan placed in front of it, picked out by an intense spotlight, offers a slightly surreal invitation to a moment of respite. A soundtrack plays in its vicinity, in which the voice of Monica Narula (of Raqs Media Collective) can be heard reciting, “When a photograph is a photograph of a photograph of a photograph, meaning is possible only when promises are broken.” In fact, the patterns on the sofa’s fabric in Unledgered (2021) were recreated in gold and silver from ink stains that Raqs Media Collective (AAA’s first artists in residence in 2009) saw in a photograph during a visit to Ha’s archive in 2016. The artists sought to recreate the “intimate but awkward atmosphere” of this encounter by taking that symbol of domestic comfort, the sofa, and making it uncomfortable by way of heavy draperies, its function ambiguous.

Walid Raad’s less abstract take is directly inspired by Ha’s collage books. Ha began making these in 1958, and by his death had amassed some 300, essentially creating his own historical narrative through collage. Raad’s Untitled #79 (2020), a 3D collage sitting atop the surface of an art crate, features cut-outs of figures from Hong Kong’s art scene (who are present in Ha’s exhibition documentation), placed amid nostalgic visual signage. Ha himself is one of the central actors in this ode to Hong Kong’s art history, projecting the myriad roles an artist can assume within the art world, from documenter to creator to disruptor.

The most physically imposing work in the show is A Shadow Play, a "set" created by AAA which draws both on local art history and modern folklore. The works comprises a painted fiberglass sculpture of Lo Ting—a mythical half-fish, half-human creature—hovering behind a screen and casting a dramatic shadow. Between 1997 and ’98 (just after the handover), Ha documented an important exhibition in which local artist and curator Oscar Ho proposed Lo Ting as the originary ancestor of all Hong Kongers and metaphor for their hybrid identity. The sculpture shown at this exhibition, painted by local artist Ngai Wing Lam, is a reproduction of one made by Ho in 1997. The creature has since become a point of reference for many art practitioners, alluding to the city’s complicated colonial history and equally contentious present and future. In this theatrical expression of the archive, the viewer becomes a protagonist engaging with wide-ranging historical material as they shape their own perspectives on the present. The show comes as Hong Kong’s past and future are being redefined: July 1 marked twenty-four years since the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China and the first anniversary of the passing of the National Security Law; on June 24, the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily ceased publication. During a period of immense transition, this attention to how history is presented and created takes on a special significance.