In the heat of Hong Kong summer, you will find Hong Kong visual artist Afa Annfa with a single-origin cold brew or a fruity tonic coffee in hand before picking up a paintbrush and working on her paintings.
After graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Annfa started working for an advertising agency for a few years before becoming a full time visual artist.
She held her first solo exhibition, “The Silent Family,” in June 2015 and participated in a joint exhibition, “SFW,” in July 2016 with over 20 other artists from all over the world. In May 2022, Annfa hosted her first large-scale installation named “The Magical Hoop” with JPS Gallery at Art Central.
TMS caught up with Annfa to learn more about her style and artistic journey and to find out more about her upcoming projects.
Afa Annfa doesn’t fit in a singular box, she’s a jack-of-all-trades or what Hong Kongers like to call a Slash. The Slash Generation typically take on a diverse range of job titles – whether these millennials are finding themselves or just multi-talented. Before becoming a full-time visual artist, Annfa worked in advertising and picked up modeling jobs as a side hustle.
Diving into the deep end with these experiences accumulated, Annfa speaks of facing stereotypes. “For sure, it’s always an advantage to have more exposure and attention nowadays,” she says. “However, it also means people will have some stereotype impression or labels on you. You’ll need to pay double effort to make people look at your work and your identity as a visual artist seriously.”
A juxtaposed style
Annfa’s paintings appear to juggle many juxtapositions – a bit of whimsy with a dark undercurrent, finding beauty in what’s fragile but tough and using the circle motif to symbolize both wholeness and departure. However, Annfa admits that instinct guides her more than planning.
“In my usual practice I just come up with a main theme or topic based on what I’m reading, my feeling and thinking in that period of time, then I’ll do some rough sketches of layout and start working on canvas,” Annfa says. “Sometimes I don’t even do sketching, just keep them in my brain and directly work on the canvas. I would say my work is quite expressive for they always honestly reflect my emotion at that time. I always rely on my intuition in my creation.”
But symbols do play a significant part in Annfa’s style. “I like symbols. When I‘ve created a symbol for a particular emotion or status I’d keep exploring it to finish a series of work, then may keep using it with something new in my next series of work. It enables me to gradually build up my own motifs and style in my art.”
Annfa’s works are characterized by fine lines and detailed brushstrokes, often depicting wide-eyed girls named Kiki who symbolize eternal curiosity and positivity.
In terms of developing Kiki, Annfa says this came about rather organically and wasn’t really planned. “Back in my work in 2010, I already had similar treatment: a bunch of little girls vs. a gigantic girl in the painting. I remember that was my very first illustration work for a magazine weekly column.
“I wasn’t very happy with the outcome, though, as my skills at that time were not matured enough to technically present what had been in my mind … I think, to me, those little girls ‘Kiki’ are a symbol of curiosity and positivity; they never cease to explore in whatever situations. They are so focused on the moment we live. They represent mindfulness; they are more down to earth, while the main character (the bigger figure) in the painting is more like a symbol of a certain spirit, status, idea, belief, value or conviction. I keep drawing Kiki because, to me, curiosity and the willingness to explore are the most important elements in life. Staying curious is the embodiment of passion for life.”
From affliction to comfort
On many layers, Annfa’s works present a dialogue between life and art on a personal and global level. Her recent installation, “The Magical Hoop,” depicts Hong Kongers longing for home, while her 2020 solo exhibition “Questers and the Table” is a response to the global pandemic.
“We define ourselves through interactions with the world, while art is a means to express who we are and what we think about the world,” explains Annfa on the relationship between truth and art. “So I would say it’s inevitable that our art always reflects the true world where we live, either in an obvious or subtle way. Moreover, I cannot agree more with what Cesar A. Cruz said: ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’
“I used to make art that was more disturbing, for I disliked all the fake eye-candy stuff. But, in recent years, since the city or the whole world has already been overwhelmed with sorrows and desperation, I would like to turn around and try to comfort people with some work that could resonate with the audience.”
While Annfa has amassed a huge following on Instagram, her personality still rests at the cross-section between extrovert and introvert. In a similar sense, her works often center around a tug-of-war between solitude and longing. Take, for example, “Questers and The Table,” which drew on the global pandemic enforcing isolation. Yet, the group of works are aligned side-by-side in a way that joins them together in one table and one horizon.
“I’m quite a self-contradictory person who spins between an introvert and extrovert, more an introvert, though,” admits Annfa. “To me, solitude is important and essential for it gives us room to have deep thinking and self-reflection. In daily life, I always prefer staying alone but would feel insecure if I lost attachment with people for too long. So I don’t see good friends very often, but when I do, I act really hyper and keep non-stop talking. In this sense, people would think I’m an outgoing person, but most of the time I stay away from the crowd. This is my way to seek balance between solitude and collectivism.
“Though my art is always about solitude and longing, I connect with people through provoking a sense of resonation among the audience. I think it could be considered as a kind of collectivism in this sense. To me, spiritual connection is way more important than the physical one.”
Gallery life and advice for emerging artists in Hong Kong
Annfa joined JPS gallery a few years ago as an in-house artist, which she says emboldened her with “intensive training and practices” and opportunities like creating a whole installation booth in Art Central. Joining a gallery may introduce new limitations to an artist’s paintings, but it is something Annfa encourages emerging artists to do.
“I would say the art scene is going quite well and vibrant in Hong Kong in recent years,” says Annfa. “Hong Kong artists are getting more and more recognition and attention from different art units or organizations, so we’re getting more opportunities than ever before. If you are totally new and got no network at all, I would suggest you to join a gallery for they have their VIP list that can link your work to the right potential collectors.
Annfa points out that networking is a necessary part of the artist’s journey. “It may not sound graceful to talk about sales and money, but only when you’re able to sustain your living can you keep going to pursue your dream, especially when you’re living in Hong Kong – the city with the highest living costs in the world.”
What’s next for Afa Annfa?
New curiosities about the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Egyptian hieroglyphs have caught Annfa’s attention lately, and she enrolled recently in some online courses to explore the topics more. “I visited Egypt years ago, and the ancient Egyptian culture truly amazed me, so I’m so happy that I got the chance to know more about it,” says Annfa.
As for ongoing exhibits, Annfa’s current solo show “When Green Meets Red” just opened in Beirut, Lebanon, at Août Gallery, and the series of works showcase a new painting style with the two colors she explains symbolize vitality. Through this series, she hopes to open the doors to her inner thoughts and inner self as a coping mechanism to the clamoring outside world.
“This presented series of paintings is one that came from intimate thoughts,” Annfa explains in her artist’s statement. “The figures on the canvases are the voices of my self-empowerment, guiding the navigation in finding my true self. Like the cycle of seasons, women give renewed vitality to life and themselves – a union of gentleness and strength.”