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Guided by a passion for storytelling and an aspiration to create a more progressive society, Madelon de Grave created Bamboo Scenes in 2017. The Hong Kong-based gallery focuses on local photographers who showcase an "authentic" Hong Kong. Each does so distinctly different from the other, evident from their style and focus.
In de Grave's words, you won't find anything in Bamboo Scenes that you will find on a postcard.
More recently, Bamboo Scenes started exploring the possibilities of the metaverse and held its first virtual NFT exhibition, named "A Woman's World," from March 23 to April 30. The reception was otherworldly.
TMS sat down with de Grave to chat about her fascinating life journey from the Netherlands to Hong Kong, the considerations behind art curation and the evolution of Bamboo Scenes along with the metaverse.
Q: How did you get started with Bamboo Scenes?
A: I started Bamboo scenes about five years ago, already here in Hong Kong. And the idea really came from the fact that we felt like there was a need to support local artists. So we kind of got in touch with a lot of really amazing artists here in Hong Kong, but we felt there was definitely a space for offering them a voice, not only within Hong Kong but also to the world, and to really show the strong artistic power that Hong Kong has. And especially because – and our focus had been on photography from the start – and we, at that point, met a lot of artists that would fly into Hong Kong [and] kind of capture those highlights. What we felt, obviously, [is] when you look at a city, and you see it through the eyes of local artists, it gets a very different perspective, and it gets it in a very different light. And let's say catching those exciting moments that you would see if someone is just here for a few days. So this is how we started and started doing exhibitions from the start.
Since last year, we also started getting more into the digital realm. Obviously, it's a bit of a natural step because we have a lot of artists that are, in a sense, digital artists themselves. I mean, they work with digital photography arts from the start, and there's obviously a very interesting path that can be walked in terms of experimenting in what photography can be and how you can kind of push the boundaries to do something different. But also to start introducing different forms of art. And so we did.
A few months back, we did an exhibition called "A Woman's World," and this one we fully created into the metaverse instead of making [it] into a physical exhibition, which is something that we've obviously been doing for the last years. But we went from a physical exhibition to fully digital –but also constantly making sure that we have that strong storytelling because that's, for us, always been the most important thing. It's not just showcasing a beautiful piece, but it's really about telling that story about the art, and as well as about the artist, to make it more of a personal connection.
Because I'm not sure if you feel the same, but if I have a piece of art, it's not just about the aesthetics, but it's really about the story behind it, and by whom it is and why it's taken. So we're really trying to tell these stories, and we've been doing that as well when we create this metaverse exhibition. And we've also created the story around women. So we had invited female artists who are showcasing their work– as well as us the team mainly being female curators– where we actually thought it was a very interesting story to showcase female art curated by female curators.
Q: You touched on a lot of things just now, and I will definitely get into each a bit more. We'll just start with your personal history because I remember reading that you lived in Guatemala for a bit, and it impacted you in a way. I was wondering if you can tell us more about that and how that has changed you?
A: Yeah, of course, that's very nice. So I've been in Hong Kong for seven years, and I think before that, I've been having different lives in a way where, indeed, before I came to Hong Kong, I was for a considerable amount of time in Guatemala. I'm originally from the Netherlands, with a bit of Indonesian heritage as well from my father's side, and I think I just started being really interested in kind of delving into cultures and countries that I wasn't familiar with necessarily. And, with that as well, of course, comes discovery but also really comes connecting with people.
In Guatemala, I was actually working for a nonprofit organization. We were helping children with cleft lips and palates, and we were organizing surgery weeks for them. And this is obviously something very different but definitely made me, in a way, very humble as well to kind of see the opportunities and possibilities that we have but also to see the power of storytelling and how important that can be. And with photography especially, it very much can convey a story in an easier way than maybe different forms of art, and we can kind of get to people in a more relatable way because it's very realistic.
And that definitely has been something always throughout my travel. So I lived in Guatemala. Before that, I was in Buenos Aires in Argentina. I've always managed to really connect with local artists. I'm just very impressed when people are very passionate about what they're doing, and they kind of give their lives to do that, whether that is being an artist, whether that's setting up your own nonprofit organization. But to really go for something and fully embrace that with your passion, and that's your driver every single day. I just have a lot of respect for when people do that.
So, always seeing that there are these really interesting people from those places who are telling their own authentic personal stories because they grew up there, they're from there, and they're living there. And to be able to kind of share these stories with the world, whether that's through art or a written form. I think that's super, super, super interesting. And I mean, in a way, you're doing that as well, right?
Q: You've also mentioned social impact being important in your work. Could you tell me why it's important to you?
A: Maybe that's also the exposure I had when I was in Guatemala, where, you know, you do see that not everyone has the same opportunities in life. I think, whether it's a business or us as individuals, even if it's small, it's always important to look at the people around you and be able to give back in some sort of way. And as a business as well, whether it's big or small, I think every impact can make a difference or can also inspire people to do the same.
And for Bamboo Scenes, we've been working very closely with a charity called Impact HK here in Hong Kong, which maybe you are familiar with. And why we did that is – of course, there's also a personal interest in that cause – but also we thought it was very interesting because we're showcasing the streets to give back to the streets. Because they are the ones who go on the streets; they help the people who are, you know, in their own way and for different reasons, suffering and living a tough life on the streets. And this is something not always highlighted that much in Hong Kong, especially not here in Hong Kong Islands, and we thought it was very powerful to be able to actually support.
So sometimes we do fundraising exhibitions. We've done a period as well where we gave part of our profits to the charity but also we turned it around, and we worked with some of our photography artists to help them to actually visualize the cause in a way and, of course, with consent of the people. But to be able to, for them as a charity, tell their stories through the power of photography because that will then help them to showcase what they're doing in a very powerful way that can impact people, even if they're not there or seeing it with their own eyes.
Q: Let's get into photography, galleries and curating. What are your top considerations when curating photographers and photographs?
A: So the most important thing is definitely, of course, aesthetics is very important, right? It can be a great story, but if the aesthetics aren't there, then that's obviously the first thing you need to look at. But the aesthetics isn't everything, and I think the most important thing is the story. And what is the story behind? It's like, why is this taken and for what reason? And what kind of story is the artist trying to convey with this? And obviously if it's a very cool photo. But if the story behind it only is, "Oh, yeah, I just shot this and thought that was cool," I think it's a little bit limited. Then, I think for us especially, it's those photos that really have a story to tell, whether it's the artist who [has] been trying to take perfect shots, especially when you're photographing, let's say, something that includes nature, for example. You know, you're working with natural light; you're working with the clouds; you're working with all these things. That it takes such a long time for them to take that photo, and they would plan that photo in their mind, keep on going back and maybe even be surprised themselves. So that's something – like the journey of them to get that shot is something super interesting.
But also, why are they doing this? And then also, there is a much deeper story behind it, why they're trying to create this. And then, for me, it really becomes art instead of just a nice picture. So I think there's a big difference between just choosing something because it can get a lot of likes on Instagram or it just looks cool versus really approaching it as in I'm trying to create something with an intent but also to really go further than what you can see and to really build it around it as a beautiful story.
Q: And what do you think stands out between a good photograph and maybe a mediocre one? Is it the storytelling aspect or something else?
It's the storytelling aspect but also the uniqueness. I think being able to find those really special angles to maybe not show the obvious, that's something that definitely really excites me. There's obviously a lot of photography out there that's maybe good but it's not necessarily unique. And I find, with the artists at least that we've been able to work with, when you see a photo, you know that this photo is from this artist and that shows as well that they have their own unique style instead of following what maybe is already out there. So for me, it's like, yes, it's important, but it has to be the fever, unique.
But personally, I am definitely a big, big fan of story. So, even if you have an amazing story, it can almost make the photograph even more beautiful than it actually looks.
Q: What advice would you give artists who might want to get noticed or showcased in galleries like yours?
A: I think just to remain unique, to not follow the rest, not just follow with what the people want to see. Because, if you can show them something they haven't seen before, you can create excitement that [they] didn't know was there. And I think there was this big saying, obviously with photography because the competition is getting higher and there's so many tools to showcase your work, it's very easy to get into that trap of showcasing what people think they want to see, you know? [To] go for the very fleshy stuff, the things that catch people's eyes and offers you all of [the] likes. But if then that becomes a photograph that could have been taken by everyone else, what's the point?
So I think it's just staying really close to your own arts. Don't get distracted by, you know, what the masses necessarily want because I do believe if you remain unique and you create something for yourself at some point, you will get noticed. You will have your own style that you created yourself instead of, you know, replicating all the things that are already out.
Q: And you mentioned earlier that the photographs that you create showcase an "authentic" Hong Kong, and especially to an international audience, which I think is great. What do you think "authentic" Hong Kong means or looks like or is?
A: Yeah, so we have a good mix, I would say. I mean, obviously, you know, when we have, let's say, a photo from the Peak, we're trying not to showcase the perfect, beautiful weather. You know, where it's like it could be on a postcard. Like the photos that, for example, have [been taken] from Peak, they're in the clouds. So it's always like it's these little moments that are not the moments that you would find on a postcard, basically. You know the ones. But also, it's the streets; it's real life. So, then every artist showcases this in their own way.
Like, obviously showcasing the skyline is great, you know? And everyone can instantly tell you, "Oh, that's Hong Kong." But if you really go into the streets. I think that is why it's so good and cool to do this in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has so much contrast, and there is just so much happening in such a small space that there's always little things that you can find that are just in Hong Kong – you won't find them anywhere else.
Q: So tell me more about how you got started and how you started curating NFT art?
A: Yeah, so for us, again, it was a pretty natural progression in a sense where, of course, we do still really have a love for printed arts. You know – finding the right paper, finding the right framing, really sitting down with the people who are putting their life's work into creating printed art. It's still something we do really love, but this is also something very interesting because here you can go beyond aesthetic experience, and that's something that we've found quite interesting.
So in a way, instead of only having aesthetic photographs, you actually can go further than that, and you can … Whether it's animation, whether sound, whether it's a collaboration with different artists, but also the entire benefits that can be added on to selling your photography or your art through NFTs, it's just a very interesting thing that can be done in terms of art, and there's more possibilities. So for us, how we approach it, there's a lot of similarities in how we approach curating photography art. So we again look at the artists, the story of the artists as well. And for this exhibition that I mentioned, we focus on female artists because we thought that's a very interesting angle and that's an interesting story to tell.
So again, it's all about stories but also the art. We really approach it from… OK, of course, if you do a group exhibition, it has to be a cohesive theme. It has to feel like an exhibition that feels like it's linked to each other. And there's a storyline that goes through the different collections for artists. But once again, we really tried to approach it, obviously, from an aesthetic point of view but also from really trying to showcase what they're trying to tell as an artist and especially within the space because it's still very male-dominated. We thought it's very interesting to show a more feminine side to this and what they can do and what kind of stories they can tell.
Q: You say it was a natural progression, but was it difficult to get started in NFT art curation and exhibiting in the metaverse?
A: I mean it was a lot of learning, I think. It's definitely been a very interesting line of learning on how this all works. Again, I wasn't necessarily involved in crypto a few years back. I think they only came like a few years ago, and then from crypto went into NFTs. But it's been a lot of learning, and I think it does excite me to see that there is possibility for the art industry to evolve as well in different ways. Maybe not now, directly. I think it will still take a little bit of time, and I do believe there's always going to be a place for physical art. But definitely once the market settles down a bit, I think there is a very interesting opportunity here for for curators. But also for artists, where they can create different type of arts that goes beyond aesthetic experiences and also the benefits they could potentially reap within the secondary market where it doesn't just stop at that first buyer, but there's still a secondary market that they can use. Also, the direct contact they can have in a Web3 realm as an artist to be able to tell their own story authentically. But, with that said, I still think there is a big opportunity for curators because there is so much out there, and it's on the curator then to showcase a period view to people who are interested in this type of art and to find those hidden gems and put them together into an interesting show. So I do think that that doesn't necessarily change.
So for us, it's been super interesting. I've been able to connect, also. Personally, I was in New York last June, was it? Yeah, and there was NFT NYC, so I also joined there with leading a panel, and that was really interesting because that was, after being in Hong Kong for two and a half years without traveling, it was interesting to see people but also to see the NFT community in the heart of New York. That was obviously a lot of people from the US but also people from all around the world. And, you know, being in Hong Kong and connecting with the community here, it's been very interesting to see people face-to-face as well on the other side of the world. Because, obviously, you know, you are in touch online, but seeing people in person, it's always a different ball game, I would say. That is very interesting – very, very interesting to see how alive it is over there and how certain artists are really kind of grasping it and trying to really get the benefits up for themselves.
Q: What was the reception towards your NFT exhibition like?
A: It was actually a surprise how good it was. I think people were very keen, and I think for us as well. I mean, we have obviously a following of people that love physical art, so we've been able to introduce a lot of people to this world. We worked with oncyber, and the nice thing with them as a partner is that they try to make it very easily accessible to people who aren't necessarily very well known within this space, and it really offered a kind of glimpse into this whole metaverse world for a lot of people. That was something I found pretty cool because they really were very surprised. Some, "Wow, OK, so I put down my fears of assets," some of them really went into a 3D world to really get a 3D metaverse experience, or, you know, actually being able to access it through your phone or through your laptop or your iPad or whatever it might be.
That is something that people were very surprised by, and I think that was a really good thing. But also from a media perspective, we got a lot of media attention from that, and that's also been obviously very interesting. And for the artists, it's been really, really great. And also being able to showcase their work and being in touch with the other artists as well in their communities, yeah, it was better than expected, I would say.
Q: Do you see NFT art and the metaverse being a bigger thing in Hong Kong in the coming years?
A: I think there's definitely a very interesting opportunity for that. I think it goes two ways. I mean, right now, obviously we are in a more difficult space, I would say, in terms of the industry. But the industry is definitely still very much alive. And I do think there is an interesting future for it, and it all depends on who is going to partake in the game. I think you can see already a lot of very interesting parties that are putting their efforts into creating the spaces.
How it's going to evolve, I think, will be the big question mark, right? How decentralized will this be? And how much power will be given to the artists? Of course that's something still to see, and I think it's all about speculation. But, in the end, I do think there is a very interesting opportunity for the artists and for art lovers as well to really start collecting different types of formal art and also to experience the internet in a different way in general.
I think Web 3 and, with that, also NFTs, they're here to stay. I do think it will go up and down, and it's still in its infancy in a sense where there is a lot of things still to be done in order to get the majority of people to fully trust this and to make it accessible really for everyone, not just people who are into the space. So that will still take some time. But I do think, with everything, there is an evolution, and there's always no solution in everything we do. And I do believe there will be an evolution for how we enjoy art and what type of art we enjoy but also how we are experiencing the internet in general. I think it's it's definitely time for some changes.
Q: And I think that leads me to my last question. What's next for Bamboo Scenes?
A: Yeah, so I think we're definitely going in two directions, I would say. I mean, for us right now, seeing that Hong Kong is opening up slowly again. This is something that obviously makes us super excited because it hasn't been, honestly, the easiest two years. We've been relying a lot on doing bigger exhibitions, which we used to do for hundreds and hundreds of people who would come. And we had a lot of exhibitions lined up the last two years that we had to cancel. So that's been a little bit of a challenge.
But now, seeing things slowly opening up again and hopefully also getting people to come to Hong Kong again, I think this will definitely give a boost to the entire industry, to everything. But, with that said, because we were closed, we have been getting even more online compared to what we were before. So, in a sense, there's always something good out of these types of situations, and, you know, we have been able to connect with people all around the world. So for us, I think it will be very exciting to see Hong Kong opening up fully again, to start getting tourists again, or just visitors of Hong Kong, because this is something that's also made our exhibitions and everything we do very interesting. Because that's when people could really connect with us in a physical way, although they already knew about us from before.
So I'm definitely excited to see that happening so that we can really start getting creative again to create super experiences around Hong Kong and to work with all these partners that we had lined up that we had to kind of put on a pause because of the restrictions. So, yeah, you can definitely expect more exhibitions, new art as well. But also to continue to explore the metaverse, to continue to explore the whole NFT space and see what opportunities are out there for the artists. Also, to eventually see the things that we're doing not just fully focusing on Hong Kong but being able to connect with local artists around the world, which already we've been doing in New York. To be able to show local art in different cities around the world and not just really only in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong will always be our home and definitely where we have our hearts, in a way.
Q: When you say highlighting artists from around the world, are you expanding physically as well, or is that just like curating artists from around the world?
A: So we definitely have the plan right now. We've been in talks, and it's just nothing necessarily 100% set in stone. But we do like the idea of, let's say, highlighting collections of different artists, local artists in different big cities around the world. So not necessarily, let's say, Hong Kong artists will go somewhere else. I'm not talking about some tiny town somewhere in the middle of nowhere because it has to obviously have that aesthetic pleasure as well that we can have here in Hong Kong. But, yeah, definitely being able to start first with some special satellite collections and to build up from there.