“I started drawing when I was 13 and I've never stopped. The traditional influence of Master Kam Cheong Leng was fundamental for my artistic improvement, but at the bank my vision was limited. I only looked forward,” says Ung, who is today the head of the Cultural Activities and Recreation Department of the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM).
Ung remembers that suddenly in the 80s everything in his life changed. He went to work for the Macau Cultural Institute and a new world opened up before him. A world he had never known.
“My new job at the Cultural Institute opened up new doors of knowledge and new horizons. The architects Carlos Marreiros and the late Francisco Figueira showed me a world I didn’t know. From then on I wanted to do more than just drawing and I started painting and experimenting,” the artist remembers.
Ung thought he would spend his life just drawing but, “suddenly everything was so different and I never stopped learning and developing.”
In fact, Ung Vai Meng, who was just over 20 years old at the time, became the great newcomer amongst young Chinese painters born in Macao.
Supported by the Portuguese authorities in 1986 he received a grant from the Cultural Institute of Macao to study painting and engraving at the Oporto College of Fine Arts.
In 1991, with a scholarship from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the Cultural Institute of Macao, he studied at Ar.Co in Lisbon, completing the Painting Course in 1992. In 2002, he completed a master’s degree course at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, majoring in Theory of Traditional Chinese Paintings.
In 1995, he won the first prize for installation art at the 2nd Macao Biennial Art Exhibition and since then he has won a total of fifty prizes in local and foreign graphic art competitions.
The multifaceted career of Ung Vai Meng went from strength to strength and he tried new techniques and new ways of painting whilst extending his group of art companions and friends.
Ung Vai Meng’s new artistic phase of abstract painting
“My painting phases are spontaneous and based on my state of mind and what surrounds me. I currently paint using Chinese ink. They are very abstract paintings and visually very empty but, in my view, have strong content,” the artist says.
Ung Vai Meng says that his type of painting over the years has reflected the atmosphere of Macao . It is an environment that, he notes, has influenced him entirely.
“Macao is a mixture of air, water, light and anybody within this environment easily feels the difference of Macao as compared to mainland China and other neighbouring regions. Macao blends the East with the West very well. Macao is open and much more advanced than the environment found on mainland China. Macao is like a laboratory of cultures, languages, people, philosophies, religions, cuisines, heritage and we artists are the product of that laboratory,” he says.
With the aim of disseminating the product of that “eastern laboratory” Ung Vai Meng in the 1980s launched the “Macao Friends of Culture Association," with a view to showing the best of Macao abroad.
“ Macao’s artists were not known outside. We did not exist. Macao was small and we had to open up new doors, new windows of cultural and artistic contacts and relationships,” he remembers.
“Nowadays Macao has a new wave of artists such as James Chu, Chi Kin, Fong Chau, Chan Un Man, Bonnie Leong Mou Cheng, Kitty Leung, Mou Kit, Joao O, Lee Yee Kee and Frank Lei, to name but a few who have become known in the Macao artistic world and are now becoming known in Hong Kong, Taiwan and on mainland China itself," he says.
Ung Vai Meng headed up promotional projects and became extremely active between 1999 and 2008 as Director of the Macao Museum of Art (MAM) bringing foreign culture to Macao and taking artistic work from the territory’s emerging talent abroad.
He was responsible for Macao ’s first presence at the Venice Biennial in 2007 with works by Konstantin Bessmertny and brothers Lui Chak Keong and Lui Chak Hong.
More recently he was responsible for exhibitions at MAM during the time he was director and immediately after: “Plato in the Land of Confucius: Greek Art from the Louvre”, “Eternal Knowledge”, “Moments of Eternity”, “Impressions from France - Works by Renoir and Guino” and “History of Steel in Eastern Asia” to mention only those that had greatest impact.
The artist recalls that his aim was to bring the best of mainland China and the world to Macao and says he believes that he contributed to the territory's population by providing access to artists demonstrating various forms of artistic expression from all over the world.
MAM was, and is, a “cultural pivot” says Ung, who has now opted to begin working in more popular sectors and with the youngsters of Macao, with the aim of “providing them with conditions so that in the future they will have a more open mentality.”
“I am now responsible for three museums, five libraries and around 20 small sports fields all over the territory. My main intention is to build the basis for a physical and mental culture that is healthy and open,” he says.
Ung says he considers his new role as a challenge to his creativity and notes that culture is expressed in many different ways.
"The most popular activities are a very important way of expressing culture. We have therefore organised festivals and activities such as the Lusophone Festival and the Fringe, which can make room for new cultural values to emerge. We plan to be the bridge between popular culture and the population. Societies need to have a healthy and harmonious lifestyle and taking part in popular activities can certainly help to reach that goal," says Ung.
Ung, 50, is currently doing a PhD in Art History at the China Academy of Art, which is fundamental for the research he has been carrying out for over 12 years about folk ancestral portraiture.
Research on Chinese ancestral painting over the last 12 years marks unprecedented work
“This work is unprecedented, unknown by most people, but of great importance to Chinese families who through a very specific type of painting venerate their ancestors,” Ung explains.
Since 1997 Ung has visited most of China’s provinces in search of this type of art that began to become popular in China during the Song dynasty (960-1279) but which has continued up to modern times despite a period of repression during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which led to the destruction of at least 90 percent of all the paintings and the prohibition of veneration of ancestors.
Folk portrait painters see their profession not only as a way of making money, but also as an important and respected profession.
Ancestral paintings vary from province to province in China , but have one common characteristic. They are designed to venerate dead family members known as “ancestral shadows.”
Ung’s research discovered that folk ancestral portraiture was used not only at funerals, but also at family rituals and prayers and were usually painted after the death of the people represented.
Folk portrait painters had a collection of pictures of faces that were chosen by family members to represent the dead despite in some areas of southern China a method known as "shroud lifting” being used, via which the painters saw the faces of the dead before the funeral in order to more easily paint them.
Another aspect of these paintings is the fact that there is a catalogue of detailed explanations of how to paint faces, clothing, furniture, the position of the ancestor, the decoration of the backgrounds of the painting with peacocks, cranes, swans and other animals that were carefully followed by the artists.
“These paintings, which were normally on rolls of paper or cloth, often silk, and tried to reflect the reality of the dead family members, were only to be used inside homes next to family altars built based on special architecture," the artist explains.
Ung also notes that these paintings of the dead family members could only be venerated three years after the death.
They are like the family trees of western families but are essentially known only by the clans and for their exclusive use.
One of the aspects that Ung considers interesting is that the paintings are not signed, which does not stop the painters from leaving their mark on the objects they reproduce on the canvasses.
“Sometimes these painters leave a name on the end of a chair or a bench in a place that is very difficult to find and which only a detailed examination makes it possible to discover. They are painters who do not exist publicly despite their great professionalism. What matters is the portrait of the ancestors,” he says.
In several areas of China, namely in Shanxi province starting in the 1990´s, the interest in this type of painting of the family dead re-emerged and their portraits started to be placed on a rotating schedule inside homes during the Chinese New Year after a ceremony to illuminate the ancestors shown in the paintings.
“On the days when the portraits are exhibited the artists that produced the paintings paint a glint of light in each figure’s eyes making them symbolically imbued with spirituality,” Ung says adding that he needs at least another three years to complete his research.
Ung has divided his work into five research areas: Social environment, painting technique, social function, symbolism of the images and different schools of painting.
Honoured in 1999 by the former Portuguese administration for his contribution to Macao’s cultural sector and once again in 2002 by the government of the Special Administrative Region of Macao for services to the culture of the territory, Ung, with his usual humbleness, says that this new phase of his public life will focus on him being an instructor of young people and opening up culture regardless of social status.
“We are building a new society and I want to take part in the movement that will certainly allow the young people who will be the future leaders of Macao to flourish,” he says.
By Gonçalo César de Sá in Macao
(Issue N. 1, October 2009)