Pearl Lam: Curating the Art of Conversation

How Pearl Lam, the gallerist and contemporary art patron, realized the importance of contemporary art as a bridge between China and the West and is now spotlighting diverse voices through ‘The Pearl Lam Podcast’

Provided by AM Publishing
Jon Stojan
Friday 08 March 2024 11:17 GMT
(William Louey)

The Independent was not involved in the creation of this sponsored content.

Pearl Lam’s enthusiasm for the contemporary art world is both boundless and borderless. For the past 20 years, Lam has been constantly on the move, scouring every corner of the globe in search of new creative talent. Her career has focused on showcasing a diverse and international array of talent across the contemporary art world. Nestled amongst her many achievements lies her introduction of Chinese abstract art to wider international acclaim.

But this was not always the case.

“In the early 1990s, I learned a valuable lesson that helped me understand who I really was, culturally speaking,” says Lam. “I was born in Hong Kong but educated in the West.”

When she arrived in Shanghai in 1993, Lam surveyed the city’s contemporary art scene and was initially unmoved. “Unlike in the West, where contemporary artists were addressing strong political and social issues through their works, people in Shanghai were still talking about ancient philosophies. I thought they were completely out of touch,” she says.

A local artist showed Lam that it was she who was out of touch—with her own culture. “I didn’t understand all these old Chinese principles, and I didn’t understand why artists at the time were interested in subjects such as Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism,” says Lam.

Today, the petite Pearl, instantly recognizable with her deep purple bob, chunky bangles, and impeccable outfits, has a commanding presence wherever she is. Exhibitions at her galleries in Hong Kong and Shanghai have been credited as museum quality and are admired for their ability to “re-evaluate and challenge perceptions of cultural practice in Asia” while also showcasing “a thoughtfully balanced roster of Chinese and international artists.”

Just two decades earlier, Hong Kong society “had no respect for what I was doing and no understanding of the art world,” says Pearl. She resolved to set out to appeal to the Shanghai crowd first, establishing her first physical gallery there in 2005, before opening her second gallery in Hong Kong in 2012. “It’s amazing that since opening my gallery in Hong Kong, the city has become the second-largest art market in the world. It has overtaken the UK.”

(William Louey)

A breakthrough moment for Lam was when her gallery addressed Western misconceptions surrounding Chinese abstract art, which she can trace back to her own epiphany in 1990s Shanghai.

“I understood that it was a misconception that Chinese art took its influence from Western culture. European concepts of art, such as expressionism and abstract art, had already existed within ancient Chinese practices that are thousands of years old,” says Lam.

“I thought I knew about Chinese culture because I was ethnically Chinese, but my perception and way of thinking was that of a Westerner. I didn’t understand the fundamental fact that for China, ancient practices played a crucial role in the fabric of what it considers to be modern and contemporary. Ancient teachings are prescient in contemporary Chinese culture. It was only once I had this epiphany that I began to feel Chinese.”

“It made me think that if it was so difficult for a member of the Chinese diaspora to understand their own culture, it must be a minefield for Europeans and Americans to reach a good level of comprehension,” says Lam. “Perhaps this is why there can be a distrust between the West and China, which I believe stems from a lack of knowledge.”

In 2008, Lam founded the China Art Foundation to help bridge this cultural gap by promoting mutual exchange. The Foundation brings contemporary art from China to the attention of Chinese and Western academics and museums and seeks to bring unknown artists and art practices into a global forum.

“I have always believed that art has no passport. It has no color, no race, and ultimately, it is a soft power,” says Pearl Lam. “If the West wants to connect with China and have a meaningful dialogue, it must start somewhere more accessible, such as cultural diplomacy. And what better way to do that than by probing into the fascinating world of contemporary art in China, which enables profound knowledge and insights into the psyche of China that we know today.”

“To know China, one must dispose of the Western lens and precepts and deep dive into its ancient roots, whose influence has reached far beyond the East. Having an open, inquisitive mind about Chinese contemporary art will bring the West one step closer to understanding China itself,” she says.

(William Louey)

For her galleries and exhibitions, Lam is interested in artists who don’t just adapt or adopt a Western concept and overlay a local language. “I am more interested in artists who are saying something, who are talking and teaching me something. I always say that I like art with an international language but a vocabulary that is Chinese,” adds Lam.

Lam is a true believer in exploration and rejects orthodoxy, especially when it comes to learning about different cultures. “What art brings to us all is a bigger world,” she says.

Thanks to this unwavering philosophy, Lam has become a bridge between East and West, relentlessly promoting Chinese contemporary artists on the global stage while simultaneously introducing Western and African contemporary artists to collectors in Asia. Lam has promoted a diverse range of Western artists in China, ranging from contemporary millennial artists to septuagenarian British institutions.

“I love to make artists international rock stars,” said Lam in an interview with South China Morning Post. “This is what I’m good at.”

Lam is fiercely protective of her vision for her galleries. “I am not a Western gallery. I am trying to discover what it takes to be a Chinese gallery. Of course, we must draw from the West—because, until recently, there has been little or no gallery or museum structure in Asia. But I don’t think I should only follow the Western model. My gallery is about cultural dialogue.”

Lam has never allowed the artists she supports or represents to be boxed into the perceptions of the West. She has blazed a path for her own brand of art patronage, rebelling against any boundaries, labels, or stereotypes assigned to the artists she represents. Because of this, she has been called a disrupter, a rebel, and a maverick.

While Lam has always avoided applying such labels to herself, in 2023, she expanded her global platform with the launch of The Pearl Lam Podcast.

The Pearl Lam Podcast seeks to spotlight diverse voices from the worlds of art, food, design, and architecture who have followed their creative convictions and challenged convention. It is a new platform for the entrenched Pearl Lam belief that the art of conversation can bridge the gap between people and cultures, regardless of whether it is expressed through contemporary art or streamed as a video onto people’s smartphones.

The guests who have appeared on The Pearl Lam Podcast have discussed a range of diverse topics about the role of artists in art history.

(William Louey)

Image by William Louey.

Each episode of The Pearl Lam Podcast is revealing and illuminating in its own way. Lam and a well-known historian discuss the lack of African representation in the history of art curriculums and go on to explain to viewers what intra-African understanding is and why it is important in art.  A world-renowned chef and Pearl Lam discuss the essential ingredients that go into building a sustainable career as a world-class chef.

The Pearl Lam Podcast continues the Pearl Lam mission to foster cultural exchange. “Because the world feels fragmented and unstable, it is more important than ever for us to talk about our different forms of expression and creative output and our different visions for change and for the future. Technology means we can have conversations without borders, and that is why I am so passionate about sharing diverse and different perspectives with an even wider audience”.

To find out more, please follow Pearl Lam and The Pearl Lam Podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, X, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in