Kan Tai-Keung

Kan Tai Keung is a famous Chinese graphic designer and teacher who is known most for his revolutionary ink paintings and his societal impact on Hong Kong’s art scene. He was born in 1942 in Pangyu within the Guangdong province of China. At the age of 15, he moved with his family to Hong Kong. Growing up, his main inspiration was his grandfather, Kan Yaosheng, who was a clay sculptor. He inspired Tai Keung to follow his interest in the arts. Along with his grandfather, his uncle Kan May Tin was a big art inspiration for him.

 Before going to school for design, according to an article by Ocula, Tai Keung spent most of his time doing tailor work and also painting in those early stages of his life. Around 1964, the same time Tai Keung was taking his first art and design classes, his uncle was also teaching him watercolor painting techniques and created sketching exercises for them both to do. This likely sparked what would be a huge influence on Tai Keung’s work, because he began to focus on more painting oriented art, especially traditional Chinese ink work. Being in Hong Kong also allowed him to be closer to design opportunities, and thus ended up going to school there for ink paintings. 

In 1967, he began attending CUHK, or The Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he studied graphic design along with Chinese ink painting. One of his professors was actually Lui Shou Kwan, who began the New Ink Painting Movement in China. According to an article on Namoc, this movement essentially was the perfect blend of traditional ink wash paintings and modern Western design, along with some traditional Chinese influence. According to the Galerie du Monde, Shou Kwan held the belief that “Chinese artists should strive first to retrace their roots, and seek to understand the spirit of traditional Chinese painting, which would allow them to imbue the diverse aspects of Western modern art into their works, as well as develop self-expression and creativity.” Having a connection to Shou Kwan was a big opportunity for Tai Keung because this experience allowed him direct access into the world of the New Ink Movement. He got to study how he could combine his self-expression and ties to the culture of Hong Kong with modernized aesthetics in order to create beautiful pieces of ink work. From that point on, he not only became a professional graphic designer but also an active member of the Movement and worked alongside his teacher-turned-colleague, Shou Kwan. 

During this time, he experimented with his own unique style of ink paintings. This exploration led him to become a member and chairman of an art group called the One Art Group. This group is a subgroup of the New Ink Movement, and provided a more centralized theme of the ink painting movement. The One Art Group was more geared towards unique expression and collaboration of ideas among the local members. It was, and remains to be, a place where artists can freely express their emotions through their craft. Working with others in a close collaborative setting inspired Tai Keung to become an instructor himself. 

From 1970 onward, he began his teaching career while still working on professional designs on the side. He was a guest professor for both Central Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and was actually an honorary Dean of the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design before he retired. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, he learns a lot from his own students, much like his experience in the One Art Group. “I do a lot of research as I prepare for class, and when I discuss matters with my students, I am absorbing new ideas from them as much as they from me,” Tai Keung said. He is a big advocate for allowing younger generations to create and have a space to do so, and has dedicated a lot of his life outside of creating to speaking out about design education both in China and abroad. A lot of his students gave him the endearing nickname of “Uncle Kan” during his time as a teacher.

Despite his rich background of notable experiences and achievements, Tai Keung is primarily known for his designs and his impact on Hong Kong’s art scene and identity as a whole. To truly understand his impact, it is important to note the time frame in which these designs were created. Hong Kong had been colonized by Great Britain for over 100 years by the time Tai Keung was an up and coming designer. When a country is being colonized, that severely challenges the self-identity of that country. It, for the most part, reduces most of that area into the culture that is colonizing it. While there was still Chinese culture in Hong Kong, natives had the unique opportunity to be exposed to Western culture and ideals at the same time. Amidst discussing possible agreements between Britain and the Chinese government to give Hong Kong back to China, Britain was concerned that China would not give Hong Kong it’s own personal autonomy and severely restrict the freedoms of its citizens. Along with the Chinese government becoming corrupt and Hong Kong’s identity being diluted through the years, this was a true test to reconnect with what made Hong Kong unique.

This time for self exploration and expression was what Kan Tai Keung and his colleagues thrived on. Around the 1980s and beyond, he worked hard to develop his own design language that conveyed Hong Kong in a much deeper way than simply “a blend of East and West culture.” He uses Chinese artifacts and constructs his brushstrokes in a way that plays on the idea of appearance and disappearance. Much like Hong Kong, Tai Keung relayed the message of elusiveness and the merging of ideas through his elegant pieces. His designs were almost faceless, as if to make the point that Hong Kong is more than just one distinct look or style. It is a combination of things that you can only truly experience if you live in the area or visit it. Through his pieces, he discovered not only Hong Kong’s identity, but his own as well.

 

Bibliography

Huppatz, D J. “Simulation and Disappearance: The Posters of Kan Tai-Keung.” Third Text, vol. 16, no. 3, 2002, pp. 295–308., doi:10.1080/09528820110160718.
“Kan Tai Keung: Artist Profile, Exhibitions & Artworks: Ocula.” Ocula the Best in Contemporary Art Icon., Alisan Fine Arts, ocula.com/artists/kan-tai-keung/.
“Kan Tai-Keung.” Kan Tai-Keung Biography – Kan Tai-Keung on Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/kan-tai-keung/biography.
“One Art Group – The Pioneers of Ink Art.” Galerie Du Monde, galeriedumonde.com/exhibitions/12-one-art-group-the-pioneers-of-ink/overview/.
“‘The New Ink Painting Movement’ in Hong Kong: Experimentation of Chinese Painting NAMOC Exhibited the Ink and Wash Paintings of Artist LuiShou-Kwan.” NAMOC, NAMOC, www.namoc.org/en/news/2018news/201803/t20180322_317949.htm#.XpAPoMhKiUl.
Tong, Nora. “Familiar Pattern: How Tradition Has Influenced Artist Kan Tai-Keung.” South China Morning Post, 21 Nov. 2012, www.scmp.com/lifestyle/fashion-watches/article/1075322/familiar-pattern-how-tradition-has-influenced-artist-kan.