In the intricate realms of art, sometimes it’s a single piece that has the power to transform and inspire. For Henrietta Tsui-Leung, founder and CEO of the renowned Ora-Ora gallery and co-founder of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, it was “Day in Night” (2011) by the famed ink artist, Xu Lei, that became a pivotal influence. This painting, displaying a horse set against the backdrop of an intricate curtain, isn’t just a mere work of art; it’s a blend of traditional Chinese techniques with shades of European surrealism, making it a beautiful intersection of eastern and western art.
Henrietta’s journey with Xu Lei’s works began much before the 2013 exhibition in Beijing, where “Day in Night” was showcased. In the early 2000s, while she was still in the initial phase of her career, she was drawn to Xu Lei’s creations. Despite her Western education, she found herself deeply engrossed in the surrealistic beauty of his pieces. The fascination was such that she even took a day off work to travel to a distant and disorganized auction in Nanjing, only to lose the bid after an extended wait that was ironically coupled with McDonald’s meals.
Henrietta’s passion for art was not a newfound obsession. From her younger days, she would often explore museums, absorbing the wonders of the art world with her then-boyfriend, now husband. Magritte’s surrealistic works were always her favorites. It was this love for surrealism that made her resonate deeply with Xu Lei’s works, even though she hadn’t previously encountered them.
While Ora-Ora is recognized today as a key promoter of ink-based artworks, Henrietta confesses that during her early days she was rather unfamiliar with the domain. But her encounter with Xu Lei’s creations changed that. She was particularly taken by the sensuous portrayal of horses in his works, representing both desire and memory, a symbolism that effortlessly blended both masculine and feminine aesthetics.
What also captured her attention was Xu Lei’s ability to draw inspiration from Western masters like Magritte, van Dyck, and Vermeer, and yet craft his pieces using traditional Chinese materials, primarily silk and ink. The delicate process of applying over 100 layers of ink on silk, each requiring a day to set, left Henrietta intrigued.
By 2006, their paths crossed, and she met the artist who would later mentor her. Under Xu Lei’s guidance, Henrietta began to appreciate ink art with a deeper understanding and found a clear direction for the Ora-Ora gallery. Xu Lei’s influence wasn’t just limited to her personal appreciation of art, but it also played a defining role in shaping her career and the vision for her gallery.