Cover Olivier Demblum. (Photo: Opera Gallery)

Opera Gallery director Olivier Demblum is bringing the works of legendary artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf to Hong Kong—but between curating shows and conducting calls with clients across timezones, he finds time for kung fu practice and even a round of mahjong

French-born Olivier Demblum joined Opera Gallery as its Hong Kong director last August, after over a decade in the financial industry.

It’s long been a dream of his to present pop art to Hong Kong, says Demblum—and he’s about to present his biggest exhibition ever: a show featuring the works of legendary New York street artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, which will open at Opera Gallery on April 1, 2022.

The three were key members of New York’s neo-expressionism movement, which emerged in the 1970s. An Andy Warhol protégé, Basquiat was a graffiti artist, poet and musician—though decades after his passing, he remains best known for his radical paintings, many of which explored sociopolitical issues. Haring was famed for his spontaneous, large-scale murals on subway walls. Scharf’s futuristic creations spanned different mediums—from sculptures to performance art—and he was also known for using pop culture icons in his work. Activism was a frequent theme in the works of the three artists, who were instrumental in making art accessible at a time when it was widely considered to be for the elite.

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“Basquiat, Haring and Scharf, both friends and rivals, fought against the elitism of art, racism and disease,” says Demblum. “I curated it in a way that the show is a conversation between the artists.”

Opera Gallery has a longstanding presence in Hong Kong, having first opened in the city in 2004. Last year, it moved to a brand new location at the Galleria in Central.

Taking time out from preparing for the exhibition, Demblum shares a typical day in his life with Tatler. Find out how a round of wing chun in his packed day helps him connect with his home city—and why he’s often up past 2am.

7am

I don’t consider my job work, but a passion and lifestyle. When you lead a gallery, you are always on duty and there isn’t really a routine or fixed working hours—but I always like getting an espresso doppio whenever I pass by a coffee shop to start my day with.

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9am

I’m always the first to arrive at the gallery. I walk through the entire space to check that it is ready to welcome clients and visitors. That includes ensuring that the floor is clean and the walls have no scratches or fingerprints.

As a director, I lead by example. There is nothing which I ask my team to do that I would not do myself: curating exhibitions, changing the lights and cleaning the floor. I remember when the T8 signal was hoisted last October, I was the only one staying behind in the gallery painting and touching up the walls.

Once I know that the space is perfect for welcoming our guests, I will check my mails and start working with other third parties.

For our upcoming exhibition, I’m bringing to Hong Kong the “three musketeers” of pop art icons from New York—a dream project since I joined Opera Gallery in 2021. Basquiat, Haring and Scharf, both friends and rivals, fought against the elitism of art, racism and disease. I curate it in a way so that the show is a conversation between the artists.

The art pieces will be displayed on our two main floors, while the mezzanine floor will screen documentary films for visitors to learn more about them.

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Curating this show hasn’t been easy. While some pieces were already in our collection, I had to find the rest of the original pieces by reaching out to my network of collectors and contacts. Gilles Dyan, the gallery’s founder, selects the exhibits.

I love all the pieces at this show. If I could, I would buy them all. But if I had to pick one, it would be the 1988 piece “Lil’ Keith”: I have lived in Asia for a long time. I see the double eight [which sounds similar to wealth in Chinese] as the perfect number that I resonate with.

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2pm

Eating is more functional than social to me, which is why I don’t eat breakfast, unless I am really hungry. I eat when I need food, or when I meet clients and business partners for lunch. I value the restaurants’ atmosphere and food quality, and I like to be with a good crowd. The JIA group, Duddell’s, Louise, Ando and Otto e Mezzo are some of my favourites. I also love La Petite Maison for a Tomatini and a cigar when I’m in need of some me-time.

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4pm

My afternoons are for connecting with our other galleries in the Middle East, Europe and the US. We exchange trends and market perceptions to keep ourselves abreast of all that is happening around the world.

My job is to get to know our clients’ preferences and their own journeys of art, so that I can match my clients with suitable artworks. When we present an artwork to a client, we only do so if we know that the client will love and take good care of it, just as we do in the gallery. We have a dedicated team of professional handlers who are trained to move and install artworks with great care. They have their own pair of gloves, and we monitor the temperature and humidity closely. We change our display cases every week to protect the paintings from overexposure to the sunlight, which will make the colours fade.

6pm

I study wing chun with sifu Sam Lau and his son sifu Max Lau. It gives me discipline and determination. It’s good for my inner balance and bridging my cultural gap. I’ve tried mahjong but I am not very good at it.

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Hong Kong is an amazing place for my photography hobby. I love capturing local people and neon signs with my Leica cameras and drones. I hike as much as I can, and I like a challenging hike; it reminds me to stay humble.

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1am

My team and I work around the clock to get the best art for our the most demanding collectors, so my day doesn’t really end at night. Once I left a dinner at 2am and contacted my colleague in Miami so that an interested buyer could have pictures of the artwork he liked before he woke up.

Five or six hours of sleep are enough for me. But I guess nine hours would be way better for my eyebags.

Basquiat, Haring, Scharf will be shown from April 1 to 30 at Opera Gallery. G08-09, The Galleria, 9 Queen's Road Central, Central. Find out more at operagallery.com

‘A Day In The Life’ is a weekly series which delves into the secret lives of the makers and doers within Hong Kong’s arts scene.

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