The tactile pieces formed part of Mak’s degree show for his masters in Ceramics & Glass at the Royal College of Art – an exhibition that was forced to become digital only. In what must have been a heartening vote of confidence, Magdalene Odundo, the doyenne of ceramic art, selected Mak’s work as part of her curated edit of the RCA’s graduates. Also included in his graduate show was Hats! – a surreal series of hand-modelled porcelain, stoneware and bone china sculptures inspired by western misrepresentations of East Asians in the 17th and 18th century. ‘I was looking at Meissen and Sèvres figurines, in which many Chinese people were depicted wearing exotic headgear – even hats made from cabbage leaves,’ says Mak. ‘I’m interested in how we think about otherness.’ The Hong Kong-born, London gallerist Peter Ting bought Hats! for his own collection. ‘He’s been very supportive,’ the artist adds.
While on an RCA-organised ceramics residency in Jingdezhen in China at the end of 2019, Mak explored this notion of otherness in a different fashion: drawing and painting scenes of local life that struck him as funny or touching, rendered in a playful, graphic style. Stylistically, Mak drew on two disparate sources: chinoiserie, that European fantasy of a Chinese aesthetic, and the meme character Pepe the Frog. This unexpected hybrid resulted in fantastical scenes of human-like frogs frolicking among traditional Chinese buildings.