Mason Lee: The Red Wave pioneer still challenging himself

Mason Lee

By Max Cross

Mason James Lee has been a leading light in the Fiji art scene since his first exhibition in 2000. The self-taught, award-winning painter, muralist and interior designer, is of Chinese and iTaukei heritage. Born and raised in Suva, Mason feels a deep connection with his paternal family land in Bua on the island of Vanua Levu, somewhere he visited often as a child. 

Best known for his fine art paintings, Lee is not confined by colour, composition, value, form, brushwork, or perspective. Working in oil, acrylic, enamel, slate, charcoal, pencil, ink, and more, often mixing materials and form in the same piece, Lee depicts a juxtaposition of the unseen and the seen. Mixing the natural world above and beneath the waves is a common feature. Portraits of individuals, often women and children, have a sense of realism and even hyper realism, while abstract human forms intertwine in many of his images. 

Playing with perspective and depth in layers, Mason uses colour to bind and unify multiple worlds. In one piece on display at the week-long Savusavu Art and Fashion Festival held at Daku Resort in March 2023, a traditional Fijian masi (tapa) pattern formed one section, representing the ocean floor, with a realistic fish as the central subject above. In another artwork, abstract and colourful human forms represent the complexity of self, and sit alongside a realistic portrait of a woman, giving the impression that these abstract figures form her secret self, her fears, and her desires, with more space allotted to the inner and unknown elements than the outwardly seen. 

Mason Lee
Mason and his artwork.

Lee’s father was an artist, working with sculpture, fabric and watercolours. However, Lee rejects the notion that he became an artist because he emulated his father. Seeing a parent use their time to paint and create when you are a child will inspire and influence, however Mason sees his vocation as something more. 

“There can be one thousand artists in one room, all doing a lot of things, drawing, or painting, but out of the thousand, there can only be one true artist within. It’s about the way you live. Your mind needs to be independent. I taught myself many things, not just to paint and draw but to swim, to go diving. At a young age I had taught myself to do things people my age didn’t know how to do, because they were just playing around and joking and doing nothing. My teaching myself how to do what interested me, had to come before I could teach myself to paint. If we have money or no money, you must know how to live. If you’re just a painter and doing nothing else, then you’re not really a true artist. To be an artist is to know your whole surroundings.” 

Several years ago, Lee was invited to join a group of artists at the University of the South Pacific’s Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture. The late Dr Epeli Hau’ofa, the highly respected and deeply impactful Oceania Centre Director, included Lee in an artist’s collective which became known as the Red Wave. The group of painters and sculptors, who worked out of, or had close ties to OCAC, encouraged and nurtured an appreciation and pride in indigenous Pacific identity, images, culture, and its capacity.

Lee’s first exhibition was at the Oceania Centre. In the 20 years since then, his work has hung from walls in celebrated galleries around the globe. Lee remains ambitious and continues to strive for growth as an artist. 

“I know I have to challenge myself and show my work overseas. There are thousands and thousands of artists who are better than me, who are greater than me. Right now, the biggest thing I think about is [that] I need to do something that will speak about me and stands out when exhibited with international artists at that highest level. I’ve been to London and been exhibited in Germany, USA, New Zealand, Australia and nearly all of the Pacific. I’ve shown pieces in China, but I do not feel I am where I need to be, creatively. 

“I’m moving away from my previous work. I’m trying to move in a way that I know will be different from anyone else. It’s not about the colour or the subject that I choose. It’s about the comfort that I choose. It is not about what appeals to people, or what people find pleasing. What I’m doing right now is what appeals to me.”

Mason James Lee is on Instagram @masonjameslee.

Lee has artwork for sale and accepts commissions. He can be reached at masonjameslee[at]gmail.com

This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, April-June 2023.

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