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Asian art attains an international presence from a regional identity
Top international sales of miniature paintings, sculptures, as well as both modern & contemporary from India and the whole of South Asia have yielded impressive results in the last few years, setting record prices, in the process. The art in spotlight from the region encompasses countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia apart from Nepal and Tibet in the ravishing Himalayas region, enjoying a greater exposure alongside that from Japan, Korea, China, and India.

A groundbreaking exhibition, entitled ‘Negotiating Home, History and Nation’, at Singapore Art Museum in collaboration with guest-curator Iola Lenzi, symbolized the trend. It presented two decades of art in Southeast Asia (1991–2011) by fifty-four artists. The extensive survey gave audiences the opportunity to derive a cogent picture of the common threads, linking art practices from six Southeast Asian countries. However diverse their cultures and national structures, as it highlighted, the artists’ common purpose was in their exploration of topics like nation-building, history, memory, urbanization, and religious and gender discourses. A curatorial essay stated: “Through a broad range of media such as photography, video, painting, performance and installation art, the exhibition provides an entry to the specific characteristics of Southeast Asia’s aesthetic language and conceptual tendencies. Through the art presented, it also offers insights into the region’s recent political and social developments.”

No surprise then that top auction houses including Sotheby’s and Christie’s now offer a wide variety of artworks that range from the exquisite sculpture of India dating from as early as the 1st century to the thought-provoking paintings by renowned modern artists as well as cutting-edge creations by emerging practitioners of the new millennium. Their integrated Southeast Asian art showcases have evolved in recent years, in acknowledgment of the progress made by the category, considered a powerful parallel to its more hyped Western counterpart. Their specialized teams are devoted to the new hub of the global art world, so to say, attaining strong prices.

For example, a sale of Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Paintings in October late last year totaled a stunning $15.5 million, to surpass the pre-sale estimate of $5.8 million, then achieving the highest auction total for this category. Lee Man Fong, the Indonesian modern master, fetched $4.4 million for ‘Fortune and Longevity’ setting a new record ever for any Southeast Asian artist globally. Other artists achieving far more than original estimates included Indieguerillas (Indonesia), Walasse Ting (China/America), Rodel Tapaya, Alfredo Esquillo Jr, Geraldine Javier, and Nona Garcia (the Philippines). I Nyoman Masriadi, Affandi, Eko Nugroho, Agus Suwage etc (Indonesia), Suzann Victor (Singapore), Vasan Sitthiket (Thailand), Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan (Philippines), Tran Luong (Vietnam), and Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia) are many of the noteworthy artists who dominate the auction scene.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until turn of the new millennium that Christie’s offered Modern & Contemporary art from India in a big way. In 2002, Tyeb Mehta’s iconic ‘Celebration’ was sold for over $317,000, the first work ever to scale the $100,000 mark. Later, the $2 million mark was crossed for SH Raza’s ‘La Terre’ and ‘Birth’ by FN Souza. According to Hugo Weihe, their International Director of Asian Art, the country has transformed socially and economically and its art has a great future. He has been quoted as saying: “With every sale, we have broadened the overall perspective of what Indian and Southeast Asian art truly is. Interest in it is increasing across the globe. The market is even emerging in China and South America, and is already a global phenomenon. Of course, this is just the beginning!”

An auction of Indian and Southeast Asian artworks is slated to be held this March in New York, followed by another one of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art in London to highlight the eclectic artistic styles that reflect extreme socio-political and economic change. Both modern and contemporary artists often traveled to the US and Europe, absorbing and inventing new techniques as well as ideas. This has led to works that explore notions of identity, reconfiguring and juxtaposing the contemporaneity with classical traditions and history. Meanwhile, the 5th edition of India Art fair will be held from 31st January until 3rd February in New Delhi. It will present a comprehensive survey of the contemporary Indian art – developments and trends that have marked its global rise.

Describing the backdrop of the fourth edition, Jan Dalley had mentioned in The UK Financial Times: “Galleries from Melbourne and Moscow, South Africa and Singapore, New York and Norwich are here in force, suggesting how the cultural tables are turned: the scene here is one of westerners chasing the bulging wallets of India’s middle classes. History has done a loop: a hundred years ago, entire cabinetmaking factories turning out fine Art Nouveau and Deco in Birmingham and Belgium depended almost solely on the so-called Maharajah Market. Well, in fact there’s a long roll call of artists making work in response to demand (think of Picasso).” The scene and mood is going to be no different this year. Set to be hosted at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds (Okhla), it will bring together 106 galleries form 24 countries.

Indeed, the pan-Asian art market is fast maturing, fast attaining a global relevance and presence from an earlier narrow regional identity.