Fine strokes

Inside The World’s First Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Fair

Industry insiders talk cultural relevance, emerging artforms such as NFTs and the return of the physical art fair.

Inside The World’s First Southeast Asian Contemporary Art Fair
Citra Sasmita, Under The Tree (2020)

The launch of international art fair, ArtSG, may have been postponed once again, but SEA Focus 2022 (SF 2022) returned from 15 to 23 January at Tanjong Pagar Distripark as part of Singapore Art Week.

While other fairs worldwide have been postponed or cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s first boutique fair dedicated exclusively to Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art has run annually without interruption since its launch in 2019, thanks to its regional character and intimate size. Initiated by STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery and supported by the National Arts Council (NAC), this fourth edition showcased over 140 artworks by more than 50 young and established artists represented by 24 galleries, mostly from around the region.

Tay Tong, director of sector development (Visual Arts) at NAC, said: “We believe that art will continue to break new ground and inspire new conversations as we work together with our local artists and community to explore fresh possibilities for the future of art.”

Sean Lean, Lotus Flowers on Swastikas (2019)

Building the Southeast Asian art market

Aiming to anchor Singapore’s position as a leading cultural hub in the region and to nurture Southeast Asia’s myriad art scenes, SF 2022’s theme was “Chance… Constellations”, an exploration of the shared histories, geographies and cultures connecting the region’s artistic communities.

“Global attention on Southeast Asia, specifically Singapore, continues to grow, and interest in contemporary art in this region is similarly increasing,” declared Emi Eu, project director of SEA Focus and executive director of STPI.

“The growing and engaging contemporary art scene in Southeast Asia reflects a multitude of cultures, languages and religions of the region. SEA Focus exists to be a catalyst for the Southeast Asian contemporary art scene, to shine a light on our talents and artistic expressions to the world at large.”

Further boosting SEA Focus’ global dimension, Art Basel, the world’s leading fair for modern and contemporary art, came on board in 2022 for the first time to lend its industry expertise and provide access to its regional and international networks.

  • Maryanto, Kali Boyong (2021)
    Maryanto, Kali Boyong (2021)
  • Maryanto. Sand Miner Bivouac (2021)
    Maryanto. Sand Miner Bivouac (2021)

A fair devoted to the region remains vital as “worldwide, Southeast Asian contemporary art still has a very small footprint”, according to Audrey Yeo, founder of Yeo Workshop, which exhibited Indonesian artists Citra Sasmita and Maryanto, and Singaporean artist Sarah Choo Jing, with prices ranging from $800 to $25,000.

“The artists here are relatively untapped as yet, and have a lot to bring to the international stage. The success of regional art fairs will now be crucial to the local and regional quality of the artists, the dedication of the gallerists and the support of collectors and patrons.”

Dong Jo Chang, director of South Korean gallery The Columns, continued: “Over the years, Southeast Asia’s contemporary artists have gradually made a dent on the international arts sphere. This, unfortunately, is still not enough to solidify the region’s position globally. There are many artists but only a handful make a name for themselves.” He cites Indonesian artists Heri Dono and Timoteus Anggawan Kusno and Philippine visual artist Eisa Jocson, whom his Seoul-based gallery represents, as having broken through to the international stage.

One of the themes gaining traction within contemporary Southeast Asian art is existential concerns in our contemporary landscape, something very much universally relevant during this challenging period.

Dong Jo Chang

Having been a part of SEA Focus since its inaugural edition, Malaysian Wei-Ling Gallery featured five pieces ranging in price from $5,000 to $8,000. Featuring steel, stencils and car paint, the works by Malaysian artist Sean Lean deal with fragmented identities and the contradictions between traditionally Eastern values and Western popular culture.

“An intimate regional fair such as SEA Focus allows for more detailed conversations and insights into the philosophy behind the artists and galleries presented,” said gallery director Lim Wei-Ling. “It invites the public to look beyond what is highlighted in international art fairs and creates space for artists and creations that are underexposed.”

  • Dina Gadia, Land Poetics (Think of a Line) I (2021)
    Dina Gadia, Land Poetics (Think of a Line) I (2021)
  • Dina Gadia, Land Poetics (Think of a Line) II (2021)
    Dina Gadia, Land Poetics (Think of a Line) II (2021)

Having displayed works priced from US$3,500 ($4,720) to US$30,000 by artists Yee I-Lann, Maria Taniguchi, Dina Gadia, Mit Jai Inn and James Clar, the director of Silverlens, Rachel Rillo, remarked: “True to its name, SEA Focus fills a need for a more regional art fair. It has positioned itself as a platform in which the best galleries and artists from across the region are showcased and where conversations are stimulated to further propel contemporary Southeast Asian art.”

Serving local and regional audiences

Despite Singapore’s introduction of Vaccinated Travel Lanes, travel around the region still remains a challenge, so a largely local crowd was expected at SF 2022. Not that this deterred Yeo Workshop from participating, as it did well in 2021, thanks to sales to local collectors.

Similarly, Hong Kong-based Edouard Malingue Gallery was thrilled to be back with a presentation of Malaysian artist Phillip Lai’s sculptures and Indonesian artist Tromarama’s lenticular prints, alongside his videos in collaboration with ROH Projects, with the pair’s works expected to sell for between US$6,000 and US$25,000. In the event that its representatives were unable to attend, the SF 2022 team would man the booth, a service that art fairs worldwide have been offering during the pandemic.

Philip Lai, Untitled (2019)Photo courtesy of artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery

In 2021, SEA Focus had initiated an “exhibition” format in a seamless space, which allowed works from international galleries to be displayed in Singapore even without the physical presence of the gallerists.

Although its Sydney-based directors did not attend, Sullivan+Strumpf showcased creations by Singaporean artists Dawn Ng and Sarah Isabelle Tan, as well as Indonesian artist Enggar Rhomadioni that explore the idea of ephemerality: time, memory and loss. Gallery manager Megan Arlin commented: “I personally think that showcasing emerging Southeast Asian artists is one of the strengths of SEA Focus. We are always very excited to exhibit works by young artists at the fair.”

Enggar Rhomadioni, Elegi Angkutan Kedua (2021)

Dong noted the success of the 2020 edition at Gillman Barracks in conjunction with events like Art After Dark, followed by a drop in visitors in 2021 during the pandemic.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been a dampener globally for the art market for almost two years,” shared Singaporean art collectors Linda Neo and Albert Lim, whose collection is focused on art from Singapore and Southeast Asia.

“Digital audiences cannot replace the buzz of crowds at fairs. Regional art fairs create an energy and play a crucial role in the ecosystem that sustains art market stakeholders: artists, gallerists, art institutions, collectors, etc.”

Art Collectors Linda Neo and Albert Lim

On their watch list were three Singaporean artists: Melissa Tan, whose sculptures in the shape of asteroids named after Greek goddesses offer fresh insights into femininity; Alvin Ong, whose haunting paintings expose distorted human faces; and Fyerool Darma, whose blacked out portraits of prominent colonial and Malay political figures reimagine British and Dutch historical accounts. Held concurrently with SF 2022 is Landscapes, Darma’s solo show of new works at Yeo Workshop at Gillman Barracks.

As SEA Focus was a hybrid of in-person and digital programming, Artsy returned to host the fair’s virtual viewing rooms, allowing viewers to contact participating galleries directly.

“Living in a brave new world where Covid-19 has changed the way we fundamentally lead our lives has meant that we cannot ignore the online realm,” said Eu before the fair. “New digital art trends such as NFTs are, hence, part of SF 2022’s programming, and we will also offer a 3D virtual tour of our exhibition space.”

This year, The Columns gallery’s four featured artists, including Tristan Lim and Ernest Wu, showed NFT art and installation works.

“One of the themes gaining traction within contemporary Southeast Asian art is existential concerns in our contemporary landscape, something very much universally relevant during this challenging period,” Dong stated. “More recently, there has been a boom in the collection of virtual crypto art and NFTs. With the rise of NFTs, more ASEAN artists now have the potential to make greater waves on an international scale.”

With fairs like SEA Focus helping to shape the narrative, the budding Southeast Asian contemporary art scene is making positive strides, leaving participants looking forward to reciprocated public sentiment.

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