Lucy Knight

Beirut looks east

South East Asian art is making its mark at Beirut Art Fair

Beirut Art Fair

The Beirut Art Fair is now in its fourth year and the opening night at the BIEL, a secluded waterfront warehouse, was brimming with art buyers, art lovers, and those looking for a free cocktail. There are 47 galleries from 14 countries exhibiting their best contemporary work this year. Previous Fairs have seen the central pavilion in the middle of it all represent galleries from Saudi Arabia and Syria, and this year it is the turn of South East Asia. The works of emerging artists from the region include Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. 


Always putting Beirut forward as a cultural hub, organizers Laure d’Hauteville and Pascal Odille have featured galleries from South East Asia at the Fair since they began, and it seems very fitting to have them as the main pavilion this time around. 2013 has seen the auction house darlings Sotheby’s and Christie’s begin to make their mark on Asian markets more than ever before.  First time auctions in Shanghai and Mumbai, as well as a 15 percent rise in Asian sales for Christie’s alone are testament to this fact. 


“Since the 1980s the speculative art markets have changed,” says Odille. “It started with China, then India, then it was the turn of the Middle East. Around 2006 the Chinese looked to a speculative market of their own, and that was South East Asia.” As China emerges as a power the way the West once did, its choices for art are now something that the West wants a piece of. 


Richard Koh, the gallerist responsible for curating the pavilion says that he has tried hard to bring a broad range of talents. “I went for artists that I knew to be serious about their practise, consistent with their work but not necessarily of the main stream,” says Koh. Despite the space constraints he and his team have worked to include a mix of photography, sculpture, paintings, silk screen, 2D, and video. Amongst the pieces are attention-grabbers, such as David Chan’s Chimerative and Centauree sculptures - a representation of the “animal in all of us” - and PHUNK’s Love Bomb. Koh hopes that in years to come they will be able to showcase work from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.


It is probably the similarities between the art of the Middle East and Asia that have made the organizers keen to bridge the gap. “People always talk about the silk road from China to Europe,” says Koh,  “but there was also one from Middle East down to South East Asia. This particular route is being labelled as ‘emerging’ and I don’t really like it, and what we are really trying to show here is the link between the Arab world and South East Asia.” Koh goes on to say that like the work of the Middle Eastern contemporaries of the artists he is showing, there is a focus on home life and everyday experience. “All of these places, [from the] Middle East, to North Africa, and South East Asia,” says Odille, “share the same history and artistic practices - you go to Bali and you have Dutch influence, in Cairo it’s France. The inspirations are not too dissimilar either: memories of politics, slavery, and war.”


An example of this ‘vice versa’ they talk of is the Sana Gallery in Singapore. Opened at the end of 2012 by Assaad Razzouk it is Asia’s first contemporary Middle Eastern art gallery. However, for Razzouk, the attention paid by the Middle East to South East Asia is insufficient, with “minimal political presence and few expatriates."  "The Arab world," he says, "still instinctively looks to the West. The export of culture by Europe (and the United States) is institutionalized and highly effective, like Germany through the Goethe Institut, and the UK through the British Council.”


While Razzouk wants to promote the work of the Middle East, he’s also not naïve about the fact that it is a great business opportunity. “There is an explosion of artistic creativity in the Middle East," he says. "Contemporary Middle Eastern art should have a positive reception in a region with strong affinities to this region; Singapore was an aspiring regional art center without a Middle Eastern art gallery.”


Serving as a platform for new images and ideas about the Middle East Sana Gallery also offers an artist’s residency, “allowing emerging artists to immerse themselves in the vibrant local and regional culture, with the aim of creating career-defining commissions which are relevant in the context of the permanent discourse of the Middle East with the world.” 


In November 2014 BAF will be holding the first Singapore Art Fair, with Lebanon as the guest country. For Koh, who has been collecting Middle Eastern art for five years this is a welcome event, for Razzouk, it’s a step in the right direction. 

Kedsuda Loogthong, '
Letters From Sonkla,' 2010 (image via www.menasart-fair.com)

“There is an explosion of artistic creativity in the Middle East"

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I quote: ""The Arab world," he says, "still instinctively looks to the West." Indeed, Southeast Asians should be aware of the fact that the Lebanese are racists and see Asians and Africans as inferior human beings who merit to be maids and such, and whom they would not allow in a swimming pool alongside their botoxed-sculpted-pulled-stitched to ugly perfection Lebanese wives and their Russian-East European prostitutes. A Lebanese - regardless of age, income, social status or profession - would look up to a Western taxi driver, but would look down at a Nobel prize winner from India. Why? Because the vast majority of the "educated" Lebanese go to foreign religious schools where they are inculcated in 19th century vintage programs and curricula in which with racist ideologies were rampant.

    September 22, 2013