One of the biggest international art fairs in the UK had been launched, and as usual, not a single Malaysian gallery was promoting its national wares. Last year there was one. This time there were none at all. Instead there were Malaysian artists, and in some ways their offerings were more prominent than ever before. Visible because they were in a premium corner of the prestigious Saatchi Gallery.
Of course there’s no sign of Charles Saatchi the collector, and absolutely no presence of his famous ex-wife. This didn’t hold back the crowds. Mr Saatchi never attends his gallery’s launches, thereby keeping the enigma factor at fever pitch. Nigella is bound to be busy in a studio kitchen somewhere.
All of which meant more attention for the artists, who were the real attraction of the ‘START’ art fair. As the name hints at, this was a showcase for emerging artists from what’s called “new art scenes”. The Malaysian “scene” had been condensed into one booth, in a premium neighbourhood within the gallery. The streets outside are premium retail territory.
To show how muhibbah Southeast Asia has become, the Malaysian component had been shipped over by a Singapore gallery. One East Asia was single-handedly bringing the cream of its northern neighbour’s creativity to London. Some of this talent had already been seen by regulars to START.
Ahmad Zakii Anwar was there last year, not just in paintings but in person as well. This year there was the exquisite detail and social commentary of Chang Fee Ming as well as some strong visuals from Chong Siew Ying and Chan Kok Hooi. The latter’s more explicit works wouldn’t be shown in Malaysia, and Ahmad Zakii’s can’t be shown in Singapore — his subject was not just seen smoking a cigarette but was mostly obscured by an exhalation of carcinogens. Ahmad Zakii is getting back to some of the themes that raised him to the summit he now occupies.
Chang Fee Ming has never left his home territory behind, and he can’t really rise much higher in the local pantheon. His works on paper fetch more per square inch than any other Malaysian artist at the moment. The prices are no less impressive when displayed in pounds sterling. There was an orange sticker next to one of his two paintings on display, so it must be assumed that a weak pound is no deterrent for collectors, even against the pitiable performance of the ringgit.
TREASURES FROM ASIA
Currency fluctuations have not in any way enfeebled Fee Ming. His works continue to get more strident in terms of their brushwork as well as their content. There is a lot of semi-hidden messaging amidst the blaze of colour and texture. Fabrics continue to dazzle the beholder as if we are seeing some of Malaysia’s most everyday textiles for the first time.
His batiks are alight, reducing all the painted foodstuffs to husks. There’s still space for thought subversion though. This time he had included Indonesian references that went completely over my head until some concentrated attention was applied.
He is an artist who wants people to think. How many visitors in the Kings Road environs are going to be enchanted by the politics of Southeast Asia is another question.
That said, it really did look like the world wanted to know more about Asia, though. At least in London’s SW3 postcode. Two of the three special ‘projects’ on display were from the Far East — Korea and Vietnam. The former had no immediate connection with the big presidential issues of the moment. Instead, it was all about how cutting edge Korea (South) had become.
There’s no denying the innovation in the peninsula, without even mentioning mobile phones and other techno-wizardry. The most remarkable exhibit involved soap: a number of superb reproductions of East Asian ceramics, all made out of mankind’s favourite cleaning product. A remarkable achievement.
Over at the Vietnam project, ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, there was lots of video happening. A fair amount related to their own war, which ended up bringing the country together rather than separating it as in the case of Korea. No soap sculptures going on here, but rather the visceral appeal of a video that featured an artist who flings a rag soaked in red paint against a wall. If it’s a reference to war, then the display is simple and effective.
Over at the third project, ‘Totem’, one of the great discoveries was that there was a Muslim artist hard at work, producing exceptional installations of Qur’anic inspiration. Oxford, a city renowned for its cramped accommodation, is the unlikely base for Saad Qureshi and his 313 Abaabil birds. The sculpture Congregation was a feat of putting together a veritable army of objects; it was also a reminder that the Qur’an is a work of poetry and not filled with the sort of material that Islamophobes are more familiar with.
The birds don’t break any supposed strictures against figural representation as they are more suggestive than descriptive. It made for a fascinating display. Any collectors who want to look beyond acquiring the somewhat predictable field of Islamic calligraphy would do well to look at Saad’s work. They will need a very large space in which to do so though.