Pockets of change in Asian art infrastructure – interview Leeza Ahmady director ACAW

ASIAN CONTEMPORARY ART WEEK NEW YORK 2009

Asian Contemporary Art Week director Leeza Ahmady talks about the ‘ incredible’ initiatives in India and Hong Kong which are helping to build an Asian art infrastructure, Indian collector Anupam Poddar’s first time purchase of art from Afghanistan and where to see exciting art from Central Asia, the Middle East and Iran at New York’s Asian Contemporary Art Week May 2009.

This is the second part of a 3 part interview

 

Gulnara Muratabek

Gulnara Muratbek

 

AR: If visitors to Asian Contemporary Art Week 2009 in New York want to learn more about Central Asia at Asia Contemporary Art Week, what can they see and where they can go?

LA: People can see some of the best artists from Central Asia and the Middle East at an exhibition titled: Tarjama/Translation I have co-curated with Iftikar Dadi and Reem Fada at Queen’s Museum produced by ArteEast. Many of them are internationally-renowned artists but for some reason they are not being exhibited in New York yet.

Akram Zaatari and Lara Baladi from Lebanon, Esra Ersen from Turkey and Sharif Wakid from Palestine are represented and Almagul Menlibayevaof Kazakhstan who is getting a lot of attention here in New York and now has a gallery representing her. We have specially commissioned a video work by her entitled “Queens”. It is an extraordinary work. Almagul has juxtaposed her signature style-using performance as a base revolving around ritual and the fantastic to captivate the Central Asian diasporas like the Bukharan Jews, the Samarkand Uzbeks and the Afghans living in Queens, New York.

Among the Iranian artists included in Tarjama/Translation, Farhad MoshiriI have heard is totally galvanising the art market which is very encouraging. Often these artists do well in the biennale or academic arenas but we do not see them in the market arena so there is a shift there as well.

There is a whole lot of fascination going on with Iran this year I have to tell you. Thomas Erben, one of the best galleries in my opinion for working with cutting edge artists from Pakistan and India, has just come back from Iran. So in honour of ACAW, he will be curating an exhibition of artists living and making art in Iran and he has been going through all kinds of hoops to get the work to New York. The Chelsea Museum is also organizing a large exhibition in June showcasing Iranian artists from the 60’s up to the present.

AR: What do you see in the future for Asian art? Will Asia continue to rely on Western art centres as a platform for international recognition or will it start to happen within Asia itself?

LA: The Western world is way ahead, years if not centuries, in having the institutions which help with not just showcasing but also maintaining, archiving and saving works of contemporary art. We can’t really have a conversation which compares the two because of that disparity. What I can say is that changes will not just happen in the future …. they are already happening.

Arts i  is the new 12,000 square foot art space of one of the largest investment companies in India. It is based in New Delhi and has launched the Religare Arts Initiative which acts as a corporate champion of art. Most galleries, auction houses and art funds operate art businesses but the Religare Arts Initiative tries to leverage business for art through a host of activities – exhibitions, residency programs, library, documentaries, art fund, seminars, documentation etc. The intention of the initiative is to have a 360 degree platform for art in India and really have it create change in society. It is not just a group of people but it wants to actually create an impact on society. I think that is incredibly novel.

Often it is easy for us to say that there is not enough expertise and not enough critical dialogue but the fact is if you really want to look there are some incredible things happening. In India another example is Devi Art Foundation started by a mother and son team who turned their private collection into a public venue. They opened a huge space last summer and already have had two or three critically-acclaimed exhibitions.

They are looking not only at promoting Indian art but also at what else is going on in the region. They reached out to me and we purchased two works by Afghan artists for their collection. This is very encouraging.

 To have come this far is wonderful. I want to acknowledge that there is a handful of us out there and it is changing. Another great example is Green Cardamom Gallery in London. They are contributing to the discourse by providing critical context through artist-generated collaborative exhibitions and writing projects.I cannot speak for China as I have never been there except for Hong Kong. But I have to say organisations like Asia Art Archive or your publication now, these are huge leaps forward in creating forums where critics can have space to say what they need to say.

AR: Do you have anything to say about the market for Asian art?

LA:  What has astonished a lot of people is that art from India and China has been successful because of locally-based collectors not just outside collectors. The whole market frenzy and speculation was accelerated by this local interest. In the long term this interest will continue to grow. What is happening in the Middle East is also incredible. For the first time in the last 2 years we are seeing auctions of contemporary art from the Middle East. Who would have thought it? And they did not do too badly at all.

AR: Perhaps it speaks about the quality and freshness of the work coming out of the Middle East, what do you think?

LA: That is true. It is fresh  because there is a cultural specifity which is very intriguing yet at the same time the art is universally relevant. For me when art tells me something specific but is still relevant whether or not I know where it is from or what it is about – if I can connect with it from that universal place – then it is good art. That is not to say that everything that is coming out of Asia is good of course! (Laughter) 

This is the second part of a 3 part interview

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