Good neighbours: Melbourne’s gallerists on Asian art

With cultural ties strengthening between the two continents, what does the future hold for Australia and Asia’s growing art scenes?

With art fairs Sydney Contemporary 13 and the Australian Art Show opening in August and September 2013, three Melbourne gallerists discuss how Australia views Asian contemporary art and the contemporary art context of the neighbouring continents.

Tomokazu Matsuyama, untitled, 2013, mixed media, 152 x 182 cm. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Gallery.

Tomokazu Matsuyama, untitled, 2013, mixed media, 152 x 182 cm. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Australia plays an important role in the development of contemporary Asian art, with numerous galleries, museums, art fairs and international art exhibitions showcasing the work of Asian artists. Fairs in Australia and abroad help strengthen the market for both Asian and Australian art: at the upcoming 2013 Australian Art Show, taking place in Melbourne from 23 to 25 August, approximately forty Melbourne art galleries will show works from Australia and beyond; Sydney Contemporary 13, in which Niagara Gallery will take part, opens from 19 to 22 September and will host over eighty national and international exhibitors.

Art Radar spoke to three Melbourne gallerists to find out how they view the relationship between the two continents’ art scenes, both culturally and commercially.

Eko Nugroho, 'Duo Petuolong Berbulu', 2010, installation, hardboard, embroidery, 300 x 600 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Eko Nugroho, ‘Duo Petuolong Berbulu’, 2010, installation, hardboard, embroidery, 300 x 600 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Bryan Collie, Director of MiFA

Bryan Collie first established the successful Melbourne Art Exchange in the late 1970s and has been involved in the arts ever since. In 2010, he founded Melbourne Intercultural Fine Art (MiFA) as a space to exhibit Asia Pacific contemporary art and as a platform for cross-cultural exchange. MiFA’s represented artists come from China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and India.

In your time as a Melbourne gallerist, has the popularity of contemporary Asian art waxed or waned with buyers?

Waxed. The popularity of Asian Art has increased over the last three years. I believe Museums that focus on the Asian Pacific such as QAGOMA [Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art] and the APT [Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art] have stimulated interest. MiFA has been an important part in leading the way for contemporary galleries to change focus in the broad spectrum, and providing accessibility to Asian Art.

Do you bring any specific curatorial agenda or focus to your Asian art exhibitions?

Our main focus is to bring awareness in Australia of the culture of our neighbouring countries and to continue to bring strong ties with Asian nations through art. We would also like to bring Australian artists to Asia to increase their international exposure.

Haris Purnomo, 'The Pink Dot', 2010, acrylic on canvas, 150x150 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Haris Purnomo, ‘The Pink Dot’, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 150×150 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Which Asian artists have you found to be particularly popular with Australian buyers? Can you spot any trends in geography or theme to current collecting habits?

One Asian artist who has been popular is Chinese artist, Yang Yongliang. For the past four years, China has become a superstar of digital manipulation and new media. Yang Yongliang’s masterful digital artistry is seen through his transformation of the classic Chinese landscape into surreal high-rise buildings, mixed with flowing cascades of waterfalls and derelict buildings. His work brings serenity and wonderment to the viewer. His works and his historic storytelling style are highly sought after by museums and collectors.

How important is it to the success of your gallery to have international dialogue with practitioners across Asia? 

The success of MiFA working with Asian artists is imperative to the awareness of Asian Pacific art in Australia. MiFA has exhibited many artists who have soared internationally and are considered highly important on the collectors list both for museums and collectors.

However, this rapid rise to fame is a two-way sword for MiFA and other galleries. Artists who have exhibited with MiFA and many other established galleries have been picked up by important contemporary galleries in Europe and America. This eventually will make it more difficult for museums and collectors in Australia to purchase works due to rising international price structures caused by the high prices realised through auction houses.

Maria Indria Sari, 'I am big, you are small', 2009, mixed media, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Maria Indria Sari, ‘I am big, you are small’, 2009, mixed media, 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Does bringing in Asian artists have a noticeable effect on the local art scene?

Yes, I believe that Asian art does have an effect on the local art scene. Artists in Australia do not have the accessibility of low cost facilities as artists in Asia. I think this brings limitations to their craft. Asian artists have the access to very talented artisans and low cost materials. As such, local artists are starting to realise that Asian artists can fulfil their craft through a wider range of mediums. Local artists are becoming more curious of Asian artists, and I think more and more artists specialising in different forms of art are beginning to travel more to Asia to work with Asian artists.

Ay Tjoe Christine, 'Study of First September Doll', 2010, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 125 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

Ay Tjoe Christine, ‘Study of First September Doll’, 2010, mixed media on canvas, 150 x 125 cm. Image courtesy MiFA.

The Australian Art Show is coming up; do you participate in Asian art fairs? How significant is the ‘art fair phenomenon’ in terms of the Asia-Pacific art market?

Art fairs in Asia are the most important promotional tool for art. It showcases the talent and the diversity of the region, and reveals what is on offer in western culture. It is the centre stage for galleries and the voice for each artist.

What does the future hold for Asian art in Australia, and perhaps Australian art in Asia?

Asian art is the most important art wave for Australia. It will give artists in Australia a new and exciting bridge to a much wider audience being part of the Asian Pacific. Australia needs to embrace this new contemporary culture and take more interest in supporting it. Australian art in Asia is where we want to be. We have to start by accepting Asian contemporary art into our local art scene as Asian artists are spearheading the movement.

Shumei Kobayashi's textile installation titled "Weaving the Future" at Lesley Kehoe Gallery, Melbourne from 4 May to 10 June 2013. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Gallery.

Shumei Kobayashi’s textile installation titled ‘Weaving the Future’ at Lesley Kehoe Gallery, Melbourne. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Lesley Kehoe, Director of Lesley Kehoe Galleries

Lesley Kehoe, founder of the Lesley Kehoe Galleries (LKG), is a specialist in Japanese art. According to her website, she “is responsible for creating a significant level of awareness of Japanese Art in Australia” and her “work has contributed substantially to Australia-Japan relations.” Her influence has been great, leading to Japan’s Imperial Palace acquiring the works of Australian netsuke carvers.

In your time as a Melbourne gallerist, has the popularity of contemporary Asian art waxed or waned with buyers? 


Lesley Kehoe Galleries (LKG) was established in Melbourne in 1983. At that time, there was virtually no interest in any form of Asian Art in Australia, historical or contemporary. There had been much earlier interest in historical works of Chinese art and a serious collection built at the National Gallery of Victoria under the aegis of the Felton Bequest, but that had seemed to lapse. There was no interest or representation of Japanese art.

In fact, in the first years of LKG, I was actively abused for showing Japanese works of art. Residual animosity from WWII was strong. Serious interest in Asian contemporary art probably started with the first Asian Pacific Triennial at Queensland Art Gallery in 1993.

LKG started to add contemporary Japanese works some 12-15 years ago. Why? A personal interest that had been expanding over a number of years as a number of artists reached their middle years and their work increased in individuality and sophistication. [There was] a definite decline in the marketplace in interest in historical works or art, in part [because of] availability, part increasing prices and part fashion/trend.  [There was also a] perceived need to bring along a new generation of art connoisseurs and buyers to whom historical works were either of no interest or financially inaccessible.

Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo, 'Saraca Design Cross', 2010, Unryuan technique lacquer, 10 x 3 x 14.5 cm. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo, ‘Saraca Design Cross’, 2010, Unryuan technique lacquer, 10 x 3 x 14.5 cm. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Do you bring any specific curatorial agenda or focus to your Asian art exhibitions?


Definitely. I can only speak to Japanese art as this is the galleries’ area of specialisation. It started with cultural education as the focus as there was very little known about Japanese culture and history in the general populace and many stereotypes prevalent. The fascination of an exotic culture could be said to have been the key to the beginnings of interest.

Our early exhibitions were often accompanied by lectures, and I was regularly lecturing to a variety of special interest groups. In the thirty years of my experience as a gallerist in Melbourne, Japan’s worldwide standing has altered dramatically and in a relatively short number of decades: from defeated nation, to emerging ally and emerging economy.  From the ‘cheap and nasty’ phase of ‘Made in Japan’, when that was entirely derogatory, to a total turnaround where ‘Made in Japan’ became the epitome of good taste and design. [Japan has been] a leading world ‘miracle’ economy, a ‘bubble’ economy, a wealthy population creating world record prices for Impressionist Art (interestingly not art from their own culture!) to an economic and political decline but a re-emergence as a power house of ‘soft culture’. Looking at the influence of an Asian culture on western culture, I don’t think I am biased in saying that Japan has, and continues to have, the greatest influence: architecture, gardens, food, photography, fashion, film, design, graphics and so on.

LKG’s curatorial approach in the contemporary sphere is probably still based on education with now a honed and distilled curatorial ethic based on mastery of material and technique, originality and a clearly articulated conceptual approach. This has obviously been influenced by my long apprenticeship and association with traditional works and relates particularly to the distinct nature of Japanese art and the lack of distinction between fine art and craft/decorative art. This is a distinction that does not apply to Japanese art, something increasingly being recognised by the Japanese art and academic worlds as they throw off the terminology of the West introduced in the Meiji Period.

Despite this being declared ‘the Asian Century’ in Australia, we have a long, long way to go.

Maio Motoko, untitled, 2011, washi, pigment, urushi (lacquer), four two-fold screens, 152 x 152 cm (each). Photography by Masayuki Tsutsui © 2011. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Maio Motoko, untitled, 2011, washi, pigment, urushi (lacquer), four two-fold screens, 152 x 152 cm (each). Photography by Masayuki Tsutsui © 2011. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Which Asian artists have you found to be particularly popular with Australian buyers?

Australian public institutions have been instrumental in bringing to this country major names such as Kusama Yayoi and Yoshitomo Nara, but there have been no commercial exhibitions at this level. Murakami is absent. The National Gallery of Victoria ran a major exhibition of the works of Osamu Tezuka in 2006, but generally speaking major public exhibitions of Japanese contemporary art are lacking.  I would consider the lack of sophistication of the local market in terms of awareness of international prices and willingness to engage at this level a major barrier to commercial exhibitions at this level. May I be proven wrong.

In my experience, I can only comment on Japanese artists and those that we deal with specifically. Internationally renowned ceramic artists Takahiro Kondo and Kishi Eiko are popular. Metalwork artist Professor Kaneko Toru’s work is highly valued. Contemporary lacquer master Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo is in many private Australian collections as well as the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Australia. Contemporary screen and installation artist Maio Motoko is a huge favourite, both here and in New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently acquired a major pair of Maio Motoko screens that will go on exhibit from  2 August 2013- January 2014. Of course, centenarian Toko Shinoda is something of a household name.

Can you spot any trends in geography or theme to current collecting habits?


This is a difficult one. In terms of the Australian experience, it comes down to knowledge and availability, [which are] both lacking. To my mind Australia is still something of a parochial market with continuing emphasis on domestic works of art. Buyers feel comfortable with the local market as there are multiple galleries dealing in the same artists, price comparison is easy and there is a very healthy secondary market. I would not call Australian buyers in general confident international art buyers.

Privately run non-commercial gallery White Rabbit in Sydney is making a significant contribution at a serious curatorial level to an awareness of contemporary Chinese Art in Australia, and the Sherman Foundation is at the forefront of introducing international works here. On a commercial level, newly opened MiFA gallery in Melbourne is paving the way for Indonesian contemporary art.

How important is it to the success of your gallery to have international dialogue with practitioners across Asia?

Absolutely vital and not just across Asia. I am in Japan at least three times a year, sometimes more often, and maintain regular contact with colleagues and artists. America remains vitally important to the world of Japanese art, both historical and contemporary: a sophisticated, well-established, educated, dynamic and self-confident market willing to take risks and backed by decades of leading scholarship and philanthropy in the arts. It is also worth noting the easy and willing cooperation in America among academics, curators, dealers and collectors, again something still to be developed here. It is vital to the artists we represent that we have an international profile, are up to date with world trends as much as is practical from ‘Down Under’ and can be seen to represent their work in as wide a forum as possible.

Nakano Kaoru, ‘Loop & Twist (Red)’, 2008, washi and silver brooch, 11 x 9 x 4 cm. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Nakano Kaoru, ‘Loop & Twist (Red)’, 2008, washi and silver brooch, 11 x 9 x 4 cm. Image courtesy Lesley Kehoe Galleries.

Does bringing in Asian artists have a noticeable effect on the local art scene?


I think the influence of Asian art has a long history in Australia. Japanese ceramics, for example, have had a huge influence on the development of the Australian ceramic world. This has flowed over to architecture and fashion, and of course food from the contribution of our large Chinese population from the nineteenth century. I can only see this increasing with the number of young ‘Asian Australians’ who will inevitably find their way into the creative arts and develop a particularly individual expression, a fusion and transcendence of their cultural backgrounds.

The Australian Art Show is coming up; do you participate in Asian art fairs?

If by Asian art fairs you mean art fairs in Asia, we have yet to do so but have made exploratory visits as we get a feel for where what we do fits best. We have been part of Asia Week NY for over ten years and although not specifically Asian art-related have exhibited in London, Paris, Chicago, Dubai, Los Angeles, San Francisco… Europe also to come perhaps.

How significant is the ‘art fair phenomenon’ in terms of the Asia-Pacific art market?


This is of course a current major topic of debate. Are galleries dead? Is the art fair the new and only way to present and sell art? The same debate took place some years ago with the emergence of multiple auction houses competing with galleries for both works and clients. Now the auction houses are opening private galleries and offering works in semi-gallery settings without the auction trappings. I don’t think anything can replace the long-term relationship between a professional gallery and a client. The art fair is a wonderful anonymous forum for easy comparison of works and prices and quality.

It’s easy in America to start an art collection and get a very quick understanding of the market. A relatively  uneducated eye can readily discern the difference between poor, ordinary, good and excellent when shown a similar item from each category, the ever popular Japanese netsuke comes to mind, for example.

This is not possible in Australia and reference material, be it hard or soft copy, is no replacement for the experience of the object. The art fair, or specialist convention in the case of netsuke, provides an invaluable opportunity for the collector to begin a serious education.

All forms of art exhibitions and sales have a place in the development of a collection, small or large, public or private. It is the freedom of the individual to choose one, or combination of several, for their own pleasure and growth.

What does the future hold for Asian art in Australia, and perhaps Australian art in Asia?

Unlimited opportunity and potential in both fields. Australia is a relative newcomer to the power of the international art market. Our geographical distance remains an obstacle, our small population another one.

In the future, this will all change. [There will be] a broadening of experience, more exposure to Asian Art, a more educated and open-minded population, a broader acceptance of art as an integral part of a full life. And, quite frankly for anyone with an eye and some experience, the best contemporary art currently is coming from Asia not the West!

Australian art is barely known in Asia,  a little more further afield…major works on the European market are generally repatriated. Australian art is not an international currency. The relative strength of the domestic market has perhaps contributed to a bit of complacency. The development of the art fair in Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore, has provided a perfect opportunity for the international growth of Australian art.

Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Annette Reeves, Co-director of Niagara Galleries

Niagara Galleries was established in 1978 by William Nuttall and features modern and contemporary art such as painting, sculpture, photography and ceramics from its stable of 45 artists. Co-director Annette Reeves also serves as Chairperson of the Yarra Arts Advisory Committee. The gallery will participate in Sydney Contemporary 13 in September 2013.

In your time as a Melbourne gallerist, has the popularity of contemporary Asian art waxed or waned with buyers? 


Niagara Galleries was established over 35 years ago, and we have observed that the popularity of Asian art has never been greater than it is now. In the past five years, however, there has been a climate of economic restraint and caution, so while interest in visual art is high, purchasing in all sectors has stalled.

Despite the appearance that Australia has weathered the economic storm well relative to the rest of the world, the art sector has been hard hit due to changes in superannuation regulations and lack of confidence in the economy resulting in collectors being very cautious. Auction houses have also been very dominant in driving sales in a market where freely set prices favour auction houses rather than galleries that represent a stable of artists.

Looking beyond the recent economic climate, interest in Australia in all international art has grown enormously over the past twenty years.

Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, 'Etto', 2008, acrylic on perforated canvas, 120 x 180 cm. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, ‘Etto’, 2008, acrylic on perforated canvas, 120 x 180 cm. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Do you bring any specific curatorial agenda or focus to your Asian art exhibitions?


Niagara’s curatorial agenda is driven by our belief in quality and relevance. Many of our artists are very senior Australian artists whose work has been collected by important state and private collections for many years.

Which Asian artists have you found to be particularly popular with Australian buyers?

We are currently exhibiting two artists who are now residents in China. Liu Zhuoquan was born in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. He currently lives and works in Beijing. His work has been included in a number of significant international exhibitions including the Uli Sigg Collection, White Rabbit Sydney and Today Art Museum in Beijing. His installation of 1780 hand painted bottles was included in the 18th Sydney Biennale in 2012.

Hu Qinwu was born in Shandong China in 1969 and currently works in Beijing. In 2008, he was awarded a masters degree in painting from Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing.

Song Ling, 'Bang! Bang bang!', 2007 acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183 cm. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Song Ling, ‘Bang! Bang Bang!’, 2007 acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183 cm. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

We also exhibit Song Ling. He was born in China in 1961 and settled in Australia in 1988. He graduated from the China National Academy of Fine Art and was a member of the 1985 New Wave art movement in China.  He has been a finalist in many important Australian art prizes. Liu Zhuoquan and Song Ling are both very popular with collectors.

Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, who we exhibit, was born in Laos but is now a resident in Australia. Her work has been collected by many major private and public collections including the Queensland Art Gallery and The National Gallery of Australia.

We have also recently taken on Rubaba Haider who is a young Afghani born artist who trained in miniature painting in Lahore.

How important is it to the success of your gallery to have international dialogue with practitioners across Asia?

We are also keen to introduce leading Australian artists to the international community. We have participated in Korea International Art Fair (KIAF) and we are about to exhibit some of our artists in Hong Kong in the near future. It is important to our gallery to have an international dialogue. We have taken works by very senior Australian artists when we participated in KIAF in Korea and have made a point of visiting Basel and Hong Kong art fairs for many years.

Lena Nyadbi, 'Sugarbag Yard Hill', 2009, etching, 14 x 19 cm. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Lena Nyadbi, ‘Sugarbag Yard Hill’, 2009, etching, 14 x 19 cm. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Does bringing in Asian artists have a noticeable effect on the local art scene?


It is very interesting to look back and realise what enormous changes have happened due to curiosity and improved communications and cheaper airfares. My feeling is the more cross pollination between Asia and Australia the better. Each part of the world has much to teach the other [about] what a fascinating world it is.

The Australian Art Show is coming up; do you participate in Asian art fairs?

I think the art fair phenomenon is very important. It not only allows collectors the opportunity to sample art from all over the world in a quick one stop event it also opens up a conversation between artists and their galleries.

How significant is the ‘art fair phenomenon’ in terms of the Asia-Pacific art market?


Niagara Galleries Director William Nuttall played an integral part in establishing the Melbourne Art Fair. In those early fairs, many leading Korean and Japanese galleries participated and through their participation were introduced to other sectors of the market. I remember a Korean gallery selling a significant sculpture to the Tate Gallery as a consequence of their participation in the Melbourne Art Fair.

Niagara Galleries has maintained a great affection for many of the artists, collectors and gallerists whom we have met through these art fairs.

Liu Zhuoquan, 'Body Parts', 2011, mixed media, various dimensions. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

Liu Zhuoquan, ‘Body Parts’, 2011, mixed media, various dimensions. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries.

What does the future hold for Asian art in Australia, and perhaps Australian art in Asia?

I think there is a very bright and stimulating future for leading Asian art in Australia. I think there may also be interesting niche markets for leading Australian art in Asia, but I think there needs to be a great deal more communicating with the Asian sector through either art fairs or through institutional channels.

For example, in a recent KIAF, it would have been worthwhile if a survey exhibition of Australian art also accompanied the fair as a way to allow this new audience a means of getting Australian art in perspective.

The other interesting phenomenon is how this new cross cultural understanding brings to our attention the extraordinary work of an Australian artist such as Ian Fairweather who painted works of his life in China. Painting in the 1950 and 1960s, he also integrated an understanding of Chinese calligraphy into his abstract work in Australia.

Susan Kendzulak

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This article was amended at the request of Niagara Gallery

Related Topics: Asian artAustralia venues, art in Australia, globalisation, art fairs

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