Beyond the samosas

If the contemporary art world has a unifying characteristic, it is its global nature. Anyone riding the art-fair carousel from Delhi to London by way of Hong Kong, Basel and New York knows that borders have never been more porous. Numerous artists, curators and collectors have been born in one place, educated in another and are based in a third. Many come from immigrant backgrounds. Some artists draw on their ancestral heritage. Others not. Many live in countries where national identity is itself a hybrid.

Yet efforts to group artists according to geography are strong. A raft of survey shows – from the Hayward Gallery’s New Directions from China last autumn to the Saatchi Collection’s current overview of Soviet art – are now being aped by selling exhibitions organised by the auction houses. (Sotheby’s put on a display of central Asian art in London last month and currently has a selection of contemporary art from Brazil in New York.) Art fairs too are taking on a regional identity. One of the cornerstones of Art Basel in Hong Kong this week (May 23-26) is Insights, a display of projects by galleries based in Asia or the Asia-Pacific region chosen on curatorial merit by the fair’s selection committee.

Behind the initiative, says fair director Magnus Renfrew, is the desire to ensure a strong representation of galleries from the Asia-Pacific region while retaining “tight editorial control”.

For the galleries, Insights offers a strong commercial opportunity. Yet isn’t there a danger of consigning Asia-Pacific art to a ghetto? Mimi Chun, director of participating Hong Kong gallery Blindspot, thinks not: “Our primary focus is Chinese photography and [Insights] provides a more relevant context for us to feature our work in.” Renfrew also believes that context is essential if work is to be understood by those of “a different cultural upbringing”.

Not all agree. In his essay entitled On Not being a Tree, Aveek Sen, a writer and curator based in Kolkata, argues powerfully against “the tyranny of context”. Sen perceives that work by westerners is “supposed to be universal ... We respond to the Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa without having to know about classical Greece or Renaissance Italy” whereas Asian art is “tied to its time and place” by curators’ misplaced belief that “an informed understanding of the contexts in which it is produced is essential for doing it full justice”.

Gradually, however, a shift is occurring. At Tate Modern, art from across the world is collected through regional acquisition committees. Yet the work is not displayed along geographical lines. “All art and artists come from a place [but] no artist wants to be circumscribed by one label or can be,” observes Achim Borchardt-Hume, head of exhibitions at Tate Modern, which is currently home to a monograph of 97-year-old Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair and will soon inaugurate a solo show of Sudan-born, UK-based modernist Ibrahim el-Salahi.

Collective exhibitions are beginning to recognise links through practice rather than place. In a bid to rethink notions of national identity, at the Venice Biennale this year Germany has swapped its pavilion with France. It will show a quartet of artists, only one of whom is from Germany, though all have strong creative links with the country. One of those chosen, the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh, is also due a monograph at London’s Hayward Gallery in October. “I made the curator promise that there is no India angle to this and he agreed. But then I said: ‘Yes, you say that now but you’ll serve samosas at the opening!’” says Singh, who deplores the fact that “the world is so focused on Indian art but more on the Indian than the art”.

Indeed, why were the monochrome geometric drawings of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi overlooked when the Serpentine Gallery and the Pompidou were putting together their survey shows Indian Highway (2008) and Paris-Delhi-Bombay (2011)? According to Mohamedi’s gallerist Deepak Talwar, her subtle poetics “didn’t fit the curators’ criteria of art that spoke loudly that it was Indian”. Yet when MoMA put together On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century (2010) it included Mohamedi in a line-up that ranged from US minimalist Robert Ryman to the Brazilian modernist Lygia Clark.

Adriano Pedrosa, an independent curator based in São Paulo, believes regional and national survey shows are “simplistic”, although when handled sensitively they can be a “starting point to introduce regions to a certain audience”. The more successful tend to focus on “very specific criteria”, he argues, in which artworks are connected through characteristics that go beyond location. The Royal Academy’s forthcoming show Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940, which focuses on work by national and international artists influenced by Mexico’s revolution of 1910-1920, should be such an example.

Pedrosa also champions exhibitions that establish “connections and dialogue between the margins” rather than the more frequent encounters between Europe or the US and countries still viewed as peripheral. He himself orchestrated gripping encounters, notably between artists from Latin America and the Middle East, when he curated the Istanbul Biennial in 2011. Those regions, alongside work from south Asia, also created thoughtful cross-vibrations in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India earlier this year.

Now Pedrosa is working on Hiwar, Conversations in Amman, a residency and conversations programme at the Khalid Shoman Foundation in Jordan. Culminating in an exhibition in November, it will encompass artists from countries including Angola, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Palestine and the Philippines.

Similar goals are being set at Delfina Foundation, a London-based organisation that supports artists from north Africa and the Middle East. Delfina’s director, Aaron Cezar, explains that when the foundation started, its mission was to address the isolation of Arab artists following 9/11. “Mostly what was surfacing then were regional shows focused on women, war and religion,” he says.

Delfina’s early projects sustained work that did not conform to those stereotypes. Now, Cezar feels, it is time to form “unlikely alliances”. One recent collaboration is between an Egyptian and a Brazilian artist who both responded to the film archive Videobrazil. The new approach also inspires Points of Departure, an exhibition of work made through a residential exchange of British and Palestinian artists that opened in Ramallah and is coming to the London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in June. “The artists strongly resisted the notion of a traditional east-west cultural exchange which tends to focus on difference,” explains Cezar. “Instead the exhibition emerged from common ground within their practice, in particular from the idea of liminality [notions of border and threshold] which recurred for all of them at every level.”

Most artists do not want to be burdened, as Cezar puts it, with the responsibility of being “a cultural ambassador”. Singh’s guests at the Hayward will have to content themselves with sushi, or perhaps scones.

Art Basel in Hong Kong, May 23-26

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