How important is the Philippines to the Asian art market?

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"…in the five years since Art Basel first began in Hong Kong, it has become perhaps the most important annual event on the regional art calendar," says Amy Qin of the New York Times. "When it comes to Asian art, Art Basel Hong Kong is the place to go[...]" This year, Art Basel's Hong Kong edition will feature four Filipino galleries: 1335Mabini, Artinformal, Silverlens, and The Drawing Room. Photo courtesy of ART BASEL HONG KONG

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2012, Brisbane- and Manila-based artist duo Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan created a large-scale installation made of cardboard boxes supported by steel scaffolding to represent the stilt settlements of the Badjao or the sea gypsies in the Philippines.

The installation, “In Habit: Project Another Country,” toured Australia and Japan from 2013 to 2015. This year, a reinterpretation of this show — the cardboard boxes are flattened to make collagraphs that mirror bomb sites, which are all representations of the fallibility and vulnerability of homes — will be one of the highlights at Art Basel Hong Kong.

“They are one of the Philippines' most recognized international artists out there of the generation. And yet, there are so many who haven't heard of the Aquilizans. Collectors were not fully aware of who the Aquilizans are,” says Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel in Asia.

Ooi adds that showing works of globally distinguished Asian artists, such as the Aquilizans, is one of the goals of the fair, especially since Art Basel HK exists not only to build bridges between the art scenes of the East and the West, but more so among countries across Asia.

“In a sense, this fair is really about serving this region because the other question that other people always ask is, ‘How is it different in Miami?’ I mean, the locale in itself indicates everything,” she says. “Miami is very American, Latin America, and North America. Basel, obviously, being centred in Europe, is very much the European stronghold, and being the mother show, it's also obviously that jewel in the crown, very much old world.”

“They are one of the Philippines' most recognized international artists out there of the generation,” says Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel in Asia, of Filipino artists Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan. In photo: "Left Wing Project (Belok Kiri Jalan Terus), 2017-2018 by Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizans. Photo courtesy of ISABEL AND ALFREDO AQUILIZAN AND THE YAVUZ GALLERY

When asked about the fair’s importance to the Philippine art market in particular, Ooi says that the art scene in the Philippines is historically one of the most significant in the region, and that next to Japan, the Philippines had a true modern art movement during a time when the countries’ economies were in good shape while other nations were building and rebuilding after the war.

“[Just looking at] the kind of infrastructures and the artists, I mean it's a very, very interesting history. It still is. I think most people stereotypically think, 'Oh, Philippines, so Catholic, so there would be lots of crucifixes and lots of paintings that sort of references the religion,'” she says.

“But the truth is, if you look at something by Arturo Luz or Fernando Zobel, back in those days, like wow … there is just so much to be proud of and I think it's wonderful that there is this platform in Asia to really be able to highlight all the unique qualities of different art scenes.”

The Hong Kong edition of Art Basel is part of the world’s premiere and most important modern and contemporary art fairs, along with the annual staging in Basel and Miami Beach.

Now on its sixth edition, the upcoming Art Basel Hong Kong show will be host to four galleries from the Philippines, namely, 1335Mabini, Artinformal, Silverlens, and The Drawing Room, which will all feature works of Filipino contemporary artists.

Adeline Ooi talked to CNN Philippines Life to discuss the art trends that she’s seen in the fair, the selection process of Art Basel, and the relevance of the show to the Philippine art community. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

This is already the sixth edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. Do you feel a responsibility to create something new for it?

No, I think, for us, within the Art Basel group, I think we all have a few sort of beliefs. One is we always believe in delivering the highest quality possible — the best that it can be. The other thing that we don't do is we don't invent for the sake of inventing. Because the way we feel is like, sometimes we do particular projects, sometimes we introduce particular sectors because we feel like the show needs it. But other than that, I think, often, we want to keep the focus quite pure, which is on the art that you see in the convention center, which is also to highlight the amazing artists.

Adeline Ooi leads Art Basel's show in Hong Kong and is the director of the Art Basel team in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo courtesy of ART BASEL HONG KONG

There are four galleries joining from the Philippines. Can you share how these galleries were selected? What was the criteria taken into consideration?

The Art Basel follows the tradition of Art Basel in Basel in the sense that there is a selection committee that is made up of galleries from Asia as well as those who have specialized knowledge of Asia. And every year, we convene. What happens is galleries put in proposals and then every year, we convene and we read through the proposals and then we select.

There is no quota. It's all really based on three things: the reputation of the gallery as an upstanding gallery, which means best practice in every possible way, i.e. pay your artists, do not mislead collectors with false pricing; two is their track record as well, in terms of their program — how interesting is their program throughout the year; three is the artists they intend to bring to the show.

I think, all in all, it says a lot for the Philippines that you have four. Because I mean, I come from Malaysia, and I have [none].

The [large] chunk of the galleries are from Japan. We have about 24 from Japan, we have over 40 from mainland China. Taiwan, Korea are consistent — around 9 to 10 every year. This year, we have 9 from India as well. The numbers are almost steady because it's also indicative of the art scene itself.

If you think about the mainland, if you think about the number of people alone, how many galleries would that be? And Japan makes sense because they have a very, very sophisticated and a very old art scene. They have galleries that are as old as 90 years old. Again, if you think back to history, where everyone else was in the middle of the second world war, we were so busy fighting wars, but there were already galleries in other parts of Asia.

1335Mabini and Artinformal are now part of the main exhibition area. How did they level up, so to speak?

I think they've been consistently with us. Tina [Fernandez of ArtInfomal] has been with us for three or four years, and similarly, 1335. After a certain time, I think the selection committee members just felt that it's about time. The galleries are mature enough to really take on the Gallery sector, and it's also good for the gallery because if you think about it, if you're doing Discoveries [an area for emerging contemporary artists] like Artinformal, you're only allowed to present one artist at a time.

But once you're in the Gallery sector, you can really present the full scope, right? It's good for Tina as well to be able to remind all of us of Alvin Zafra, for example, who was, two years ago, shortlisted for the BMW Art Journey Awards. And it's nice to be able to bring all this back because it's like a way of communicating with your audience.

You're not just going to see that one thing once. I wanna bring you back, show you who this person is, and show you how far he's gone. It's like a relationship, like friendships, right? Like you see each other once, then you catch up. It's about that. It's about catching up. It's about following each other's progress.

The 2018 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong features 248 premier galleries from 32 countries and territories. The 2017 edition was visited by nearly 80,000 people in over five days. Photo courtesy of ART BASEL HONG KONG

You mentioned that Hong Kong Art Basel aims to represent the region. Do you see any common trends across the art that the fair will be presenting?

I think there's no particular trend. We don't really curate until the galleries tell their artists ‘you bring this, you bring that.’ But I think what is interesting always is the synergies that come together. It's not so much [that] great minds think alike, but there are certain commonalities, certain overlaps. And it's often very interesting.

For example, you see abstraction. So, abstraction from Egypt, abstraction from somewhere like India. You look at the works and you feel like, oh my gosh, you're able to actually connect the dots, one way or another. Now everyone's like, what about VR? Yeah, it's true, there's a lot of VR artists. And not just younger artists. That's another stereotype. Everyone thinks only young artists are interested in VR and AR and all that but that's not true.

And as much as you say that there is a whole bunch of that new technology, artists are also sort of resisting all that and going really, really back, the other end of the spectrum, which is like, ‘I wanna go old school. Instead of going VR, I wanna do cut and paste but cut and paste with my hand.’ So you know, in as much as there's high tech ... I think there's also a portion of people who just say no, I want the whole slow movement.

Have you also seen that trend the previous year? And what other themes are to be expected this year?

I think one of the things that we can definitely expect this year are, for example, given the state of the world, a lot more works that deal with socio-political content. And if you think with where we are with everything else, there's also lots of work that addresses gender specificity, power, sexuality, given the whole #MeToo and sort of feminist movement and revisiting these feminist movements as well. Because some of these works, even though they had come and gone, they now come back and resonate in a deeper way.

Think about the likes of the Guerilla Girls back in the old days. Think about where we are again, here, in this point in time. And even though, in the '90s, the struggles were different, what they were, the immediate urgency and all that, and what they were fighting for were in a very different context, but if you apply it to now these works still mean a lot. It still implies that some of the struggles have not gone away — that we're still constantly fighting what we're fighting.

I think what is also interesting in Hong Kong is the number of new discoveries, like new artists that have been introduced in the show that we've never seen ever.


Art Basel Hong Kong runs from March 29 to 31. Visit the official website for more details.