Towards an Asean art community

It is dubbed the Rolls Royce of art competitions in the region, even if confined only to "paintings" in the broadest sense of the term. But the Philip Morris Asean Art Awards which successfully completed its sixth edition in Kuala Lumpur recently is much much more than the US$150,000 prize-money pool. There's no disputing the mercenary lucre of prizes and the instant fame and recognition the awards bestow on the winners. The Grand Award is worth US$10,000 with each of the four juror's choices at US$5,000. This is on top the cash prizes of the top five winners at the respective national levels, in Malaysia's case RM12,500 each. And the winners at the national level get an all-expenses paid trip to the final venue, held on a rotation basis among participating countries. But what perhaps far outweigh the monetary aspects are the experience, the exposures and interactions of so many leading art administrators, artists and thinkers at one place. They not only get to know more, first-hand, about the art of the host countries but also the exciting creative impulses in tandem with the rapid changes brought about by globalisation. For young artists, mostly below the age of 30 and who make a huge chunk of the aspirants, the exposures will be something lasting and telling in their work and career. Either through private visits to local galleries or through organised programmes and the forging of new friendships among their peers or new mentor-figures, they will also be better acquainted with the rich artistic heritage of various traditions and cultures. To safeguard the competition's integrity further, this year's competition has the added clause that "the organiser reserves the right to bar from the competition any work which uses, depicts and portrays any commercial tobacco product in an identifiable manner."

What is unmatched is the highest political cachet given to the final ceremony which enables commerce, the arts and the government to meet on the same stage.

The Kuala Lumpur finals had the "blessings" of Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, wife of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. She joined a distinguished list that included Fidel Ramos, Goh Chok Tong, General Prem Tinsulanda, and the late Tien Suharto.

For the sponsors, too, this has also doubled as a "dialogue" of sorts of their top executives from all over, East and West, where they map out strategies while cementing personal bonds.

With an expanded Asean fraternity, the task of organising such an event, while becoming obviously more exciting, has also become more less- manageable.

The competition is open to artists below the age of 18 in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam. New Asean inclusions Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar took part only as "guests" in the exhibition proper, but already the effects are showing.

After taking part as observers last year, Laos held its first national painting competition, formed the Laos Association of Artists and more galleries have opened in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, what with 2000-2001 designated Visit Laos Year.

The ravages of Pol Pol's regime which propagated cultural genocide showed in Cambodia, which were represented by two younger artists.

Generally, the competition allows generous latitude in interpretation, conception and execution. There is no entry fee, no fixed theme and even the "painting" parameters of a stipulated weight of 30kg and 2x2metre format allow for non-conventional works.

Malaysian Ramlan Abdullah's Level Picture Assimilation (1996), Ahmad Shukri Mohamed's Insect Diskette (1997), Tan Vooi Yam's ceramica (1999), Filipino Gabrielle Barredo's Mindscape `69 (1994), Thai Panu Suaysuwan's Women (1999); and Indonesian Ristyo Eko Hartanto's A Game for the Indonesian People (1999) - just to mention a few.

Said National Art Gallery director Wairah Marzuki: "The freedom of expression allows excellent platform for good cultural achievements and promotions for artistic citizens."

But Zainal Abidin "Zabas", a former judge at the Asean level in Bangkok in 1996 and director of Galeri Petronas, felt that young artists are forced to do two-dimensional works.

"If the organisers want to promote art, don't categorise but have an open category. Not all countries have strong two-dimensional traditions. Artists here have to go by canonised painting of Western art history and the physical requirements of size. There is a need to highlight installations based on traditional cultures," he says.

Japan's Masahiro Ushiroshoji, an expert on South-east Asian art and who joined the international judging panel for the first time this year, sees the "problem" as a conflict of divergent interests - one institutionalised by big corporations, and the other broader-scope art inspired by art museums.

"The two-dimensional format could hinder the artists' spirit and prevent a new style of art from emerging," adds Ushiroshoji, who is the chief curator of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

The present trend is more towards installations, performance art, alternative art and e-Art involving all the multimedia gaboodle.

Vishakha N. Desai, this year's chief judge also making her debut, is surprised by the great number of young artists taking part but wants more of them to "push the limits" of painting parameters instead of angling towards an obvious dominant formula of reflecting a "relevance to Asean/Asian consciousness and responsiveness to contemporary life and issues." Vishaka is a senior vice-president of the Asia Society in New York.

This has somewhat dictated the trend of Bruneian art, which has made marked improvements since joining the competition in 1994 in the Singapore finals.

Says Pengiran Haji Hashim Mohd Jadid, director of the Brunei Museums: "Since Brunei began taking part in the competition, there has been a great shift in the art scene in both the approaches and concepts of the artists.

Adds Thomas Yeo, president of the Modern Art Society of Singapore: "... many (of the artists) return to their cultural heritage and bring forth challenging contemporary images."

As 37-year-old Singaporean Goh Ee Choo, one of this year's juror's choice winners, opines: "The rich cultures of Asean, with its hidden potential, have always been undermined by Western media and paradigm.

"There is so much to (re)learn from our cultures, religions and architecture.

But this socio-political thrust does not find favour with the Francophile Vietnamese who joined the competition in the 1996 finals in Bangkok. Said artist Nguyen Huy Hoang, who won one of the Asean juror's choice awards in last year's finals in Hanoi: "The difference between Vietnamese art and art from around the region is that we focus our art on beauty - not politics."

Also, it is difficult in such a competition with such cultural diversities and symbolic peculiarities to form a standard judging criteria. The freedom in expression, including nudity and especially works dealing with sensitive socio-political and even ethnicised issues, are a great `X' factor that hovers over more conservative societies like Brunei, and prevents it from playing host to the finals.

The Grand Award this year went to Piwat Norphiran for his mixed media work, Smiles in Contemporary Society, which explores the duplicitous nature of man with multilayered subtleties.

The juror's choice winners were Johor-born Wong Woan Lee's Someone Forgotten Dream and Reality (oil on canvas), Ristyo Eko Hartanto (Indonesia, an electrically-lit mixed media work entitled A Game for the Indonesian People); Goh Ee Choo (Singapore, Awakening of the Spiritual Dragon, which delves in spiritual salvation); and Panu Suaysuwan (Thailand, a mixed media work of fabric and foam entitled Women).

Malaysia's Kow Leong Kiang won the Grand Award in the finals in Hanoi last year with his work entitled Mr Foreign Speculator, Stop Damaging Our Country.

article by New Straits Times