What Southeast Asia Art Scene Tells Us About The Pandemic Road to Recovery

This article was originally published on Hong Kong art media CoBo Social on 14 July 2021.

Even though countries such as the US and UK make it seem like the pandemic is well and truly over, the real picture is murkier. The virus is far from endemic and globally the path to a post-COVID-19 reality is likely to be uneven and longer than expected.

In fact, Southeast Asia, one of the most diverse regions in the world with 675 million people speaking more than 100 languages and dialects, faces an uphill road towards pandemic recovery.

In the beginning of July, Bloomberg reported there was a combined outflow of US$2.7 billion foreign funds from equities in Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia during April to June this year. This move by disappointed investors was due to Southeast Asia’s recent struggle to contain the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 and slow inoculation rates, with only 11% of the population or less in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia fully vaccinated.

Nonetheless, even though Indonesia witnessed a decline in the wealth of their richest, it was only a contraction of 1.2% compared to the year before. Also, in February this year, it was projected that Southeast Asia’s largest economy would experience a yearly 67% rise in the number of people becoming ultra-high net worth individuals until 2025. Perhaps this could bolster the country’s art market in the months and years ahead, even as it exacerbates issues of inequity.

Moreover, the experimental dynamism and community-centered spirit of Indonesia’s art scene is blatant to see for anyone familiar with it. This will likely take centerstage in the international art world with artist collective ruangrupa going ahead with documenta 15 in 2022.

The Jakarta-based group is using the notion of lumbung (Indonesian term for a communal rice barn) as the underlying theme of the major international exhibition, tapping on principles associated with collectivity, communal resource sharing, and equal allocation. They hope to imbue these ideas into the exhibition, as well as its organisation and programming.

It is a rather different story for Singapore which seems on track to reach widespread vaccination this year. The country, according to a Bloomberg article, has become “a safe harbour for some of the region’s wealthiest tycoons and their families,” in the past year or so, due to mortality rates being 10 and 30 times lower than in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively.

However, this has not spared the less than inspired local art scene. Singapore’s oldest independent art space, The Substation, will close at the end of July. This comes on the heels of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA), an organisation for artistic research, residencies, and exhibitions, closing down its spaces at the Gillman Barracks arts enclave in March. Also, two major local independent theatre companies are moving out of their usual premises due to high rents or other challenges.

Political turmoil has also rocked the region, impacting the art scene in different countries. Myanmar has been in the midst of a roiling political crisis since February, inciting a resurgence in protest art amongst young people. A day after the coup, 25-year-old pseudonymous Antithesis created his first work, featuring a simplistic, graffiti-style image with the words “disobey” in white against a red background. Since then, he has been using pop culture references from Canadian singer The Weeknd to a Looney Tunes cartoon character in his art. Though it has to be noted that politically inspired art has always been the country’s legacy with established artists such as Aung Myint, Aye Ko and Suu Myint Thein.

Malaysia too is facing crises on all fronts. A nationwide lockdown in response to its most recent COVID-19 surge set off the #benderaputih campaign to help those in need. This social media movement began as a public response to the rising suicide rate, seemingly caused by the economic struggles due to the pandemic.

In this volatile context, it is unclear how the local art scene will sustain itself, especially when the likes of Petronas, the national oil and gas company, closed its established art space Galeri Petronas. While the official statement regarding the closure cites “realignment of its operating model to adapt to the changes brought about by the pandemic” as the main reason, art collector Pakhruddin Sulaiman told local media Options that it makes little sense when one of the biggest oil companies in the world cannot allocate a small amount of money to support art.

Then again, in spite of the societal ills worsened by the pandemic, or maybe because of it, Southeast Asia’s diverse art scene seemed to have found an appetite for NFTs.

Art fairs such as Art Moments Jakarta and Art Fair Philippines included NFT art exhibitions, workshops and panel discussions in their 2021 online editions. One such work, 53 Never Forgotten was created by Indonesia-based couple Ruanth Thyssen and Cindy Thyssen as a tribute to the 53 lives lost during the April sinking of an Indonesian Navy submarine.

There’s also a Filipino virtual art gallery in Decentraland known as Narra Gallery which initiated a First Mint Fund to support Southeast Asian artists interested in minting their first crypto artwork but unable to afford the gas fees. Not to be outdone, Singapore has quickly become known as the base for NFT whales such as Beeple collector Vignesh SundaresanJustin Sun and startups like Mintable which is funded by American billionaire Mark Cuban.

The recent NFT boom and the manner in which it has transcended geographies in the region brings to light an inherent push-and-pull in Southeast Asia’s art scene, between its immensely creative, socially aware arts community and its “smart-casual showmen”. Only time will tell which aspect of the region will fully manifest as it comes out of a long and winding recovery to face the looming post-pandemic world.

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