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Art Platform S.E.A. Focus Brings Together 20 Galleries From Vietnam, Asia

In its second year, the art platform brought together 20 galleries from across Asia and beyond, highlighting a diverse range of contemporary Asian artists in one space.

S.E.A. Focus 2020 ran from January 16 to 19 at Singapore's Gillman Barracks, a former British military facility that has been transformed into a sophisticated creative hub. This event, however, was held in a purpose-built tent, thoughtfully air-conditioned to ward off the steamy tropical heat, under the motto "A meeting point for art in Southeast Asia."

Emi Eu is the driving force behind S.E.A. Focus. Born in South Korea, she has lived in Singapore for over 20 years, and her son serves in the Singaporean military.

Emi Eu, STPI's Executive Director and a major force behind S.E.A. Focus. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

"I was involved with the Art Galleries Association of Singapore, and we had around 30 members," she told Saigoneer on the sidelines of S.E.A. Focus. "One of the things that a lot of members were really wishing for was to have an art show that could bring all the collectors and buyers together at one time."

Art Singapore, an art fair created by the association, started in 1996 and ran for over 10 years before the 2008 financial crisis forced its closure. Gillman Barracks opened in 2012 and began hosting exhibitions from individual galleries, but nothing on the scale of S.E.A. Focus.

"That was the genesis for this platform, but the association was on a volunteer basis, so we didn't have an office and we didn't have full-time staff, so we couldn't get a lot done," Eu said. "Then came the National Arts Council, and they said they would support us, but we still need more organizational help, and in came STPI."

'It's Been Four Years Since...' by Cheng Yen Pheng of Kuala Lumpur's Wei-Ling Gallery. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Founded in 2002, STPI is, according to their promotional material, "a dynamic creative workshop and art gallery based in Singapore...STPI is committed to promoting artistic experimentation in the mediums of print and paper and has become one of the most cutting-edge destinations for contemporary art in Asia."

Even with STPI's help, it wasn't until 2019 that S.E.A. Focus finally became a reality. Eu considered last year's event to be a trial, while the most recent iteration was the true debut, organized fully under the auspices of STPI, which Eu is executive director of.

She was also adamant on calling S.E.A. Focus a platform, not a fair: "Even last year we didn't want to call it a fair because we're not competing with any other fairs, as we have a very good one here and others in Hong Kong...it's really a platform or a project that has different elements in it, for example, our series of talks, which I really put a lot of effort into curating."

The SEAspotlight talks covered topics such as 'Local Infrastructures, Global Ecologies' and 'Creativity and Competition,' as well as panel discussions focused on Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The Vietnam talk was moderated by artist Dinh Q. Le, and featured Tuan Mami, the co-founder of Á Space, CUC Gallery founder Pham Phuong Cuc, Nguyen Foundation creator Quynh Nguyen, and writer Louise Malcolm.

Part of the kaleidoscopic art from Kuala Lumpur's Richard Koh Fine Art. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

The galleries

Hanoi's CUC Gallery was among the 20 galleries featured at S.E.A. Focus, with others including Manila's The Drawing Room, Berlin's neugerriemschneider, Bangkok's Nova Contemporary, STPI, and Vitamin Creative Space, which works in Beijing and Guangzhou.

When asked whether Eu and her team pursued an overarching theme in selecting galleries, the executive director explained: "I didn't think that that it was necessary because galleries have their own programming, their own focus, and that's the diversity of that; seeing it all in one place is what makes an event like this really exciting, it's about bringing all the different things artists are doing in different places, putting it together and making it look harmonious and fun."

The result was an incredibly diverse range of contemporary art, with paintings sitting next to sculptures sitting next to installations and more. Wandering through the tent allowed one to experience vastly different styles, subjects, materials and inspiration, all within a few feet of each other, creating a truly unique art space.

Vietnamese artist Tulip Duong's 'The Hybrid' represented CUC Gallery. Her installation placed natural serpentine stones atop bright red gearboxes, an allegory for humankind's consumption of nature.

'The Hybrid,' by Tulip Duong. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Mit Jai Inn, a Thai artist based in Chiang Mai, had two oil on canvas works featured, 'Dreamwork' and 'Patchwork,' courtesy of Silverlens Galleries in Manila. "The technique, with the weaving and the color, it's like when you walk into a village or a market of a rural place in Southeast Asia," he shared. "This event, it's like a party, a festival, when the villagers join a festive time after the harvest or after their hard work at the farm."

Mit Jai Inn in front of 'Patchwork.' Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Indonesian artist Lugas Syllabus, who lives in Yogyakarta, took a quick break from exploring the other artworks on display to share his thoughts on taking part in S.E.A. Focus.

"It's very interesting and challenging," he said. "I decided to focus on paper, on drawing, while I mainly work on paintings and installations. It's the first time I've shown my drawings, one of which can take a month, on a big stage."

He went on: "The interesting thing about an art event with this much variety is it's different from a group or solo show, here it's like you are in a big area with many challenges. I want to show my ability, show my work. I love it."

Lugas Syllabus next to 'Jiwa Yang Tenang' from Singapore's Chan + Hori Contemporary. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

S.E.A. Focus moving forward

When Eu moved to Singapore from New York two decades ago, the Asian art scene was uncharted territory for her. "I was much more familiar with art in the west," she shared. "So it took some time, but then I realized that the artists and practitioners here are very, very deeply rooted in their heritage. And that comes through."

This heritage is what she hopes to continue focusing on moving forward, while also keeping an eye toward the future.

"The art world is changing very quickly, like almost every corner of the world," she said. "I think it's very important for everybody in the art world to keep pace with what's happening outside, so I want the focus to be continuously moving. With this, it's a real baby step towards attracting attention to Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian artists and their practice. So hopefully by the end of this, though I don't know how many years we'll go on for, we will be on par with the major art fairs and festivals we see all over the place. That's my hope."

While S.E.A. Focus 2020 has already come and gone, there is plenty more for art lovers in the city-state, as the Singapore Biennale is currently underway until March 22. Gillman Barracks is one of the locations for the biennale, with other prominent exhibitions at the Asian Civilizations Museum and the beautiful National Gallery.

The latter hosts works by two Vietnamese artists, Le Quang Ha and Ngoc Nau. Nau's 'Chapter 1: The Legend of Lieu Hanh' combines a print on canvas with an augmented reality app presented through two iPads to tell the story of spiritual and social life in northern Vietnam in the French colonial era.

Ngoc Nau's augmented reality-based work at the National Gallery. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Ha's incendiary 'Gilden Age,' meanwhile, utilizes mixed media and takes inspiration from the 1873 Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner satirical novel of the same name.

All of this shows that contemporary art is alive and well in Southeast Asia, despite strictures of some of the region's countries, while events such as S.E.A. Focus are establishing Singapore as the beating heart of this community.

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