Is there art after China?

Ghana pavilion curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim during the 58th Biennale of Arts exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2019.
Ghana pavilion curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim during the 58th Biennale of Arts exhibition in Venice, Italy, 2019.
Image: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
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Uli Sigg, a Swiss businessman, arrived in China for the first time in the late 1970s. He had been sent by his company, Schindler Elevators, to set up shop in the country, which was fresh off the end of Mao Zedong’s rule and only starting to open up to the rest of the world.

Sigg had a fascination with art, and he was drawn toward China’s nascent contemporary art scene: with the cultural revolution just behind their backs, artists were searching for their language in a newfound freedom of expression.

It took a few years for Sigg to move from observation to acquisition. Specifically, it was when he served as Swiss ambassador to China and Mongolia between 1995 and 1998 that he began buying contemporary Chinese art. He did so systematically, not just picking up a few pieces he liked, but deliberately working toward a collection that documented the evolution of Chinese contemporary art in a way nobody else was doing. Sigg said in a documentary that he “absolutely wanted to find a new way into Chinese reality, and [he] imagined [he’d] get it from contemporary Chinese art.” 

Before the rest of the world fell in love with contemporary Chinese art, Sigg already had an extensive—indeed, the most extensive—collection of it. At its peak, the collection included more than 2,300 pieces spanning four decades of production—of which 1,500 are now in Hong Kong’s M+ contemporary art museum, to which Sigg donated over 1,450 works of art and sold 47. To date, it is the largest collection of contemporary Chinese art, worth an estimated HK$1.3 billion, or about $170 million.  

The 47 art pieces bought by M+ cost $22 million, a far cry from the price tags Sigg came across while collecting. In fact, the most expensive item cost him around $10,000, and most of them far less than that. Chinese art made him a fortune. 

Sigg’s story is an aspirational, if somewhat unrealistic, example of the kind of returns that investing in art can yield, particularly when that art is coming from countries and artists that aren’t yet mainstream. It’s not an easy strategy to replicate, as it’s inextricably connected with the rise of Chinese art, and China. The sudden opening of the country and subsequent flourishing of art; the near-relentless economic growth; the speculation that pumped money into the art market and value onto the art—the past couple of decades delivered a perfect storm for Chinese contemporary art, and one that is unlikely to happen elsewhere anytime soon.

However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting emerging art markets. In fact, the contemporary art scene has perhaps never been this rife with opportunities—for the curious, the occasional explorer, the wannabe collector, and even the established aficionado.

It is befitting that the title of this year’s Biennale Arte in Venice, arguably the world’s best known (and oldest running, having been established in 1895) is: May You Live in Interesting Times. With 89 countries participating, and five first-time participants—Ghana, Madagascar, Malaysia, and Pakistan—there is no scarcity of potential discoveries.

The jury is still out on whether investing in art is especially prudent. Many leading experts note that the cost of preserving it, as well as the time and research required to make sound investments, often make it less profitable than other ventures. Still, with an average near 10% return year over year, even Iain Robertson, who leads the Art Business Studies at Sotheby’s Institute for the Art, and is rather adamant that art is no place for pure financial speculation, has to concede that “it’s a good hedge” for those with the capital, and the interest, to get into it. 

For those willing to take a higher risk and explore the world of art, there are a few locations worth keeping an eye on, both because of the level of production there, and because of a growing global interest in their artists. Are any of those places the next China? Probably not, but even if they achieved a small fraction of China’s rise in the art world, it would move the horizon a little further, in yet another shift in the still-Western-dominated art world.

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Ghana—right back where the art world started

In June 1907, a young Spanish artist who had lived in Paris for about three years visited the city’s ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro—a building that used to stand right across from the Eiffel Tower. The display was of African wooden masks and sculptures; he recognized the impressive style and craft of a small carved figurine he had seen just a year prior, at the Parisian home of American writer Gertrude Stein; his friend and mentor Henri Matisse had showed it to him, having bought it for spare change at a curio shop. 

He was awestruck. He incorporated the features of those masks, the direction of the gaze, and the towering proportions of the sculptures in a large painting of five naked prostitutes in Carrer d’Avinyó, Barcelona. Those who first saw it were so horrified by it that it took the artist close to a decade to show it in public. When he did, in 1916, it was received as immoral, even though its title had been changed from Le Bordel Philosophique (“The Philosophical Brothel”) to the less scandalous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (“The Ladies of Avignon”).

With that painting, Pablo Picasso had changed art forever.

African art has been making waves in the contemporary (well, at the time) art world for a long, long time—mostly without due recognition. In the past few years, however, the continent has become not just a source of inspiration, but the origin of cherished contemporary artworks. As witnessed by the 2013 opening of 1-54, an Africa-specific art fair in London (now present also in New York and Marrakech), Africa’s contemporary art is in the middle of a boom, and its lively art scene and creative energy is finally finding some commercial support, too (while public funds continue to be hardly available).

This year, the coolest African kid on the contemporary art block seems to be Ghana. The elliptical pavilion at the Venice Biennale features the work of Ghanian artists—both born in the country and from the diaspora—who have found great international success. El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, all featured in the Biennale pavilion, are artists whose work is represented by the world’s largest art galleries, and have been shown in prestigious institutions internationally, alongside global sensations such as coffin-fantasy artist Paa Jones

Ghana’s art scene is lively and exciting. Art institutions exist around the country, even outside the capital. But the commercial aspect, in a way, is new, and only now getting growing attention. This is what makes Ghanian art scene attractive—and likely more accessible—when it comes to investing. Accra’s first commercial art gallery of international relevance only opened three years ago, and London auction house Bonhams only recently auctioned its first collection exclusively of Ghanian art. The works had been acquired by Ghanian collector Seth Dei; the fact that the collector was Ghanian, too, is an encouraging sign pointing toward the birth and growth of an internal market, as well as promising local economic capital available to be spent on art. 

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Taiwan—China’s new China

Unlike Hong Kong, whose contemporary art scene has developed only recently as a reaction to China’s looming presence, Taiwan’s art has a much more established history. 

The island home to Asia’s longest running art biennale (remarkably, an uncensored one), and its contemporary art scene has been vibrant for many years, launching the career of internationally acclaimed artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Chiang Hsun, and Chen Chieh-jen, who launched their careers in Taiwan long before China’s art scene had caught the world’s eye. 

Unlike China, or even Hong Kong, the not-quite-Chinese island hasn’t experienced a comparably astounding market growth—despite a solid tradition of collection and internal attention to the art scene. 

But, things are changing. As China’s art market seems to have reached its peak, Taiwan has gained attention, including from some of those who have been involved in China’s contemporary art growth. In January this year, Taipei Dangdai opened in the city: it was the first fair in Taiwan dedicated only to contemporary art, and saw the participation of big shot international galleries, such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, and Pace.

Several smaller fairs and events are popping up on the sidelines, and international gallerists such as Sean Kelly and Lévy Gorvin have established a presence on the island, making Taiwan an important bridge between the Asian art that it’s been fostering for decades, and the global newfound fascination with it.

Meanwhile, some of Taiwan’s emerging artists, such as Chen Yun, Sun Pei-Mao, and Lai Wei-Yu, have yet to get significant international exposure, and have developed strong ties with local collectors. But even works of more established figures such as  Chien-Hsing Lien or Wu Tien-Chang are still predominantly within the Taiwan market, which should give collectors good acquisition opportunities.. 

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Cuba—so close, yet so far

Think about China at the beginning of its contemporary-art boom trajectory: a country that had been all but closed off to the West, had spent the previous decades under tight communist rule, and was only then opening up. Now, think about Cuba today—or, well, a couple of years ago.

It may not hold a comparison in terms of size and population, but Cuba shares a key ingredient of China’s secret sauce. Right across the strait from the bastion of capitalism, it had been its own, very different world until, with a 2015 handshake between Barack Obama and Raul Castro, a long-frozen relationship began thawing.

So did the knowledge (and financial value) of an art scene that had been alive and well on the country. As it had happened with China, Western collectors have been attracted by Cuba’s political art, and the work of artists who have criticized Fidel Castro’s rule are especially sought after: the work of Tania Bruguera, for instance, a performance artist and sculptor who has been targeted by the Cuban authorities for her political art, multiplied in valuation nearly overnight (before 2015, her work would be auctioned for about $10,000 a piece; after, her works sold for $80,000). 

Like China when Sigg moved there, Cuba doesn’t yet have the internal infrastructure—commercial galleries, collectors, internationally influential institutions—of an established contemporary art scene, but it has the art. And, unlike China in the 1990s, it also has the eyes of collectors and investors who are well aware of the opportunity afforded by the moment.

Unfortunately, the moment came—and is already gone, at least for what concerns American galleries and businesses. As of 2017, Donald Trump walked back the easing of business and diplomatic relations with Cuba. This doesn’t mean things won’t soften again—and when they do, it’s likely the gold rush to Cuban artists will resume. In the meantime, for those wanting to do their homework and interested and able to visit the island and purchase the art, there are a few galleries as well as several artist studios to visit or keep an eye on, including the collective Los Carpinteros (whose founder, Alexandre Arrachea, is represented by prestigious galleries around the world), Carlos Estevez, Glenda Leon, and Alicia Leal

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India—for lovers

In many ways, one would be hard-pressed to find two countries as different as India and China. One is the world’s largest democracy; the other the world’s biggest authoritarian state. One is home to more languages than can be counted, many mutually unintelligible, the other counts essentially two. One has been conquered for much of its history, the other has more or less been its own ruler for thousands of years.

China and India also happen to be enemies, having a territory dispute between them. Still, it seems they can’t escape being compared with one another. And whether the issue is geopolitics or the contemporary art scene, the question is often the same: When is India going to catch up to China?

Never; it’s already caught up.

While China’s  entire art scene entered an imposed freeze during the cultural revolution, India developed a thriving art scene. As the country gained its independence, associations arose such as the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, which included artists such as F N Souza and S H Raza, and gained strong recognition in the west. The scene continues to thrive, and the works of artists like Manjig Bawa and Arpita Singh show the extent of its research and diversity. This is not to say that art was free from censorship: M F Hussain, one of India’s most groundbreaking artists, was subject to much harassment for offending Hindu Nationalists, and even sued for obscenity, ending with his in self-imposed exile outside his country. 

The production of art in India evolved organically, thanks to a number of established educational institutions and art academies. The strong tradition of craft in India has offered an inspiration and stepping stone for many of its artists, and so has its complex and rich cultural and religious heritage. Like India’s culture, its art seems essentially infinite.

Yet, while large and vital, India’s art scene scarcely had much financial stability within the domestic market, and commercial galleries (many of which opened in the late 1980s and 1990s) often relied on their Western branches to expose artists to the success they couldn’t necessarily access at home.

Even as of today, India doesn’t really have much in the way of public institutions to showcase contemporary art, and even Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Gallery of Modern Art currently sees its contemporary art section closed off due to lack of funding.

Much is left to private galleries—such as Vadehra Art, Nature Morte, or Talwar Gallery in Delhi, or Chatterjee & Lal and Volte in Mumbai—or a few private institutions, notably the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi.

Slowly but surely, and with some halts, things have been moving: India has hosted the influential Indian Art Fair (formerly Art Summit) yearly since 2008, and in 2012 it launched the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, its first, in Kerala. 

Because of both its slower internal market and its more organic development, it’s unlikely Indian art will have a boom like China’s. Yet in a way, it is past that: Established artists like Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, and Ranbir Kaleka work and show in the country, as do Riyas Komu, Alwar Balasubramanian, Tanya Goel, Gauri Gill, Asim Waqif, and many others. Contemporary Indian art might never see the astronomical appreciation of some Chinese art—but as more museums, institutions, and collectors begin operating in the country, it is likely to grow significantly in value. Not to mention, the pleasure it delivers is unlikely to ever decrease.