The arts of Asia share a long and unique history, stretching from thousands of years ago into a rich modern and contemporary practice today. At the height of modernism in the middle of the 20th century, artists like Japan's Yayoi Kusama were flourishing among the New York art scene. They were inspired by modernist traditions while forging unique voices linked to their origins and identities. In what we call the Western world, there had long been a tendency to look at the art of Asia from an orientalist perspective, categorising it as "other," as something entirely exotic. But as you'll soon see, modern and contemporary Asian artists have launched a tradition of instigating global engagement while celebrating their identities.
Indian painter Bhupen Khakar, for example, achieved international recognition for his work in the 1960s and was proclaimed to be India's first Pop artist. His works were inspired by and often incorporated images of deities and other traditionally Indian genres, such as miniatures and temple maps. Khakar managed to communicate these images with humour as well as a sense of celebration, depicting a culture mostly unrecognised in the West in its true form. In You Can't Please All, a naked, life-sized self portrait looks out over an unfolding townscape. With this figure, Khakar found a way to proclaim even more than just his heritage–in this case, his homosexuality–and celebrate an even more deeply unrecognised and taboo culture.
Meanwhile, Indian artists Amrita Sher-Gil and later Zarina Hashmi set precedents for what female Asian artists could be capable of. Sher-Gil was born to Hungarian and Sikh parents and experienced an international education, particularly through the vibrant atmosphere of 1930s Paris. She returned to India with modernist tendencies and a drive to paint the lives of India's cultures. Hashmi also studied overseas–in New York–where she remains to this day, creating collages using maps, writing, and delicate paper, exploring the ideas of distance and home.
In terms of contemporary artists, China's Ai WeiWei is one who has been in the spotlight for his politically charged installations and performances. His Sunflower Seeds, which was staged in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in 2010, is a work of art made up of millions of tiny individual works of art, each apparently identical, but actually unique. While they look realistic at first glance, these life-sized sunflower seed husks are in fact hand-crafted and delicately painted. Each seed has been individually sculpted and brushed by specialists working in small-scale workshops in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen. Far from being industrially produced, they are the effort of hundreds of skilled hands. Poured into the interior of the Turbine Hall’s vast industrial space, the 100 million seeds formed a seemingly infinite landscape. To make these tiny seeds, Ai WeiWei and his skilled workers manipulated what has historically been one of China's most prized exports: porcelain. So Sunflower Seeds invites us to think about labour, community, and what it really means to be "Made in China." In the meantime, many more young Chinese artists are working in an arts scene full of possibility and opportunity.
And some Asian artists who were at the forefront of modernism are still working inventively today. Born in Chiniot, Pakistan (formerly a part of India), artist Iqbal Geoffrey continues to paint, fusing Eastern and Western elements in his work. One of his early works, Epitaph 1958, speaks to a modern sensibility while reflecting elements of traditional belief in his native country. The circular shapes are derived from the mandala, which is a symbol used in Hindu mythology as a focal point in meditation and the source of spiritual refreshment. Gold permeates the painting giving it a timeless effect and tries to pull the viewer into what the artist calls "a new world, perpetual and mystic." An epitaph is literally a text commemorating the deceased–and in this case Geoffrey has visually written one for the year 1958 in Pakistan, which saw political unrest and a military coup.
Another Pakistani artist, Rasheed Araeen, focused heavily on minimalist sculpture after moving to Britain in the 1960s. However, he received hardly any institutional recognition for his contribution to the modernist discourse there, being side-lined as a non-European whose work was never seen as part of the mainstream. Because of this, in the 1970s and 1980, Araeen began experimenting with other mediums like performance, photography, painting and sculpture. With these forms he became openly political and drew attention to the way in which certain artists were invisible within the dominant Euro-centric culture. Bismullah is a collage that brings together strong symbols of faith, identity, and war. The green colour is the main component of the Pakistani flag as well as an important symbolic colour in Islam, a reference heightened with the intricate golden patterning. Candles have significance for both Muslim and Christian ceremonies, while the grisly bloodstain in the centre could refer to ritual sacrifice or bloodletting–or more simply to bloodshed and war. Perhaps Araeen's collage is an invitation to think about religious conflict not just in Asia, but around the world. Hear Araeen speak more about his work in our Audio Arts series.