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Get beyond the 'western world' of art in these two shows

By Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

Welcome to the 33rd guest blog post of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture 2017 challenge! August’s culture selector is Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran: one of Australia’s rising art stars. Every week in August, Ramesh will be telling us what he loved the week before. Think of it as your recommendations for this week, from someone who sees a helluva lot of arts and culture. Over to him.

‘Contemporary art’ is a slippery term. Debates surrounding what constitutes Art-with-a-capital-A are tiresome. The cliché that anything can be art, is both useful and irritating.

As an artist, as you are given freedom to create meaning through your works with whatever means possible; however, it is also troublesome when philistines trash contemporary art based on a belief that the work they are looking at is devoid of skilled craftsmanship. It’s not uncommon for me to glance at work of mine shared on social media and notice strings of negative comments claiming that my work lacks technical sophistication. While this doesn’t bother me, it makes me wonder about the ways in which we categorise and define different streams of art practice. If people didn’t instantly link clay with the craft of functional pottery, would these criticisms I see on Facebook and Instagram even exist? Probably not.

However, while they can be problematic, systems of categorisation can also be incredibly useful.

Last week I attended and spoke at a symposium in Parramatta presented by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, in association with the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. The title of the talk was When South is North: contemporary art and culture in South Asia and Australia. It was a fruitful day in which I considered the idea and category of South Asian Art practice – and on a personal level, how my work fits into this field. It’s not uncommon for people in the ‘western world’ to perceive Europe and North America as the centres for cutting edge contemporary art, but throughout the day the south/north dichotomy and the various associated baggage were inevitably pulled apart.

Raj Kumar ‘Meet, Pray, Pay’ at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Photograph: Supplied

The exhibition running at 4A concurrently with this symposium is called I Don’t Want to Be There When it Happens. I had the privilege of viewing the exhibition a couple of days later very early in the morning with colleagues in the arts sector. The title – taken from the name of a newly commissioned, arresting work by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman – is an interesting proposition: a highly charged sentiment filled with lament, anxiety and impending doom. It feels highly personal, yet has a universal dimension that is hard to deny. These kinds of tones and tensions are characteristic of much of the work in the exhibition, which investigates political conflict and its resonances within individuals and communities.

I found Raj Kumar’s intricate assemblage particularly captivating: a series of prayer mats made entirely from dice placed very precisely on the floor to create specific patterns. The designs are meticulous. And despite the fastidious labour undoubtedly associated with its creation, the work has a poetic stillness to it.

Raj Kumar ‘Meet, Pray, Pay’ (detail)
Photograph: Supplied

The same week, I viewed Passion and Procession: Art of the Philippines at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This exhibition also addresses ideas of conflict and flux within the Asia-Pacific region, and the ways in which narratives around nationhood (a highly contentious and relevant topic in our current political climate) are framed and presented.

While much of the exhibition is structured around history and social change, like I Don’t Want To Be There When It Happens, there is a highly personal charge to many of the works. This became particularly evident as I noticed the intensity of time and labour that would have been essential to create many of the artworks on display.

Marina Cruz 'When Sonia was four (1958)'
Image: courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

Despite being very different, the works of Rodel Tapaya and Marina Cruz struck chords with me. I found myself drawn to the complexity of their compositions and painted surfaces. Tapaya’s painting at the entrance to the exhibition is larger than life. I was drawn to the symbolism involving various animals, and pondered connections and narrative associations between the different elements. It provoked a layered viewing experience. I found myself in the gallery, on my phone, Googling to decode it. Cruz’s paintings are different in scope. They are skilful and detailed depictions of specific patterns and textiles that engaged me from a distance. They prompted me to get up-close and experience the painted surface on a different level.

I Don’t Want to Be There When it Happens featuring works by Raj Kumar, Sonia Leber with David Chesworth, and Adeela Suleman, is at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art until October 8.

Passion and Procession: Art of the Philippines is at the Art Gallery of NSW until November 12.

While you’re here, check our 52 Weeks of #SydCulture challenge, and let us know what you're seeing/loving on Instagram via the hashtag #SydCulture.

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