Features – S.E.A. Focus

Angela Tan and John Tung on the Intersection of Art and Disability

On ART:DIS’s initiatives, working with neurodivergent artists, and what inclusivity entails

Angela Tan is Executive Director at ART:DIS, a non-profit organisation dedicated to creating learning and livelihood opportunities in the arts for persons with disabilities. Angela has a background in the arts, with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and History of Art from Goldsmiths, London, as well as more than a decade of experience at the National Arts Council, Singapore.

John Tung is a curator with extensive experience through his work formerly as a Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum and numerous other independent engagements including for Singapore International Photography Festival, the Open House programme ‘For the House; Against the House’ and the upcoming S.E.A. Focus 2024 ‘Serial and Massively Parallel’. Recently, John curated ART:DIS’s 30th Anniversary exhibition ‘A Piece of Home’ and was on the judging panel for the inaugural UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize.

Team ART:DIS. Image courtesy of ART:DIS

Angela, what motivated you to join ART:DIS? And has your perception of the disability sector changed since?

Angela Tan (AT): Part of me was excited about shaping the next development phase of ART:DIS. I felt it was important to embed the organisation more deeply in the local arts ecosystem, not just as a community organisation but one that was serious about developing the artistic excellence and representation of artists with disabilities in Singapore. 

My perception of the disability sector has not changed since I joined. What has changed is the clarity and compounded urgency to shift the way the art world and its constructs perceive and position artists with disabilities, and the values they attribute to them. 

Emerging artist Abraham Koh with his mentor artist Tang Ling Nah. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

ART:DIS has a tiered programme, which includes an Emerging Artist level launched in 2022. Could you talk about the enrolment process and the types of mentorship experience offered?

AT: Just like mainstream artists, our young artists, who are mostly neurodivergent, have the same desire and aspiration to excel and expand in their practice. The tiered programme allows us to support them at various stages of their artistic practice development, including those who wish to develop professional careers as artists. The emerging artist programme was newly introduced, and is based on a bespoke industry mentorship approach where artists are matched one-on-one to mentors who are practising artists or curators. Artists are selected through a public open call.

‘A Piece of Home’, 2023, exhibition view at Objectifs, Singapore. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Curated by John Tung, the exhibition ‘A Piece of Home’ is a highlight of ART:DIS’s 30th anniversary celebrations. What are the qualities/ criterion ART:DIS looks out for when choosing the curator to work with?

AT: This is not our first project working with an external curator, but contextually, it was quite rare to do so in the past. However, going forward, we hope to involve more curators in our exhibitions. It is critical that the curator we work with is excited about the artists and their works, as well as how they add a different dimension and texture to what is being presented in our contemporary art landscape.

Linocut prints by young artist Christian Tan. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

John, tell us about your experience working with ART:DIS and the artists on ‘A Piece of Home’ (2023).

John Tung (JT): The curation process of ‘A Piece of Home’ was the first time I had the privilege of working with neurodivergent artists or artists with disabilities. Having the opportunity to speak with all the artists about their work and practices, I was taken aback by the outpouring of honesty and authenticity that drove their creations, as well as the breadth of their imagination. In this respect, I also strove to embody their struggles, beliefs, and artistic triumphs in the selection and curation of the exhibition. 

Young artists Joshua Tang and Kenneth Lee, in conversation with curator John Tung. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Are there anecdotes you can share about the process of organising ‘A Piece of Home’ as well as responses from the public?

AT: Organising “A Piece of Home” at the Objectifs, which is an independent art space, shifted the dynamics of how one encounters the work of an artist with disabilities. I recall conversations with John, and Suzanna Low, my exhibitions head, where we spoke about intentionally presenting the artworks in a way that borrows visual cues of the institutional white cube, and not position the exhibition as a “community” showcase. It is important that the works of these young artists, though still in training, are treated seriously.

JT: To be frank, I presumed I would be unequipped to take on the curation initially. In fact, one of my first questions to Angela was whether the organisation would be able to provide me with training to learn to better communicate with these individuals. My question was met with an outburst of laughter, followed by “no training necessary”. I met with the artists with a genuine curiosity about their artistic creations, and that alone was sufficient in developing a deeper understanding about their works. 

With respect to how different the experience was, it was entirely uneventful. Uneventful in the best way possible, as the show developed smoothly. All of the artists and everyone on the ART:DIS team worked closely to realise the vision we had of the exhibition, and I am glad it came to fruition. 

Isaac Tan, Winner of the Emerging Artist category at the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Another new initiative is the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize, which is a platform to recognise artists with disabilities in Singapore. Could you talk about the desired impact of this prize?

AT: The UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize had a simple intent, which was to recognise and raise public visibility of artists with disabilities in our cultural landscape. Some might argue this further focuses on their disability instead of their practice, and could pigeonhole them. Instead, I see it as a much needed intervention for now. Who knows, perhaps one day we would no longer need a prize like this as our cultural scene and society progresses.

‘Through All Vicissitudes: Prints & Sculptures’ by Chng Seok Tin, 2022, exhibition view at artcommune gallery. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

In 2022, ART:DIS and artcommune gallery presented ‘Through All Vicissitudes: Prints & Sculptures by Chng Seok Tin’, an exhibition that features works made over four decades in the artist’s career. How did this project come about?

AT: Seok Tin had always been a constant presence at ART:DIS, then known as Very Special Arts. She participated in our exhibitions and events, and had a soft spot for the younger artists. She was an outstanding artist and somewhat an emblem that your disability is not a limit to your practice. In fact, as part of her legacy, her estate had set up an Education Fund for aspiring young artists with disabilities which supports the Emerging Artist programme.

In your opinion, what does inclusivity and accessibility entail? And what are the most impactful steps the arts community can take to work towards greater inclusivity?

AT: Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon now which is great progress but what should be considered in equal measure is the representation of their voices, their bodies in our mainstream exhibitions and cultural spaces. What is the point of providing access to exhibitions for the disability community if the content they see does not reflect them?

We start by including artists with disabilities in shows, collaborating with them, and stop seeing them as the community that we must do good for. They have equal parts to contribute to a more diverse arts ecosystem, as contributors, not as receivers of goodwill.

JT: I am quite certain that the disability label progressively fades away as an artist gains increasing prominence. After all, numerous established artists, Yayoi Kusama for instance, are not branded as such. I firmly believe that our approach to evaluating artworks should be uniform, albeit in accordance with our own rubrics. Personally, I give great emphasis to authenticity, which these artists have no lack of. Concessions granted, owing to “disability”, are in my opinion a disservice to the amazing stories, creative struggles, and heartfelt emotions these works embody. There is an inherent goodness in these works that we need to re-train our eyes to see. 

John Tung with the three artists, Kenneth Lee, Fern Wong and Isabelle Lim (from left to right), who will be part of the group exhibition ‘Turning Points’ in January 2024. Image courtesy of ARTI:DIS.

John, in light of the upcoming edition of S.E.A. Focus that you are curating, how do you think inclusivity in visual arts might evolve in an increasingly digital age?

JT: I have been pessimistic about this increasingly digital age.  Amongst other things, with the rise of social media, goodness seems to be determined by popular opinion/likes/upvotes. Undoubtedly, the emergence of these platforms is accelerating the dispersion of information and heightening visibility of these artists, but it also means that engagement becomes highly mediated and often pared down or truncated. We already do not spend enough time in front of a single work of art in a museum setting. How much attention does an image get from us amidst a doom-scrolling session?

The fact that more of such works are seen is a good thing, but it will need to be complemented by a growth in interactions with the actual works as well.

Jirat Ratthawongjirakul: “We wish to be a place that nurtures young artists and encourages established artists to continue experimenting and shifting their practice.”

Getting to know Gallery VER, an artist-founded initiative in Bangkok with its sights abroad

Co-initiated by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gallery VER was established in 2006 as an artist-led initiative. The independent space was a response to the lack of opportunity for young artists to gain exposure outside of government and corporate-sponsored competitions. While there were commercial galleries operating in Thailand at the time, most were reluctant to take a chance with artists who did not already have mainstream recognition. Gallery VER came at an important juncture in the development of Thai contemporary art, with a dynamic programme that continues to champion conceptualist modes of thinking and art-making.

The name VER

The gallery takes its name from VER magazine which artist Pratchaya Phinthong published from 2000 to 2004 when he doubled as the gallery’s director. A shortened form of “over” in English, “ver” is used as a common Thai slang. In adopting this name, the gallery is interested in different aspects of the word “over” such as to move or span across and to invert. 

Kamol Phaosavasdi, Supernatural Delight’, 2019, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

Move to N22

2016 was an important year for Gallery VER as they started a new chapter after moving into the N22 complex, where they continue to reside. The gallery has come a long way since its first iteration in 2006 at a riverside spot in Bangkok’s Thonburi district, accessible mostly by boat. Located within walking distance from both Bangkok Skytrain and MRT Subway stations, the new space has a 100 square-metre main exhibition gallery and a second 25 square-metre room. This allows for the possibility of hosting two concurrent shows or a larger single presentation. Other galleries in the N22 community include Cartel Art Space, founded by fellow Chiang Mai artist Mit Jai Inn, Tentacles Gallery and La Lanta Fine Art.

Niwat Manatpiyalert, ‘Area 721,346’, 2023, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

First international showcase

At Rirkrit’s recommendation, Gallery VER participated in the inaugural S.E.A. Focus in 2019 with a presentation around the theme of ‘Pressure of the Inner Mind’. Notably, it was the gallery’s first art showcase to an international audience and they featured three artists: Udomsak Krisanamis, Wantanee Siripattananuntakul, and Nuttapon Sawasdee. Director Jirat Ratthawongjirakul says, “Our aim was exposure hence we chose artists of different ages: established, mid-career, and emerging, respectively.” The trio represented Gallery VER’s diverse programme and commitment to work with artists at different stages in their career.

Kamolros Wonguthum’s solo exhibition at Gallery VER, 2023. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

Gallery VER stays true to its artist-led roots, giving space to new ideas and voices. “Running a gallery is not only about the sale of the artworks,” Jirat explains. “We wish to be a place that nurtures young artists and encourages established artists to continue experimenting and shifting their practice.” A number of artists have had their debut solo exhibitions at Gallery VER over the years, including Niwat Manatpiyalert, Kamolros Wonguthum, Nontawat Numbenchapol, and Thavika Savangwongsakul amongst others. Operating in Thailand, where there is a history of art censorship during its junta regimes, the gallery has built a reputation of supporting their artists in spite of potential political backlash.

Wantanee Siripattananuntakul, ‘The “end of history” will not come tomorrow.’, 2022, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

Future plans

Looking ahead, Gallery VER aims to regain momentum on their international engagements which were halted during the COVID-19 pandemic. One major programme is their participation in Frieze London in October 2023, under the fair’s new ‘Artist-to-Artist’ initiative. In this section, eight internationally-acclaimed artists are being invited to propose artists for solo exhibitions at the fair and Rirkrit has nominated Wantanee Siripattananuntakul. In addition to her presentation at Frieze London, Wantanee will also be exhibiting at the 3rd Thailand Biennale, alongside Mit Jai Inn. Audiences can look forward to the upcoming edition of Thailand Biennale in Chiang Rai when it opens in December 2023.

Leong Puiyee: “Being a part of Southeast Asia, it is only natural to highlight the stories from the region.”

Understanding short films as an artistic medium for storytelling

Leong Puiyee is senior manager at Objectifs – Centre for Film and Photography, a non-profit visual arts space in Singapore. With more than 15 years of experience in the field, she curated the ‘Women in Film’ and ‘Asian Film Focus’ annual programmes at Objectifs, and was also Programme Manager (Short Films) for the Singapore International Film Festival (2014-19). She has also been a member of the selection committee for the Busan International Film Festival (2023), Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival (2020-21), and SeaShorts Film Festival (2017-18), among others.

‘Objectifs Cinema: Now Showing’, 2022, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

What is it about the medium of film/short films that sustains your interest?

Film is a reflection of life, our emotions, the people and world around us. Being immersed into a world for that 10 minutes or 2 hours allows us to feel sad or happy, to ponder about certain social issues, to understand a culture that we are unfamiliar with. To me, that is the beautiful thing about film, as sometimes you do not know what to expect when you are in that world for that time period.

Objectifs Film Club: Tenebrae’ by Nicole Midori Woodford, in dialogue with writer Crispin Rodrigues. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

The Objectifs Film Library is an educational and research resource focused on short films from Southeast Asia. Could you talk more about the approach to this collection and the public programming around it?

The Objectifs Film Library collection was started with a focus on short films from Southeast Asia, and to bring attention to the importance of the short film medium. Being a part of Southeast Asia, it is only natural to highlight the stories from the region.

As part of the Library’s focus on short films, a programme we organised around it is the Objectifs Film Club. The Film Club is a quarterly event that highlights a short from the Film Library, and it features discussions between the filmmaker and arts/film practitioners about their films.

We also did an exhibition titled ‘Objectifs Cinema: Now Showing’, to celebrate the richness and diversity of Southeast Asian short films from the Film Library. Selected short films were screened over the course of the exhibition based on a thematic approach. There were public talks with film professionals to complement the exhibition.

Through these programmes, it offers the opportunity for filmmakers and enthusiasts to gather and exchange ideas.

Puiyee with the filmmakers of the ‘Bodies in Motion’ short film programme, presented as part of ‘Women in Film & Photography 2023’. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

You have curated a number of film programmes such as ‘Women in Film’ and ‘Asian Film Focus’, and was also Programme Manager (Short Films) for the Singapore International Film Festival from 2014 to 2019. What is a trend you noticed in organising these events?

Because the world and people are constantly changing, the stories that people are telling tend to be a reflection of the times. Personal stories continue to be a constant in the film landscape, as it is a rumination of the filmmaker’s self and life.

Artist talk with Rirkrit Tiravanija after the screening of his Super 8 short films, presented as part of ‘OFF Focus 2023′.

Objectifs collaborated with S.E.A. Focus on the film screening programme ‘OFF Focus’ for this year’s edition, and will be doing so again in 2024. How do collaborations with art platforms such as S.E.A. Focus align with Objectif’s mission of fostering dialogue and advancing appreciation of visual storytelling?

Collaborating with a partner like S.E.A. Focus is an important part of what we do at Objectifs as it not only allows us to support artistic networks, but to also foster a dynamic and creative environment for both parties.

Building on the previous question, can you talk about the differences and/or the draw of artist-made films as compared to those made by filmmakers?

The wonderful thing about the film medium is that it can offer a breadth of perspectives and there can be many ways to present an idea or story. With the ‘OFF Focus’ programme, it allows us to present works that challenge our understanding of storytelling, and to broaden one’s outlook on films.

‘Antiphony’ short film screening, presented as part of ‘Women in Film & Photography 2023’. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

What are your hopes for the future of short films in Singapore and the region?

I hope that the short film medium can be seen as an art form in its own right, breaking away from the notion that short films are a “stepping stone” to a filmmaker’s feature film career. Short films are more than that. It allows for experimentation, play and you can take more risks with short films compared to a feature film. And of course, I would wish for more people to embrace and appreciate the beauty of short stories.

This interview has been edited.

Yee I-Lann: “Maybe a socially-engaged art practice entails not turning away, making space for others and ‘letting go’…”

Community and collaboration in the Sabahan artist’s work

Since 2018, Sabahan artist Yee I-Lann, who is represented by Silverlens, has been collaborating with communities of weavers to make tikar, mats woven from bamboo or the Pandanus plant. They hail from two geographies: the inland community of Sabahan Busun and Murut weavers in the town of Keningau, and the sea community of Bajau Sama Dilaut weavers based on the islands of Semporna. This project speaks to a type of socially-engaged art practice where personal history, local knowledge, critical theory, and community engagement meet.

Yee I-Lann, with weaving by Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong, Kak Budi, Kak Roziah, Adik Darwisa, Adik Enidah, Adik Dela, Adik Asima, Adik Dayang, Adik Tasya, Adik Alisya, Adik Erna, ‘Tepo Aniya Nombor Na’ (Mat with a Number), 2020, Bajau Sama DiLaut Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye. Photo by Andy Chia. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.


Though it is commonly found in tourist markets across Southeast Asia today, the tikar is more than a craft product in I-Lann’s eyes. She sees the woven mat as a platform for communal gathering, where everyone sits together on the same level. The symbol of the mat is juxtaposed against that of the table, an invention introduced to Southeast Asia through the legacy of colonisation. For the artist, the table represents administrative power and hard patriarchal control. As a piece of architecture, the table creates hierarchies by elevating and excluding certain groups. This is opposite of the egalitarian, grassroot platform of the mat which is almost always woven by women.

Yee I-Lann, ‘TIKAR/MEJA’, 2020, installation view at Art Basel Unlimited 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

This relationship between the mat and table comes together in the monumental ‘TIKAR/ MEJA’ series which has been exhibited internationally in Manila, Kota Kinabalu, Seoul, Basel, New York and other cities. ‘TIKAR/MEJA’ is the work which marks the start of I-Lann’s ongoing collaboration with the weavers. While their patterns and colours vary, a single standing table floats in the centre of each mat in the series. It suggests that the table can be rolled up, or “eaten” by the mat like in a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Sharing and making space

For I-Lann, conversations are at the heart of a socially-engaged art practice. “Maybe it entails not turning away, taking part in something, embracing responsibility and care,” she says. “It is about building relationships and communities, sharing, and making space for others for collaborative actions and ‘letting go’.” They are actions of inclusion towards collective benefit. Notably, the names of weavers who have worked on each piece are woven into the artwork, acknowledging their labour and essential roles as co-creators and storytellers. This system of mutual support is strengthened through initiatives that invest in the community, such as the building of the Balai Bikin, a community hall next to the weavers’ water village.

‘TIKAR/MEJA’ work in progress, 2018. Photo by the Pulau Omadal Community. Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

Weavers Kak Roziah, Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong and Kak Koddil with ‘Tikar Reben’, 2020. Photo by Andy Chia.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

On her “other life” in the film industry

When asked about her experience as a production designer for feature films, I-Lann comments that both practices involve designing spaces for ideas and stories to unfold. She adds, “I feed off popular culture and what Milan Kundera called ‘political kitsch’ ,– how to activate and make short-cuts in knowledges and visual languages that a wide public already understands for your own propaganda!” I-Lann also describes film-making as a team sport that often happens under trying circumstances. The key is to create a conducive atmosphere for collaboration, in order to sustain energy and excitement towards the project. 

Yee I-Lann, with weaving by Kak Roziah, Kak Sanah, Kak Kinnuhong, Kak Koddil, ‘Tikar Reben’, 2020, Bajau Sama DiLaut Pandanus weave with commercial chemical dye. Photo by Andy Chia.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

Yee I-Lann, ‘Balai Bikin’, 2023, installation view at Rumah Lukis, Kuala Lumpur.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

‘Borneo Heart’ in Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur

The themes of community and collaboration are also extended into the presentation of this recent body of work. ‘Borneo Heart’ is an expansive travelling exhibition that started in I-Lann’s hometown of Kota Kinabalu in 2021. Hosted across several venues in Kuala Lumpur, its second iteration in 2023 coincided with Malaysia’s 60th year of nationhood. ‘Borneo Heart’ is an invitation to sit at the mat, or in the artist’s words “a space where things get activated”. Beverly Yong, Director of RogueArt and curator of ‘Borneo Heart’, highlights how “the exhibition itself has enveloped supporting institutions and independent teams and professionals” as the tikar works engage different practices and communities. The gesture of bringing together East and West Malaysia through this project carries strong personal significance to the artist who has deep roots in both geographies. 

Yee I-Lann, ‘Borneo Heart’, 2023, exhibition view at Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur.  Image courtesy of the artist and Silverlens.

the sun will rise in the east

The period of organising ‘Borneo Heart’ was also one of introspection for I-Lann as she looked back on more than a decade’s work consolidated in her latest monograph the sun will rise in the east. Edited by Beverly Yong, who also worked on the artist’s previous monograph Fluid World, the publication is a collection of primary materials that informed I-Lann’s practice from 2011 to 2023. In many ways, this book is also a reflection of their journey through a friendship of more than 20 years, documenting the many ways in which they have worked together.

To learn more about the long-time collaboration, watch here for a recording of ‘Community and Collaboration’ at SEAspotlight 2024, a conversation between Yee I-Lann and Beverly Yong, Director, RogueArt, moderated by June Yap, Director, Curatorial, Programmes and Publications, Singapore Art Museum.

Leslie de Chavez: “Self-censorship will only hinder an artist’s ability to convey their thoughts”

A look at his multifaceted practice and artist-run initiative Project Space Pilipinas

At the heart of Leslie de Chavez’s practice is a deep concern for the role of art in society. Taking different forms from intense paintings to texturally-rich installations, his works capture an incisive take on Filipino society and history. In addition to his artistic practice, Leslie is also the founder of Project Space Pilipinas (PSP) which first opened in 2007 in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. PSP is a platform for creative interactions, where he aims to have a meaningful presence and engagement with his local community. Leslie’s two-pronged approach considers both the realm of representation in art as well as the forms of direct action through which culture can bring about change.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘State of the Nation II’, 2018, oil, gold leaf, decal on canvas, 170 x 200.5cm. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Arario Gallery.

In Leslie’s paintings, pictorial space is a battleground for meaning. He co-opts the tradition of European religious painting as a means to speak about history. This approach is evident in the use of Christian motifs, as well as Leslie’s treatment of the painting surface.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘There is Not Enough Pain and Pleasure in the World to Permit Giving Any of It Away to the Greed of Mankind’, 2022, oil, acrylic, spray paint, paper, decal, metallic leaf, on paper, 228 x 186cm (set of 12 framed panels). Image courtesy of the artist and Arario Gallery. 

In recent works such as ‘State of the Nation II’ (2018) and ‘There is Not Enough Pain and Pleasure in the World to Permit Giving Any of It Away to the Greed of Mankind’ (2022), sensuously rendered figures populate a shimmering gold leaf background. Leslie conjures a stark contrast between the splendour of illuminated manuscripts and the violent scenes depicted in dramatic chiaroscuro. For him, the Western technique of glazing is a metaphor for the “stain” of colonisation. In painting his figure’s dark skin using this technique, the artist tells a story that connects the legacy of imperialism with contemporary issues in the Philippines.

Speaking truth to power

Indeed, Leslie is not an artist who shies away from sensitive topics. His solo exhibition ‘A Lonely Picket in the Balcony’ (2021) at Silverlens, Manila, is a striking example of his active commentary. The show lamented the socio-political decline caused by the country’s former administration and their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘A Lonely Picket in the Balcony’, 2021, exhibition view at Silverlens, Manila, Philippines. Image courtesy of the artist. 

‘Latigo at Tinik Nang Bitukang Halang’ (2021) is a large sculpture which takes the form of a rosary. However, the rosary beads are replaced with the heads of Philippine presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos. This chain of power is connected to a crucifix composed of .38 calibre guns commonly found in crime scenes related to extra judicial killings. The artist’s layered use of symbols mirrors the complex entanglements in the underbelly of corruption.

Leslie de Chavez, ‘Latigo at Tinik Nang Bitukang Halang’, 2021, fibreglass-reinforced plastic, bamboo, brass, rattan, iron, plaster of Paris, installation, size variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

When asked if he is concerned about the threat of political resistance, Leslie says it is secondary to his initial intention of responding to the urgent issues. “My diverse art practice has always been about attending to the many conceivable ways of thinking and doing things,” he elaborates. “Self-censorship, in my opinion, will only hinder an artist’s ability to effectively convey his or her thoughts to an audience.” Implicit too is a respect for the audience and their role in completing a work of art. 

Audience development as social practice

On that note, audience development is a core mission at PSP. As Leslie shared in this 2022 SEAspotlight Talk on art spaces, PSP began as an artist residency (Neo-Emerging Artist Residency, or NEAR Manila), which collaborated on exchanges, exhibitions, and projects with local and international partners. Now situated in the town of Lucban, it is managed by a small team which includes Leslie and two local artists. Their vision for PSP is a space where locals can expand their imagination, discover effective means of expression, as well as cultivate a critical eye to unpack artworks and discern problems that concern the community.

Exhibition walkthrough and workshop conducted as part of ‘Hitherto VI: Notes on Impermanence’ at Project Space Pilipinas, 2022, Lucban, Quezon, Philippines. Image courtesy of Project Space Pilipinas. 
‘Hitherto V: Mothering from a Distance’, 2022, exhibition view at Project Space Pilipinas, Lucban, Quezon, Philippines. Image courtesy of Project Space Pilipinas. 

Its 2023 thematic programme ‘Thinking/ Doing in Terms’ is centred on the re-examination of local rituals, traditions, and narratives. One upcoming community participation project is ‘Project Paglalarawan: Sandaang Mukha ni Hermano Puli’. It is an open call for 100 portrait drawings of a known local historical figure Apolinario dela Cruz, or Hermano Puli. He was a religious leader who led the first major revolt in the Philippines against the Spanish. Interestingly, no images of Hermano Puli exist and thus the project draws upon Lucban’s community imagination. Through this open call for portraits, it is also an opportunity to engage with colonial history and what it means to decolonise. The notion of social practice comes alive in such activities.

Career milestones

Looking back at his two-decade-long career, Leslie considers two major turning points in his path as an artist. The first came in 2001 when he made the decision to leave his position as a graphic designer at a museum, to focus solely on his artistic practice. It was a time of introspection, of contextualising his place as an artist within the larger community.

Leslie’s studio in Tayabas, Quezon, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.
Leslie’s residency studio at IASK Goyang Art Studio, 2005, as part of the Asian Artists Fellowship Programme organised by National Museum of Contemporary Art, South Korea. Image courtesy of the artist.

Another turning point was his residency in Seoul from 2005 to 2006, which he cites as “a fruitful occasion that completely changed the course of his career”. This was a time when artistic activities in the Philippines were limited, with few galleries and collectors interested in emerging artists. As such, the Seoul residency opened exhibition opportunities and expanded his network of contacts for future partnerships. Among the most consequential relationships is the one with Arario Gallery, which today operates spaces across Seoul, Cheonan and Shanghai, and has exclusively represented the artist since 2006. Reflecting on the pivotal moment, Leslie says he was at the right place, at the right time. Perhaps just as crucially, he approached it with the right attitude, taking it in his stride.

Learn more about Project Space Pilipinas and other art spaces in Asia in this SEAspotlight Talk with Leslie de Chavez, Eunice Tsang and Wang Ruobing, moderated by H.G. Masters.

Finalists for the 2023 Sovereign Asian Art Prize Announced

Seven Southeast Asian Artists Shortlisted

The Sovereign Art Foundation has shortlisted 30 artists for its 19th Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Founded as a charitable organisation in 2003, the foundation also launched a Make It Better (MIB) programme in 2013, where a dedicated team of art therapists run expressive art workshops to support the mental health and well-being of children in Hong Kong’s disadvantaged communities. The proceeds from an auction of the works will be shared equally between the artists and the programme.

Initiatives like the Sovereign Asian Art Prize and the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund are forms of art patronage that provide important opportunities for artists to sustain their practice, including introducing their work to a wider audience and offering financial rewards. Whereas the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund is built on the generosity of sponsors like the Yenn and Alan Lo Foundation by the arts patrons Yenn Wong and Alan Lo, the Sovereign Asian Art Prize seeks to raise funds through a selling exhibition as well as a special auction of the winning works. They share the common aims of promoting and preserving representative works of contemporary art, uniquely in Southeast Asian art for the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund, and more broadly for Asian contemporary art for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

A panel of judges made up of art practitioners David Elliott, Yuko Hasegawa, Christopher K Ho and Siuli Tan, as well as the 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize winner Azin Zolfaghari, shortlisted the artworks based on nominations by a board of independent fellow art professionals. They will now also decide on two finalists, who will win a USD30,000 Grand Prize and a USD5,000 Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize respectively.

In this edition of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, seven Southeast Asian artists have been shortlisted. They are Bjorn Calleja, Cian Dayrit and Luis Antonio Santos from the Philippines, Faris Nakamura from Singapore, Justin Lim from Malaysia, and Alisa Chunchue from Thailand and Nguyễn Thế Sơn from Vietnam. We check in with Cian, Faris and Justin, to find out about the inspiration behind their shortlisted works, and what it means to them to be a finalist for the prize.

Cian Dayrit. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

Cian Dayrit

Cian Dayrit was nominated by Erin Gleeson for the work ‘Espasyo at Soberanya’ (2022). “The piece is a subversion of one of the most overlooked yet sinister tools of conquest: the colonial gaze,” says Cian. “My practice aims to find ways to redistribute power to the masses.” Elaborating further, Cian says, “My work is an affirmation of solidarity to all disenfranchised populations as I aim to appropriately echo their collective aspirations.”

Cian Dayrit, ‘Espasyo at Soberanya’, 2022, 140 x 110cm, embroidery and digital print on fabric.

The Filipino artist, who exhibits with Mono8 Gallery, a participating gallery at S.E.A. Focus 2023, notes that The Sovereign Art Foundation and similar entities are important to the art ecosystem. “I refuse to believe that contemporary art platforms are echo chambers and therefore it means a lot to be shortlisted and have the opportunity to share my work to a larger audience,” says Cian. “I encourage all cultural workers to anchor their practices to forging deeper alliances with grassroots organisations that push for progressive ideals.”

Faris Nakamura. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

Faris Nakamura

Faris Nakamura, who is represented by Richard Koh Fine Art, another exhibiting gallery at S.E.A. Focus 2023, was nominated by Milenko Prvački. Faris says about his work, “Midnight Hour is a culmination of my inquiry of spaces in Singapore.” He adds, “Investigative, poignant with a poetic scrutiny, this work embodies the questions that I have had about privilege associated with the limited space in Singapore and its inevitable aftermath on the country’s architecture.”

The artist is known for creating minimalist works that are to be appraised from different angles for unexpected discoveries. “This work employs the distinctive trait of my practice, which is drawing the viewer in by coaxing alternate perspectives on viewing, conjuring different ways of looking at the obscured spaces in my work through squatting down, tiptoeing or shifting one’s regular movement and habits of viewing,” says the artist. “There is the constant motif of stairwells and suggestions of panels that maintain elusiveness, yet it is the focal point, calling on different layers in history such as the personal, the wider socio-economic environment and a certain political climate that anchors my continuing practice.”

The premise of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize to benefit disadvantaged children strikes a chord with Faris, who shares that he came from a single-parent family. He says, “It would be a full circle moment for me, being able to provide enriching experiences to the children and financial means of support for health and education that would improve the quality of their lives.”

Justin Lim. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

Justin Lim

Justin Lim, who is also represented by Richard Koh Fine Art, was nominated by Tanya Amador. ‘Tell me about your daydream’ (2022) features a red plastic stool that is ubiquitous in Southeast Asian countries, and represents the artist’s experiences in the pandemic. “I spent many hours a day sitting and painting on one of these red plastic chairs,” says Lim. “Such an object to me can be seen as an invitation for someone to occupy an otherwise empty space or act as a reminder of a memory of someone dear who is now gone.”

The artist further ruminates on the built environment that we inhabit. “The chair itself can also be a signifier of class, identity, and hierarchies,” adds Lim. “All of these ideas seem apt to me during the pandemic, as this common everyday object accompanied me throughout this isolating period, and somewhat presented itself as a subject for my painting.”

Justin Lim, ‘Tell me about your daydream’, 2022, 64.5 x 79.5 x 4cm, acrylic on canvas. Nominated by Tanya Amador. 

The foundation’s goal to do good for the next generation resonates with the artist as well. Lim says, “I can’t think of a better cause if my painting can play a role in changing someone’s life for the better, and I am grateful for the opportunity.”

All 30 works can be seen online, and will also be shown at H Queen’s in Hong Kong from 10 to 18 May 2023. The public can visit for free, and vote for their favourite by 15 May. A USD1,000 Public Vote Prize will be awarded to the artist with the most popular work. Tiffany Pinkstone, Co-Founder and Director of the Sovereign Art Foundation expresses her hope that the audience will also bid on the finalists’ works, which can go towards starting or building an investment-quality art collection while supporting a worthwhile cause.

Please click here for more information about the Sovereign Art Foundation and the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, and to place a vote for your favourite artwork. The 2023 Sovereign Asian Art Prize Gala Dinner and Charity Auction will be held on 19 May 2023 in Hong Kong.