Artistic Director, Middle East & North Africa, Singapore Art Fair
The latest addition to the art extravaganzas in Southeast Asia is the Singapore Art Fair. Set to enthral the public for the very first time, Singapore Art Fair is an off-shoot of the Beirut Art Fair which is in its fifth year. To chart the progression of the Fair and its novel concept of ME.NA.SA, and what it hopes to accomplish, Yasmin Bathamanathan interviews Singapore Art Fair’s Artist Director of Middle East & North Africa, Pascal Odille.
It is no denying that Singapore is fast becoming the centre of art and culture of Southeast Asia. In fact, the island-country has always enjoyed a central location for trade and economics that stretches back to the days of the spice trade. When it was announced that Singapore would be home to yet another world-class art event, the news was not met without some amount of scepticism from the art world. However, what sets Singapore Art Fair (SAF) apart from the rest is its concept of ME.NA.SA.
For the uninitiated, ME.NA.SA. stands for Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia, and with that, SAF is positioning itself as a ‘platform for cultural and artistic exchange with the aim of widening interests and to explore the artistic development of the ME.NA.SA region through strategic curatorship and programmes, and selection of exciting representations of art from this region.’
Pascal Odille, who is also the artistic director of Beirut Art Fair (BAF), said that SAF’s desire is ‘to bring together all players of the art market of the ME.NA.SA regions, including the press, collectors, novices, public or private museums, auction houses and curators.’
‘Without these people coming together, there will never be true visibility of ME.NA.SA artists. A contemporary art fair is a meeting place for participants to gather to share common interests and ideas on how best to raise the profile of art in that particular market. This helps to create strong connections.’
Having worked with SAF Founder and Fair Director, Laure d’Hauteville on several projects over the past 15 years before joining BAF, Odille was interested in joining forces with d’Hauteville once again, this time in Singapore. ‘When we decided to embark on the adventure of SAF, we saw it as a continuation of the spirit of BAF. Therefore, it was natural that I took on the role of Artistic Director, Middle East & North Africa of SAF to achieve our goal of showcasing ME.NA.SA art in Singapore,’ said Odille.
Just as branching off to SAF from BAF was natural to Odille, one could say that the ME.NA.SA. connection in terms of art is also organic. The ties between the Middle East, North Africa and Asia started with the Silk Road, and there is shared history between these regions. ‘Archaeological excavations carried out by the Russians in the early 20th Century in Eastern Turkestan led to the discovery of Christian objects of worship that were brought by Syrian merchants dating from the 8th Century. The first exchanges that took place between the traders were forged through artworks. As such, there is a common history.’
Without these people coming together, there will never be true visibility of ME.NA.SA artists. – Pascal Odille, Fair Director of Middle East & North Africa, SAF
‘Closer to our time, modern history, particularly that of decolonisation, seems to affect all of ME.NA.SA – for SA, in particular, this would be the period from early 1960s to early 1970s. All these countries have a common cultural and artistic past,’ Odille expounded on the history behind the ME.NA.SA concept.
Art and art history have always been subjects that fascinated Odille, interests that only deepened as he grew in age. ‘I discovered my love for art at a very young age. I started with a high school diploma focusing on literature with a specialisation in philosophy and art history,’ said Odille, who has taught at the Paris campuses of American institutions such as Center for University Programmes Abroad, Parson’s School of Design and University of Delaware.
‘While finishing my studies, I took a number of internships in institutions and galleries. It was after my stint as assistant of Claire Burrus (of the now-defunct Galerie Claire Burrus) in Paris that I decided to only work in contemporary art. It was at that time that I opened Gallery Pascal Odille in Paris, and applied to be an expert at C.N.E.S (National Chamber of Specialised Experts).’
‘After three years of study and supplementary internships under the direction of Armelle Baron, a specialist in Nordic painting, I finally obtained my title as an expert,’ explained Odille. He credits Baron for cultivating his ‘profound interest in art and determination to further artistic research.’
As the Artistic Director of ME.NA.SA., Odille does not only have the task of selecting the artworks that best represent the region, but also to foster an understanding among the galleries and artists on their presence in Singapore. ‘The potential for expression through art is fabulous. It is time that the ME.NA.SA regions are given the opportunity to showcase itself on the international artistic stage and for us to work together on this visibility.’ As for how he selects the artists and artworks, he employs a set selection criteria: ‘the intrinsic quality of the work and the relevance of the subject.’
For most in the SA side of ME.NA.SA., there might be a preconceived notion that the regions of Middle East and North Africa are one, and in that, their art too are similar. In one part, this perception is not all that wrong. ‘The differences between the ME and NA are not found in their artistic practices. These regions have always used similar media such as video, installation and photography,’ commented Odille. The close proximity between the countries in the two regions and ties that date all the way back to the biblical days are sure to be reflected in art produced in these two regions.
In present day, the ME.NA. region is wrought with internal conflicts, and political unrest. Then there is the on-going Arab Spring, which in the course of four years has seen demonstrations, protests, riots, and civil wars. How the artists react to the turmoil is reflected in the art that they create.
On this note, Odille said, ‘What is also crucial is the question of identity and how it is part of contemporary society. Thirty years of civil war in Lebanon have inevitably pushed young Lebanese artists to try to understand how they got to where they are today. Therefore, I understand their quest to work on themes such as the memories of these painful moments.’
Moreover, the notion of identity in Algeria has always been very evident; the different political and social events that the country has suffered, along with a painful decolonisation, has given Algerian artists a compelling reason to tackle such themes. These themes are eventually reflected in their work,’ said Odille, drawing parallels between the North African nation of Algeria and the Middle Eastern nation of Lebanon.
This quest for identity and its expression is also found in the art of SA, a common thread in much of the contemporary art world. ‘I find the artists share the same reflection when it comes to the notion of identity. The social problems as well as the political involvement of certain artists, regardless of where they come from, are themes that are clearly illustrated in their work. They are the witnesses of their time, whether they are from ME, NA or SA, and so their reflections are similar,’ said Odille on the contemporary art of ME.NA.SA.
As SAF would be the official inaugural point of convergence for Middle Eastern and North African art in Southeast Asia, collectors who are not as familiar with the art of ME.NA. have a lot to look forward to. Like purchasing art from any other regions or periods, Odille said that collectors should ‘buy with their eyes and not with their ears’.
Personally, he finds the contemporary artworks from those two regions fascinating. ‘I am truly touched by the sensibility, intelligence and diversity displayed in them,’ said Odille, ‘From Algeria to Tunis, Lebanon to Egypt, even Iran and Iraq, an important artistic tradition and a strong sense of speaking out prevail throughout these countries.’
‘The significance of the artists from these regions would be of great interest to a number of art enthusiasts and collectors. Therefore, I believe in the importance of taking the time, as an art collector, to talk to gallery owners and asking the relevant questions about the artists they represent.’