In Sydney, a major exhibition of contemporary Asian art offers a platform for issues of social justice and discussion.


Zhang Huan, Family Tree.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales recently opened one of its most significant exhibitions of contemporary Asian art, but what’s interesting is that despite the critical curatorial approach to the presentation of the works is that they are drawn from a singular private collection. Philanthropists Gene and Brian Sherman are well known for their commitment to the collection of contemporary art – and, indeed, they boast their own independent gallery, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, at which part of Go East is presented – but the sheer scope of this exhibition, including as it does works by Ai Weiwei, Yang Fudon and Zhang Huan, indicates the ever-growing importance of private collectors and their generous contributions to the public display of works, particularly in the face of uncertain economic outlook for the arts sector in Australia.

As Suhanya Raffel, the exhibition’s curator and the recently-appointed deputy director of the gallery, explains, working with the collectors has been of great benefit to the gallery, particularly in that two of the major works, Public Notice 2 and Chinese Bible, are being received as gifts to the permanent collection. “Both of them are having their premiere in Australia, and that calibre of work in terms of contemporary Asian art is without question.”

Exhibitions drawn entirely from private collectors has in the past raised questions about ethics of public institutions, but as Ms Raffel points out, SCAF has been at the forefront of collecting contemporary Asian artwork since its rise in artistic favour in the 1980s, making it one of the most significant repositories to draw from. What’s more is that Australia has a particularly unique relationship with Asian art with thanks to our geographic proximity to the region and growing economic and social ties – the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia-Pacific Triennial is a most important and obvious example – so it makes sense that the Art Gallery of New South Wales should dedicate a single exhibition to the showcase its contemporary practice.

“Australians are privileged in that sense, and the Shermans have collected a very important, very fabulous collection,” adds Ms Raffel. And more is that not every gift is accepted, ensuring the high quality of the collection. “We assess every approach that’s made to us. A work has to augment and contribute to the existing collection, so there’s a very rigorous debate that takes place with the curators, with myself as the director of collections, with Michael [Brand, the gallery’s director]. Ms Raffel notes, too, that without such contributions, the gallery would rely solely on loans from other institutions, meaning the remit of its exhibitions would be much smaller. “It’s important to acknowledge that relationship. We wouldn’t be able to do many of our shows without a collector’s passions being brought to the table.”

As the works featured in Go East suggest, the Sherman collection favours artists who engage with and employ text and textiles as a means of addressing issues of social justice. Here, highlights include a major installation by dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, with the gallery installing 7,000 sheets that revisit his blog from 2005 to now, “activating it in a whole new way with the blog posts transcribed into pieces of calligraphy”; an embroidery installation by feminist Chinese artist Lin Tianmiao; and the aforementioned Public Notice 2, by Jitish Kallat, a major installation running the length of the gallery’s foyer and which comprises a speech made by Gandhi in 1930. “There’s a real sense of social justice throughout the works, and it was importance for me to show works that hadn’t been seen in the public domain before,” says Ms Raffel. “I think in this way it’s exciting, provocative, timely, as all of the works address our times in very particular ways.”

Go East is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney until 26 July 2015.