In Cambodia, traditional rattan weaving is associated with the provinces rather than contemporary art spaces. Yet hanging in New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art galleries, Sopheap Pich’s sculpture “Buddha 2” uses the ancient craft to shape a Buddha head, which trails off into blood-stained, unwoven strands of rattan. Recently acquired as part of the museum’s permanent collection, Pich’s powerful work is making him one of the country’s most established artists on the world stage.
Pich’s success comes at an opportune time. After a slowdown during the recession, the global art market is big business again; according to the TEFAF Art Market Report 2014, sales of arts and antiques netted around $66 billion in 2013. The market is swinging towards Asia: China now makes up 24% of the global market, and the latest Art Stage Singapore art fair welcomed over 45,000 visitors. Wealthier countries in the region have established a stable market structure, with informed buyers, evaluative attention from critics and contemporary museums collecting artists’ work, confirming the value of the pieces being purchased.
However, despite the recent overseas success of Pich, as well as other artists such as Lim Sokchanlina and Khvay Samnang, this art market boom has yet to reach Cambodia. Due to the lack of government funding available to nurture artists, and relatively scant documentation, collection or discussion around the artists and their work, the local art market is far less developed compared to other Southeast Asian countries.
Madeleine de Langalerie, founder and president of ReCreation NGO, decided to get the market in motion by setting up a Christie’s auction two years ago. “There were other less risky, more conventional methods of ‘testing’ the receptiveness of the local art market, but I felt the risk was worth the effort if the result energised the local artists and exposed their work to a global market,” she says.
The Christie’s auction in March 2012 was the first ever contemporary Cambodian art auction, with bidding peaking at around $9,000 for a sculpture by Sopheap Pich. The second auction, held earlier this year, included work by foreign artists, and raised around $27,000 for arts charities. Yet despite the success of the auctions, the money involved was just a fraction of the $2 billion that Christie’s alone raised in Southeast Asia last year.
It was also apparent that Cambodians were not bidding to invest in their nation’s art. “The viewing and bidding audience was composed primarily of the expat community, visiting foreigners, and ‘expat Cambodians’. Local buyers were notably absent,” says de Langalerie.
Yet Roger Nelson, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne researching the recent history of Cambodian art, believes the steps towards a healthy Cambodian art market are already being made. “Interest from audiences, curators and critics has grown hugely in the last few years,” he explains. “The market has a breadth that it hasn’t had before. Interest from collectors is gathering more slowly, but that makes it an exciting and opportune time for them.”
So is it a good idea to invest before the market has fully matured? Nelson thinks so. “The lack of infrastructure here isn’t just a pure lack – it also presents opportunity. In Cambodia, artists have a collaborative, organic energy and achieve a lot with limited means,” he says. The undeveloped market also means that not only are artworks by young artists cheap, but it’s still easy to build personal relationships with galleries and the artists themselves.
“Buy something you love” is his advice for potential collectors. “If you don’t trust your taste, then take advice from someone who is really passionate about art. People working in galleries in Cambodia are all really knowledgeable and helpful, and can give you great advice,” he says.
It may not be a risk just anyone is willing to take, but entering the art market at such an early stage means that a shrewd investment is likely to appreciate in value once the market catches up. Buying art is also not only a chance to support the nation’s artists, but to acquire something far more beautiful than a bond certificate. Think you could spot the Cambodian Mona Lisa? Now may be the time to find out.
Text by Eve Watling | © Photograph courtesy of Sopheap Pich and Tyler Rollins Fine Art