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The New Art Aficionados
Natalie & Nathan GUNAWAN
NATALIE and Nathaniel Gunawan belong to a new generation of young collectors rapidly emerging in Singapore. Taking advantage of Singapore's institutional positioning as a hub for promoting South-east Asian art, they routinely visit galleries big and small across the region to savour the works of established artists and to also chance on artists they may have never heard of.
Case in point: 24-year-old Loi Cai Xiang. The Gunawans first encountered Loi's works when they visited Chan Hampe Gallery in Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade in 2014. Loi then had only just graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and was doing his National Service. He had four small but evocative still-life works which he'd painted while in school.
The couple felt a strong emotional resonance in Loi's bleak and sombre depictions of familiar spaces, including a pensive painting of empty armchairs in Loi's family flat titled 2AM Sofa. They purchased the work and it remains one of their favourites.
Now Loi is getting ready to hold his first solo show in July at Chan Hampe Gallery - which has relocated to Gillman Barracks and been renamed Chan + Hori Contemporary to reflect the appointment of its new curatorial director Khairuddin Hori. Loi's new canvases are much bigger than before and his images have taken on a surreal dimension: a flock of seagulls flies across a typical HDB living room, a giraffe saunters along a familiar concrete corridor. For Mr and Mrs Gunawan, Loi's growth as an artist is immensely satisfying to witness.
Mr Gunawan, a director of a consumer goods company, says: "We like artists who are courageous in their approach to making art. The choice of medium does not limit our ability to appreciate or collect an artist's works. We admire many artists who are working with materials and media that aren't necessarily fashionable. Cai Xiang uses oils and paints a lot of still life - that's hardly cutting-edge - but what he does with it is amazing. We see similar gifts in Albert Yonathan Setwayan with his ceramic installations and Keni Johansjah with her luminous watercolour works."
His wife, a lawyer, adds: "We really like hearing about the craftsmanship, process and skills employed. That, I believe, enhances our appreciation of the piece. We want to be a part of the art ecology by supporting artists whose work we enjoy. Beautiful art has such a certain impact: It elicits positive responses from those who interact with it and it inspires each of us to greater discipline in our own practices."
The duo were bitten by the art bug a few years ago when they were splitting their time between Singapore and Jakarta. Hearing exciting impressions of emerging artworks from their peers, the couple started visiting art galleries and museums. Not long after, they made their first purchase - a "simple but meaningful" painting by artist Bunga Jeruk.
Although neither of them comes from families that collect art, they have felt a strong desire to engage with young artists. As Mr Gunawan observes: "It stems from the shared experience of starting out in our respective careers - we know that any help or support is always welcome."
They have always appreciated the arts - he loves literature and cinema, she enjoys music and theatre. "But when we started collecting art, we found ourselves becoming part of a real community of artists and gallerists, many of whom have demonstrated genuine intent and integrity."
Gallerist Stephanie Fong of FOST, for instance, has been pivotal in championing the careers of young Singapore artists. The Gunawans are fans of the talented brothers Chun Kai Qun and Chun Kai Feng, who previously showed at FOST. Mizuma Gallery, Yavuz Gallery and Sullivan & Strumpf have also supported many young artists from the region.
Nathaniel says: "We're huge fans of Arin Sunaryo, Syagini Ratna Wulan and Faisal Habibi, all of whom are part of ROH Projects in Jakarta. Actually we like to think of ourselves as part of the 'ROH Squad,' spearheaded by the gallery founder Junior Tirtadji.
"We love that the works we collect may not be instantly recognisable. It's great when people come to our home and ask: What's that? Who's that? That's how a new dialogue can begin."
Mrs Gunawan adds: "We keep very detailed records of artworks that we have and those that have caught our interest. It's not just the ordinary archiving of facts, but also why we bought them and how we felt about the works at the moment in time."
Asked what advice they'd give to anyone new to art collecting, Mr Gunawan says:
"Be ravenous. Go to all the shows. Ask questions. Understand why some things draw you. And know that it's okay not to like some stuff." Mrs Gunawan concludes: "Take your time to look and appreciate the beauty in different pieces."
Quote: "Be ravenous. Go to all the shows. Ask questions. Understand why some things draw you."
EACH morning before international arbitrator Cheng Tai-Heng heads to his office in Madison Avenue, New York, he looks up and stares for a moment at his life-size Italian painting of David and Goliath by Allesandro Turchi (1578-1649) hanging on his wall.
Once owned by Louis XIV at Versailles, the painting depicts a decapitated head of Goliath held by a solemn David. The Singaporean lawyer says: "I wonder whether there's a message there for me when I battle daily on behalf of clients in their international legal disputes. I suppose it could represent the triumph of intelligence over brute force, without being triumphant."
The former President's Scholar read law at Oxford University and Yale Law School before becoming a tenured Professor of Law at New York Law School. In 2012, he quit teaching to lead the New York international arbitration practice of global law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and has achieved numerous victories in investor-state and commercial arbitration cases worldwide.
Home is a swanky two-floor apartment in an early 20th century cast-iron building with a roof garden in Chelsea. He shares it with his partner Cole Harrell, who runs his eponymous tribal art advisory firm focusing on the arts of Africa and Oceania.
Mr Harrell once gifted Mr Cheng a 16th century Tellem wood figure that was formerly in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. It is now one of his favourite possessions. He says: "A Japanese tea master pointed out that, even though it was not the carver's intent, the piece had eroded in a way that suggests one hand pointing to the heavens and the other to the earth, reminiscent of a sculpture of Buddha."
Another favourite piece is a small cream vase from the Qing Dynasty in China. "It entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in 1879, and found its way to me after the museum deaccessioned it to benefit future acquisitions," he explains.
Mr Cheng, 39, fell in love with art while studying at Oxford. Dame Jessica Rawson, the warden of Merton College, was previously the Keeper of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. She introduced him to a world of art and antiquities.
Together with Mr Harrell, he has amassed a small but beautiful collection of Chinese antiquities, Old Master paintings and contemporary photography: "I've learnt that possessions can be burdensome. So these days I would rather own fewer excellent pieces than lots of new works.
"My test is whether a piece is arresting enough to put up with looking after it for many years. I like pieces that encourage contemplation over a sustained period rather than holding my attention for only a short while. Often the pieces provoke reflections on the way we live."
As a high-flying lawyer subject to the pressures of time, art and antiques encourage him to slow down and look: "My job requires quick and sound judgment. But as Cole would say about art, we need to 'look carefully'. So it's good practice to combine both: look carefully and make good judgments quickly."
Appreciating art also means displaying it in the best possible way at home. A curator friend once opined that if one buys art for one's home, one is merely decorating. But Mr Cheng demurs. "Integrating art into our lives can be a beautiful thing that straddles, uneasily, experiencing art and decorating."
Asked which artwork he'd like to own if he could choose any in the world, he names Bernini's Sleeping Hermaphroditus, a sensual marble sculpture carved in the 17th century. "But it should probably be left at the Borghese Collection in Rome so everyone can enjoy it."
Quote: "I like pieces that encourage contemplation rather than holding my attention for only a short while."
Lucia CORDESCHI & Angelo ROXAS
Married couple Lucia Cordeschi and Angelo Roxas moved from London to Singapore in 2012 for a work posting. They didn't think they'd stay long, maybe just a couple of years. But they quickly fell in love with the arts
scene of Singapore and South-east Asia, and started collecting works by contemporary regional artists such as Jane Lee, Ruben Pang, Nilo Ilarde, Mark Justiniani, Yee I-Lann, Heri Dono and Maryanto, among others. Recently, they became permanent residents of Singapore.
Mr Roxas, a senior executive advisor to Booz Allen Hamilton and Halza, says: "The arts have always been important for us. Whichever country we travel to - even, say, Cuba - we always look for local art galleries and art spaces to visit. We try to find out more about the society through its contemporary arts scene, which to us is more exciting than just looking at historical sites. And, of course, if we see art we like, we buy."
In 2014, Ms Cordeschi took it a step further - she quit her job in a risk and security consultancy firm and pursued a Master's of Arts in Asian Art Histories at Lasalle College of the Arts. She wrote her thesis on Roberto Chabet, the father of conceptual art in the Philippines, and has travelled to the country several times with Roxas for research and pleasure.
She says the increased global attention non-Western artists are receiving is long overdue: "Historically, Western art institutions have dictated the canon. But they've come to realise their shortcomings and are trying to redress that. Recent examples of these efforts include the establishment of the Research Centre Asia at Tate Modern, as well as the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative, which sees the Guggenheim collecting more South-east Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern and African art."
To deepen their understanding, the couple tries to get to know personally the artists whose works they're intrigued by, to gain a stronger appreciation of their practices. This may lead to a purchase of the artists' works down the road. "As a matter of fact, a work we like by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan is making its way to us right now," Mr Roxas smiles.
Ironically, even though the two come from financial backgrounds - they met while working for the same management consultancy firm - neither one of them sees art as an investment. Ms Cordeschi says: "We don't think of art as an investment. It's a way of immersing ourselves in the culture of the place we live in. We have no plans to sell any of the works - unless circumstances force us to."
For Mr Roxas, who was born in the Philippines but emigrated to the United States at an early age, exploring and collecting Filipino art have allowed him to be reacquainted with the culture of his birth country. "When I was young, we didn't go the museums in the Philippines. But now I take my parents to museums to rediscover the country's history. Through art, we're able to connect more deeply with the past than any history book would allow."
Meanwhile, Ms Cordeschi was born in Italy, a country famous for its rich artistic history. She is interested in Old Masters such as Botticelli, da Vinci and Caravaggio as well as the modern and contemporary practitioners. But she says: "With Old Masters, there's already been so much information and discussions about their works. On the other hand, with contemporary art, there's more space for spontaneous reactions, personal interpretations and debates. That's why I'm so fascinated with contemporary art."