What is Asian Art?

The question of “what is Asian art?" takes an unprecedented significance in the light of Artasiam’s mission to promote artists belonging to Asian communities living in Canada. The complexity of this question lies on the diverse formulations and theorizations of art classification.

Asian Art and its Geographic Limitations

Asian art, as a category, refers to the artistic creation produced by artists coming from the Asian continent comprising forty-eight diversified countries. However, a classification in geographical terms, although technically correct, excludes a multitude of art practices and discourses no longer intrinsically connected to the Asian continent. Thus, showcasing a scarcity of “[…] interpretive frames to art discourses that are visible from a global perspective across cultural and temporal zones […].” [1] In such perspective, Asian art becomes a bounding concept that takes issue with the artistic creation produced by Asian artists living outside Asia.

Asian Art Between Tradition and Modernity

Asian art also alludes to a specific set of artistic practices closely related to tradition and often used as curatorial divisions to frame Asian art exhibitions in Asia and around the world. Specifically, Asian art is mainly known for its ritual bronzes, delicate ceramics, jades, textiles, poetic painted landscapes, elaborate gold work and sculptures, woodblock prints, and calligraphy, among others. This formulation and theorization of Asian art by traditional mediums builds on a more inclusive classification that takes away a certain rigidity to the term ‘Asian art’ beyond the geographical classification. Nonetheless, the conceptualization of Asian art is overly attached to its traditions in the collective unconscious, leaving scant space for contemporary artistic practices. As such, the geographical and traditional classifications give rise to similar ontological problems.

Contemporary Asian Art 

The concept of contemporary “[…] has extraordinary depths of meaning: con tempus came into use, and remains in use, because it points to a multiplicity of relations between being and time.” [2] Therefore, Asian contemporary art relies on a multiplicity of culturally specific relations to navigate between tradition — being — and contemporary approaches to art — present time.

Certainly, Asian contemporary art continues to maintain a strong relatedness with its traditional art practices while incorporating exogenous elements. Such development underscores “the very hybrid nature of contemporary art coming from Asia and the other non-Western regions.” [3] However, there are also contemporary Asian artists who decide to detach themselves from traditional artistic practices. Then, a question remains: is the artistic creation produced by Asian artists with no connection to traditional Asian art or any physical connection to the Asian continent can still be considered Asian art? Consequently, what characterizes Asian art as such?

Asian Art Facing Globalization

Thus far, the term ‘Asian art’ proves to be problematic since, as it was originally formulated, it cannot be easily adapted to the rapid transition to a globalized world that happened. Hence, the need to revisit the meaning of the term and, ultimately, to propose a new configuration. In this perspective, what has come to be known as Asian art cannot be simply related to geography and tradition. It should be a matter of identity. In other words, a matter of artists’ self-identification as being part of Asian ethnic groups. Thus, self-determination as belonging to a particular Asian ethnic group offers a liberating effect on what Asian contemporary art can be in a globalized world. Certainly, an Asian artist can be born and raised outside Asia, study in an arts city and create a traditionally artistic body of work. On the other hand, an Asian artist can be born, raised and study in Asia and still produce a non-traditional artistic body of work.

The possibilities are endless, but it is up to the artists coming from Asian communities who identify as such who hold the capacity to redefine what is contemporary Asian art beyond a geographical situated origin or traditional artistic practices. Ultimately, the cultural specificities of the different Asian ethnic groups, however much they are modified, re-appropriated, or fused to exogen components, are still permanently evoked in Asian artists’ works “[…] since much contemporary art from non-Western world is part of the international art scene, but often deals with culturally specific histories.” [4]

In response to the question raised above, Artasiam wishes to offer an answer through the very nature of its mission: promoting artists belonging to Asian communities living in Canada, regardless of subject addressed or artistic medium used. Indeed, providing a much-needed space dedicated to Asian artists in order to address the lack of cultural representation in the Canadian art scene it is also a way to emphasize the need to reconfigure what Asian art is and could be. Ultimately, what characterizes Asian art as such it is up to artists to decide.  


[1] Clark, John. 2014. “The Worlding of the Asian Modern.” In Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: Connectivities and World-making. Antoinette, Michelle, 67-88. Canberra: ANU Press.[2] Smith, Terry. 2010. “The State of Art History: Contemporary Art.”The Art Bulletin, 93: 366-383.[3] Desai, Vishakha N. 2005. “Beyond the “Authentic-Exotic”: Collecting Contemporary Asian Art in the Twenty-first Century.” InCollecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art.Bruce Altshuler, 103-114. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.[4]Ibid.

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