A Passage to Asia

The Origami, October 25, 2013

By BEATRICE S. PAEZ

Rudyard Kipling may have said, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” but Andrew FitzGerald, the show runner of The East Gallery, which is now poised to be a wandering exhibit of modern Asian art, thinks otherwise. Art has tended to defy easy classifications; strictly boxing it as a product of one particular country neglects the influences pouring in from different corners of the globe, says FitzGerald.Picasso was from Spain, but he was influenced by African masks; Van Gogh was from the post-Impressionist era yet he was inspired by Japanese woodprints, he adds.

Pen Robit-Ti

East Gallery’s recent explorative show on human figures, Figuratively Speaking, illustrates the meeting of East and West, says Fitzgerald. “Some of the styles are Western and familiar, but the local subject and local themes are in there. It’s an interesting fusion of the two.”

The show’s artists – who hail from Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma – were largely trained in classical European painting techniques, at art institutions established during the colonial period. The body of work on display reflects this enduring influence, yet the subject matter pays homage to the artists’ heritage.

Vietnamese artist Lim Khim Katy focuses  on urban poor women in the throes of renegotiating their place in society. New Law depicts regulations banning street vending and bears witness to societal pressures to adapt and conform to the image of a rapidly modernizing economy. Ngo Van Sac (2)-Ti

Situated at the centre of the exhibit, is Vietnamese artist Ngo Van Sac’s wood burned portraits of the aging. It is art that sits at the crossroads where Eastern and Western tastes intersect for its clever mixing of textured media and its unconscious reference to a treasured painting. Without intending to, Van Sac resurrected an image found at a local museum that has been dubbed the Asian Mona Lisa for projecting a version of the original’s mysterious smile.

Since its inception in 2011, East Gallery has become a point of contact between parts of Southeast Asia and Toronto, and has brought into contact culturally distant communities in Toronto.

A banker by trade, FitzGerald developed a love affair with contemporary Asian art while living in Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore for 14 years. After hours, he and his wife, Claudia Blume, whom he met in Saigon, would hop to different art openings, forming friendships with local artists.

What struck FitzGerald, when he returned to Toronto, was an art scene that had little room for showcasing contemporary Asian art. “There might be a few galleries that showcased a random Chinese artist or Indian artist,” he said. “But it was as if these artists appeared out of a vacuum. There was no context to them.”

Hoping to change that, while wanting to pursue his newfound passion for Asian art, he reached out to artists on the cusp of visibility and to others that had climbed international heights.

FitzGerald and Blume opened up a home for their exhibits right across the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2012.  They recently decided to close shop and focus on mounting shows at different venues across the city. In time, they plan to bring the art show to Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary, and Montreal.

The gallery goes beyond showcasing the work of its handpicked artists. They fly in some of them to discuss their work, alongside other individuals who can offer additional perspectives on Asia – in Toronto and abroad – to better inform one’s understanding of the artwork.

Alongside exhibits, the gallery has staged Asian dance nights, screened documentaries, held lectures and hosted authors to give people a more nuanced picture of the country in focus.

“We try to avoid clichéd representations,” said FitzGerald about what guides their selection process. “What I’m hoping to do is to provide Canadians with a three-dimensional view of these places.”

For instance, images that disrupt crystallized representations of countries :  Vietnam and war, Burma and military dictatorship, and Cambodia and genocide.

Looking past these singular portrayals, through art, some commonalities emerge including, “a search for beauty, a search for truth,” he adds.

At the same time, it is also important to celebrate differences, says FitzGerald. His intent all along had been to create a space where different communities can converge and interact and gain appreciation for art that has the capacity to transcend borders.

The events have had as much of an eye-opening effect on Canadians with roots dating back several generations, as it has had for recent Asian immigrants.

“The next generation can lose touch with their heritage, there’s sometimes a little bit of a rejection of the old country,” says FitzGerald, who has talked to some Canadian-Burmese families drawn in through his past shows on Burma. “They rightly see themselves as Canadians and then they come here and see their country is being celebrated by someone who is non-Burmese. It’s an important recognition of their heritage.”

“I get a lot of people who come here and say it’s so great to see part of our culture, part of our world presented on the walls,” he adds.

Far from being a one-way exchange of ideas, the gallery has helped facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas. A visiting artist from Burma, Kim Zaw Latt, was so enamored with Henry Moore’s sculptures at the AGO, that when he returned to Asia he secured some fine marble and was inspired to create a sculpture influenced by Moore.

“A Burmese artist influenced by a British artist in Toronto,” FitzGerald marveled. “That’s the kind of global influence and exchange that really appeals to me.”

Perhaps divergent roads eventually meet after all.