Istanbul, Johannesburg, Singapore art cities of tomorrow

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Florence was the “capital of art” during the Italian Renaissance. This distinguished title jumped around between the 15th and 20th centuries from Paris to Berlin to Barcelona. Fontainebleau saw the rise of the Barbizon School. Zurich gained recognition with the popularity of Dadaism at the turn of the century. And New York City continued France’s legitimization of the Art Deco style. But where is today’s “capital of art” located?

“Art Cities of the Future: 21st Century Avant-Gardes,” published by Phaidon Press in September in Britain and the United States, aims to explain contemporary art’s 12 most significant cities, including Beirut, Johannesburg and Delhi.

What has changed in the art world since the Italian Renaissance, and even from Art Deco’s flourish in the early 20th century, is pace — pace of communication, pace of travel, pace of technological advancement. It is possible to have worldwide traveling art fairs, global biennials and retrospectives that are exhibited in San Francisco one day and then packed up to be transported to London the next. It is this constantly changing face of the global art world that demands multiple international centers for a healthy and energetic artistic sphere.

The book is broken down into 12 sections, each showcasing the contemporary art period of a certain city. (The 12 featured cities are Beirut, Bogota, Cluj, Delhi, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Lagos, San Juan, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Singapore and Vancouver.) Each chapter begins with a brief introduction to the city, highlighting historical events or political struggles that affected the art scene, before delving into the works of eight special artists per city who have supported — and sometimes even created — a vibrant cultural scene.

The book opens with an introduction on Beirut by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, a contemporary art critic for Lebanon’s Daily Star. She explains the forging of an artistic identity despite the struggles of the ’70s and ’80s, when the Lebanese Civil War was in full force.

“Beirut never regained its prewar stature,” she muses. “It never returned to its golden age. What was lost during the war was lost for good.” This darkness and internal scarring of the political landscape in the country is now seen through the lens of its contemporary art. Lebanese artist Ali Cherri makes videos that expose the intimate and private forms of his personal bodily bruises and cuts. The very coexistence of violence and delicateness in his works evokes the Arab Spring’s political struggles and scars.

Delhi, as a stronghold of postcolonial democracy, is also emerging as a stronghold in the avant-garde realm. Its museums are treasure troves of Indian classical art, and although curator Geeta Kapur somewhat deploringly writes that “Delhi manages with two minor art schools,” she does salvage the artistic and educational values of the Eastern city by mentioning the important School for Planning and Architecture. Standout artists in Delhi include Gigi Scaria, who wows with “Someone left a horse on the shore,” a modern-day Trojan horse built out of stacked housing units, alluding to changing urban demographics. Also worth mentioning is performance artist Inder Salim, a Kashmiri performer who engages in political protests. Kapur writes that “he is the man who will protect fish and fowl and children, even as he identifies with street rebels and men on death row.”

As a city that houses artists dealing with an exploding population and a lack of urban space, Delhi deserves a spot on the avant-garde list. Lagos and Istanbul both deal with similar problems. The former is one of the biggest cities in Africa, while the latter is one of the largest urban agglomerations in Europe. Andrew Esiebo from Lagos, who focuses his art on LGBTQ issues in the most populous city in Nigeria, is a highlight of the book, as is the Turkish-born Nilbar Gures, who deals with deconstructing sexual constraints in the tight spaces of Istanbul through her photography and films.

Although the book’s method of choosing the 12 star cities seems to focus on independent artistic figures rather than museums, galleries or creative spaces, “Art Cities of the Future”  does provide a thought-provoking look into the modern art world. It boldly predicts contemporary art’s trajectory, articulating the universal language of global art.

Addy Bhasin covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].