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10 Non-Western Contemporary Artists You Should Know
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10 Non-Western Contemporary Artists You Should Know

Picture of C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Updated: 13 November 2015
When thinking about the most important and influential non-Western artists, activist artist Ai Weiwei, the founder of Kaikai Kiki Takashi Murakami and the ‘Queen of Polka Dots’ Yayoi Kusama, come to mind. But we tend to forget that there are others that deserve attention. Here’s our top 10 list of talented artists that have recently been awarded or shortlisted for some of the world’s most prestigious art prizes.
Abel Rodríguez, Tree of life and abundance |  © Rocío Polanco, Tropenbos International Colombia Archive
Abel Rodríguez, Tree of life and abundance | © Rocío Polanco, Tropenbos International Colombia Archive

Paul Chan

Hong Kong-born, America-based artist Paul Chan won the 10th edition of the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize in 2014 for the ‘singular artistic voice’ of his experimental art practice. As part of the Prize, an exhibition of Chan’s work will be on view at the Guggenheim until Spring 2015. Since the beginning of his career, Chan has worked simultaneously as a political activist and an artist. His diverse practice encompasses animated film, sculpture, installation, light projection and community-based performance. On show in the most extensive exhibition of Chan’s work at the Schaulager Foundation (2014) is his first major video work Happiness (Finally) After 35,000 Years of Civilization (After Charles Fourier and Henry Darger), an animation in which schoolgirls cavort in a post-apocalyptic paradise. His series The 7 Lights (2005-07) transformed entire rooms with large-scale projections of hallucinatory, surreal and apocalyptic worlds made with animated paper silhouettes.

Anila Quayyum Agha

Pakistani-born artist Anila Quayyum Agha is the winner of ArtPrize Award 2014 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan. Her winning work, titled Intersections, will be on view at GRAM until the end of January 2015. Agha’s conceptual artworks are influenced by her rich cultural heritage and Islamic origins, as seen in Intersections. The work comprises a laser-cut wooden cube with a light source at its center, projecting shadows of the cube’s patterns onto the ceiling, walls and floor of the gallery. The geometry of the traditional motifs in Islamic sacred spaces is associated with certitude; Agha’s installation explores this aspect by revealing its fluidity and flexibility, confronting the contradictory nature of intersections and exploring boundaries. The work aims to give substance to mutualism and explore the dichotomies of public and private, light and shadow, and static and dynamic. Agha’s exploration of the ‘silent and ephemeral’ life of women in Pakistan can also be seen in her other works, such as Rights of Passage, a series of square mixed media pieces incorporating a variety of repeating radial patterns and images that reflect designs on the graves of women at the Makli necropolis near the Indus River Delta in Pakistan. Central to Agha’s practice is the use of traditional craftsmanship inspired by Islamic ornamentation, as well as an exploration of duality stemming from her multicultural origins and upbringing.

Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2014 | Courtesy the artist
Anila Quayyum Agha, ‘Intersections’, completed in 2013, laser-cut wood, single light bulb, 6.5 inches square cube. Installation view at Grand Rapids Art Museum, 2014 | Courtesy the artist

Yto Barrada

FrenchMoroccan artist Yto Barrada has won the most coveted MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) art prize, the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2014, and a commission for the Prize’s 2015 exhibition at Art Dubai. The Paris-born multidisciplinary artist works across a wide range of media, from photography, film and sculpture, to prints and installation. Her intriguing work explores the peculiarities of Tangier, her hometown in Morocco, and the ways in which notions of local and global are articulated there. Tangier in particular is situated at the edge of several frontiers, sitting on the Strait of Gibraltar and bordering with the vast landscapes of Northern Morocco. Barrada reflects on the constantly changing boundaries in culture, economics and politics, and on the repercussions of such transformations. In her 1998-initiated photo series A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project, Barrada portrays Tangier and its residents in an everlasting waiting state; in Iris Tingitana (2007) she explores the landscapes that surround Tangier, recording the shifting border between city and nature, and the accompanying homogenization of the country’s urban and botanical surfaces; her three films Beau Geste (2009), Playground and Hand-Me-Downs re-articulate spaces, sounds and meanings, and play on the concept of ‘tree’.

Yto Barrada, A Modest Proposal, 2010-2013, 15 Double-sided posters, Offset print, 565 x 420 mm | Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery
Yto Barrada, A Modest Proposal, 2010-2013, 15 Double-sided posters, Offset print, 565 x 420 mm | Courtesy the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery

Koki Tanaka

Japanese artist Koki Tanaka has been nominated Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year 2015, for his ability to observe the most indifferent matters of the everyday and transforming them into fantastic, humorous events, revealing the ‘uncanniness’ of existence. Tanaka’s performances, installations and videos explore the relationship between objects and actions, such as in his series Process of Blowing Flour (2010), or videos that record simple everyday gestures performed with everyday, familiar items, such as a knife cutting vegetables, beer poured into a glass or the opening of an umbrella. All these situations, in which nothing seems to happen, compel us to take notice of the mundane, through obsessive repetition and minute attention to detail. A sense of community is also at the core of Tanaka’s practice, which aims to create a common space for collective creativity and imagination and encourages sharing and exchange, by experimenting with new rules of negotiation and collaboration. A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once (second attempt) (2010) was his first collaborative work and took place at a hair salon in San Francisco, where a group of hairdressers attempted to give the model a haircut by committee. The normally one-on-one relationship of hairdresser and client becomes a round table negotiation. In his Precarious Tasks series from 2012, Tanaka reflects on the ongoing uncertainty of the reconstruction efforts and the unfolding nuclear crisis, making oblique references to the post-disaster situation.

Koki Tanaka, A Behavioral Statement (or an Unconscious Protest), 2013, Collective acts, HD video, Video documentation, 8min. Photo: Takashi Fujikawa  | © Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo
Koki Tanaka, A Behavioral Statement (or an Unconscious Protest), 2013, Collective acts, HD video, Video documentation, 8min. Photo: Takashi Fujikawa | © Courtesy of the artist, Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou and Aoyama Meguro, Tokyo

Kwan Sheung Chi

Hong Kong artist Kwan Sheung Chi won the inaugural Hugo Boss Asia Art Award in 2013 at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. Through performance, text, video and installation, Kwan’s conceptual practice questions social contexts, and revisits the private and public social challenges of today’s society. In a poetic and humorous way, Kwan engages with issues ranging from the artist’s identity in contemporary society and personal utopias to against-the-grain criticism of the system and the possibility of alternative value systems. His 2013 installation Water Barrier (Maotai-water, 1:999) comprises two anti-riot barriers filled with water and a bottle of Maotai liquor, a video next to the barriers shows the artist trying to topple the barrier, and a yellow sign reading ‘Please Tear Down this Wall, Warm Reminder: Beware of People Behind’. The imbalanced mixture of water and Maotai liquor—with the most expensive baijiu (Chinese rice liquor) on the Chinese market making up to only one thousandth of the liquid mix—is meant to symbolize the huge disparity of status in contemporary society, as well as to constitute a protective mechanism against outside forces. The advice of toppling over the barrier hints at the artist’s critical standing regarding the system and the status quo.

Alexia Webster

South African photographer Alexia Webster was the winner of the inaugural ArtRaker Award in 2013, the first ever prize spotlighting ‘conflict art’ from around the globe. Her series ‘Refugee Street Studios’ is an on-going project that involves setting up a portable photographic portrait studios on the streets of refugee and IDP camps around the world and inviting anyone who wants to pose for free and get the printed photograph afterwards. The first Studio in March 2014, took place in the Bulengo IDP camp just outside of the city of Goma in the D.R. Congo, with over 50,000 residents who have fled fighting and violence in the north eastern regions of the country. The studio was very successful, with more than 700 people participating, some even dressed up for the occasion. The temporary studios made it possible for poverty-stricken or displaced people to have a photograph of themselves or their family. Webster explains: ‘The images human beings seem to treasure the most are of ourselves, our loved ones and our ancestors. Whether in war or security, poverty or wealth, a family photograph is a precious object. It affirms our identity and worth, and our place in humanity.’ ‘A Village in the Clouds’ is an ongoing project of photographs taken in Hogsback, a village in the Amatola Mountains in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, where the artist’s great grandfather bought a piece of land in 1932. The location, clouded in mist, has been considered a sacred place for many generations. The series is an exploration of the village’s present and its history, and a search for ‘a glimpse of those spirits’, including her own ancestors, ‘who roam these ancient and haunted forests.’

Alexia Webster, 'Refugee Street Studio', 2014-ongoing, Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo 23 year old Masika Chanse from Sake with her baby Mary, 10 months old | Courtesy the artist
Alexia Webster, ‘Refugee Street Studio’, 2014-ongoing, Bulengo IDP Camp- Goma, DR Congo 23 year old Masika Chanse from Sake with her baby Mary, 10 months old | Courtesy the artist

Khaled Jarrar

Ramallah-based Palestinian multidisciplinary artist Khaled Jarrar recently was refused entry to Israel, from where he was due to board a flight to Jordan and then to New York, to attend the New Museum’s seminal exhibition Here and Elsewhere featuring his work alongside other artists from the Arab region. The show included his award-winning documentary film Infiltrators (2012), which won the Muhr Arab Documentary Prize, the Special Jury Prize and the International Critics Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2012. Jarrar creates bold, poignant ‘portraits’ of the socio-political situation and its impact on the life of ordinary people in his native Palestine through highly symbolic photographs, videos, and performative interventions. His work juxtaposes the use of everyday objects to the severity of the issues examined, revealing an underlying autobiographical element. Much of Jarrar’s work deals with the travel restrictions faced by Palestinians living in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, including ‘At the Checkpoint’ (2007), and ‘Live and Work in Palestine’ (2012). In ‘Whole in the Wall’ (2013) at Ayyam Gallery, Jarrar divided the gallery space in half with a site-specific installation of a wall made from the cement he gathered by chipping away at the Separation Wall in Palestine, a process documented in his video Concrete (2012). The London wall installation can be circumvented or traversed through a hole made in the shape of Palestine.

Khaled Jarrar. 'Football', 2012,Cement Sculpture, 23 cm. diameter, edition of 7 | Courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery
Khaled Jarrar. ‘Football’, 2012,Cement Sculpture, 23 cm. diameter, edition of 7 | Courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery

Kan Xuan

Although she experiments with a variety of media, including performance, painting and photography, Chinese artist Kan Xuan is best known for her cutting-edge experimental video installations and is recognized as an important female figure in Chinese video art. She recently won the Best Artist Award of the prestigious Contemporary Chinese Art Awards (CCAA) 2014. Kan’s work highlights the social and emotional landscape of contemporary China, and draws from the brittle belief systems of an age based on consumption and growth, as well as from the tension and intimacy between humans and objects. In some of her early works, Kan engages with a somewhat feminist discourse, using her own body in her videos, such as in ‘Happy Girl’ (2002), where she dances naked on a pedestal in a lush garden, or ‘Looking Looking Looking For!’ (2001), in which tiny spiders crawl over naked bodies. In other videos, Kan amplifies the mundane, with her camera focusing on everyday activities revealing their absurd and eerie details, such as in ‘Ai!, Eggs and A Sunny Day’. Kan’s video installation Millet Mounds (2012), first shown at UCCA and later at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, comprises 140 stop-motion videos composed of 40 to 500 iPhone shots of Chinese imperial burial grounds, arranged in chronological order by imperial reign. An exploration of the burial sites and the communities living alongside them, the project is the result of a 28,000 kilometer journey and 174 days of research, and attempts to document the tension and relationship between China’s dynastic past and the complexity of its present.

Kwan Sheung Chi,Water Barrier (Maotai-Water, 1:999)‬ ‪2013, Installation (cast model of water barricade, water, alcohol, video camera and monitors) 170 x 430 x 70 cm, Edition 2 of 3 + 1AP | Courtesy the artist and Gallery EXIT "
Kwan Sheung Chi,Water Barrier (Maotai-Water, 1:999)‬ ‪2013, Installation (cast model of water barricade, water, alcohol, video camera and monitors) 170 x 430 x 70 cm, Edition 2 of 3 + 1AP | Courtesy the artist and Gallery EXIT

Abel Rodríguez

Known among his people as ‘the Namer of Plants’, a designation of wisdom, Colombian artist Abel Rodríguez is the Principal Laureate of the Prince Claus Award 2014. An elder of the Nonuya people, he holds special expertise in the plants and ecological systems of the Amazon Basin, a knowledge that is traditionally passed down through generations. After leaving his homeland with his family in the 1990s, Rodríguez began to create intricate drawings and paintings of Amazonian plants and vegetation. In the 1980s, Rodríguez first came into contact with scientific researchers in the Araracuara area and he collaborated with Tropenbos International Colombia (TBI) as a guide in a project with the objective of characterizing the land use in the Mid River Caquetá area. The researchers were impressed with his skills at classifying plants and explaining their ecological aspects. In the 1990s, as Araracuara became a red-zone under the control of illegal armed groups, Rodríguez ended up in Bogotá, where he started drawing plants. In 2012, he illustrated a non-existing tree, The tree of life, which narrates the origin of food for the indigenous people of the Mid River Caquetá and he published the book ‘The cultivated plants of the center people from the Colombian Amazon’. Rodríguez’s inventories of the forest have become the basis for local management strategies, as they are the most complete references of plant biodiversity in the region and their seasonality. His meticulous work also caught the attention of the art world and he has exhibited around the world, such as in the exhibition Sakahán: International Indigenous Art (2013) at the National Gallery of Canada. An exhibition of his work will be on show until 6 March 2015 at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery.

Abel Rodríguez, Trees in landscape | © Rocío Polanco, Tropenbos International Colombia Archive
Abel Rodríguez, Trees in landscape | © Rocío Polanco, Tropenbos International Colombia Archive

Sheela Gowda

Bangalore-based Indian artist Sheela Gowda was among the 5 finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize 2014 and among the 7 shortlisted artists for the Artes Mundi prize at the National Museum of Art in Cardiff in 2012. Gowda draws from the events she observes in daily life in Bangalore and India, and seeks to transform them through a language of abstraction, incorporating sculpture, installation and photography. Gowda started as a painter and in the 1990s started to create large-scale sculptural and installation works using everyday materials, including unconventional ones such as cow dung, hair, red turmeric (kumkum) and incense ash. At the core of her practice is the physical process of creation, which is tied to her concern with issues of manual labor in the context of the rapid social and economic changes in contemporary India. Her photographic series Loss (2008), in the Guggenheim collection, focuses on the region of Kashmir—bordering with India, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is an area plagued by violence and disputes over borders. A 2009 exhibition of Indian art at London’s Serpentine Gallery featured Gowda’s Darkroom (2006), an installation resembling an Indian slum dwelling, made of battered tar drums collected from builders in her hometown, arranged into a two-meter ‘house’ complete with pillars and small doorways. In 2009 she represented India at the 53rd Venice Biennale, with Behold (2009), a sculptural installation comprising 4,000 meters of slim black rope woven from short strands of human hair and around twenty steel car bumpers. The installation references the traditional practice of tying woven hair around car bumpers in India, as protective talismans. Gowda connects the security of tradition with the uncertainty of contemporary life: the superstition sees the human body as both fragile and as spiritually powerful.

Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, hair, steel, dimensions variable, installation view, Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, 2013|  Courtesy the artist
Sheela Gowda, Behold, 2009, hair, steel, dimensions variable, installation view, Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, 2013| Courtesy the artist


By C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia