Remarkable Women Shaping the Future of Contemporary Art in Asia

Remarkable Women Shaping the Future of Contemporary Art in Asia

O ver the last five decades, a growing number of remarkable women have broken boundaries to reach new artistic heights. The work of more than twenty of them will be in focus at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Online auction. The sale opens on 8 March, which coincides with International Women's Day, and runs for a week until 15 March, offering a diverse curation teeming with works by artists from multiple geographies and generations. The artists hail from Japan, South Korea, several countries in Southeast Asia, China, the United States. and Europe and their ages are just as varied, from their 20s to their 90s.

The selection represents an important cross-section of leadings works from the contemporary art world and may underscore a remarkable turnaround in the representation of women in the art world.

"Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"
Linda Nochlin, Art Historian

Just half a century ago, in 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin floated the question “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” An essay with the same title was an important critique of how women were long excluded from art history, with embedded institutional barriers preventing even the most talented women from rising to the pinnacle of the art world.

Nochlin’s essay proved both eye-opening and pivotal. The experiences of women in society and, by extension, as artists, which is markedly different than those of men. The differences can also lead to artworks with a distinctly rich narrative and sense of awareness. Celebrating female talents goes beyond simply acknowledging them for their work. It means appreciating the unique tapestry of their experience and works.

Since Nochlin’s essay, there has been more recognition of women artists. The works of more than twenty women – works that have pushed and broken the boundaries of artistic achievements – will be featured in Sotheby’s upcoming online auction.

Chiharu Shiota, State of Being (Children’s Dress) , 2013. estimate: 600,000-900,000 hkd

One such artist is Chiharu Shiota, well known for her performance and installation art. Her State of Being (Children’s Dress) work consists of a painted metal frame with a child’s black dress suspended in the middle of a womb of white threads. This cobweb-like installation is part of her signature set of works through her chosen medium of threads, which she has been producing since the 2000s.


The best way to understand this 2013 piece may be through the lens of Shiota’s focus on the relationship between the psyche and space. Her network of threads sprung from her experience of moving between places, which brought about her desire to mark her territory by covering her belonging in yarn. She views the threads as representative of the tangled web woven by human relationships.

Shiota studied art in Kyoto, Canberra, and Berlin. She engages with the symbolism and stories of the objects framed by her webs. In previous installations, she has used dresses to represent womanhood and pose questions about the expectations and burdens placed on women.

The piece may also have an autobiographical twist. Shiota discovered in 2017 that her cancer returned after twelve years in remission. Her struggles with the disease framed and shaped her art, which she uses as a medium to question the ideas of life and mortality.

kei imazu, black eyes , 2016. estimate: 150,000-300,000 hkd

We also see a distinctive narrative in the works of Kei Imazu, who uses painting to compose landscapes that blur and mix baroque elements with images from the internet. Her juxtaposition of the ancient and digital provides what has been described as “a kind of esoteric reading of the world and the human condition in all its complexity.”

Working from Bandung, Indonesia, Japan-born Imazu creates an ambiguous imaginary world that hovers between past and present by painting but without the use of digital printing. She forms the distorted and intertwined images she is known for by editing them in Photoshop and making preliminary sketches before painting oil to canvas.

Imazu’s piece in this auction is an oil on canvas Black Eyes, in which an assortment of fleshy limbs merge and separate like a digital glitch against a starkly dark background with pairs of eyes staring, like a modern Vitruvian Man made for consumption in the eyeball heavy age of the Internet. In the painting the viewer might recognise partial images from 16th century Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time and St. John the Baptist, joined by a torso fragment of an ancient Egyptian sculpture believed to be Nefertiti. The 2016 piece was featured in the 2020 edition of the Jean-François PRAT Prize exhibition held at the Bredin Prat Foundation in Paris. Imazu was one of three nominees for the prize that year.

The array of works in this auction is as diverse as the artists who created them.

left: estu egami, UNTITLED , 2019. estimate: 40,000-60,000 hkd; Vivien zhang, three manicules II , 2018. estimate: 90,000-150,000 hkd; right: Stickymonger, Pandemic Drifter , 2020. estimate: 300,000-600,000 hkd

Some of the featured artists have experience as third-culture individuals, with themes of cross-cultural communication clearly present in their works. This comes through in the works of highly sought after young contemporary artists such as Etsu Egami, Stickymonger, and Vivien Zhang.

The works of Kyoto-born Tomoko Kashiki represent a departure from contemporary Japanese art movements, often associated with the “Superflat” and kawaii aesthetic, or perhaps with the fantastical hallucinatory Pop images created by Kusama Yayoi. Kashiki’s portraits of women reference traditional Bijin-ga paintings of the Heian period, and populate a soft and the intimate world of beauty. Others artists are keen to explore dream worlds via atmospheric portraits. As with Kashiki, artists such Suzuki Takako, Tomoko Nagai, Ob and Emi Kuraya add cultural components in their art that transcend kawaii aesthetics. Girlhood, digital environments, Asian settings and Japanese Heian Buddhist motifs are among the influences in this diverse batch of works.

left: ob, on a stroll , 2018. estimate: 20,000-40,000 hkd; right: emi kuraya, untitled (Two Works), 2019. estimate: 20,000-30,000 hkd

Feminism is also explored through pop art and surrealism. Contributing artists in this area are pop surrealist artist Jang Koal, Emily Mae Smith and the famed Yayoi Kusama.

LEFT: emily mae smith, medusa , 2019. estimate: 24,000-40,000 hkd; RIGHT: YAYOI KUSAMA, STRAWBERRY 2 , executed in 1974, casted in 1994. ESTIMATE: 80,000-120,000 HKD

Abstractions and textures also abound in this auction. Danielle Orchard explores female corporeal representation in her paintings, while fashion and art meet in pieces from artists like Haegue Yang and Marina Cruz.

left: danielle orchard, Nänninpiha II , 2019. estimate: 38,000-65,000 hkd; right: marina cruz, untitled , 2008. estimate: 20,000-30,000 hkd

Contemporary Art

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