Brunei has seen a flourishing of exhibitions and galleries in the past two years, with more avenues emerging for local artists to showcase their work.
At Creative Space Gallery & Studio, gallery manager Osveanne Osman is trying to curate a stable of contemporary artists, steering away from the portraiture and landscapes that have come to typify Brunei’s art scene.
As the gallery approaches its second anniversary, it has staged four exhibitions under the Emerge banner, a showcase aimed at giving Brunei’s young emerging artists a platform to transform their art practice into a sustainable career.
With the fifth edition of Emerge slated for March 2018, we sat down with curator for a candid discussion about the potential of Brunei’s art scene.
Q: Let’s start from the beginning. How did the idea come about to turn your father’s studio into the Creative Space gallery?
Osveanne: It was definitely a passion for both my father and I. We have always dreamt about having a gallery and it wasn’t until I could fully commit to be here and manage the place that it actually happened. It’s taken a very long time because as well as being an artist, my father also works as a [fine arts] lecturer at UBD.
Why I decided to finally come in and manage [the gallery] was because it became apparent that we needed a space to be able to do this kind of stuff up to a proper gallery standard. There is definitely a lack of understanding in that regard, so we’re really working from the ground up here.
I’m specifically focusing on fine arts and the representation of fine arts. Brunei doesn’t have an archive or database [on local artwork and artists], and to me it’s extremely important for us to start reclaiming and appreciating that heritage and culture.
Q: Tell us about the Emerge series of exhibitions.
Osevanne: The first Emerge exhibition was held last year in April and the last one was in September. Both had different themes, the first one was exploring identity. We intend to explore this theme annually because I think it’s really something we need to develop, and to provide the opportunity for artists to explore what it means to them.
The thing about the Emerge exhibition is that the organisers are all fresh grads or students still studying… That’s what the Emerge project is really all about, providing that platform for people who are interested in art but don’t have the avenue to practice it.
Creative Space really wants to provide that opportunity for people to understand how a gallery actually works. For the next edition of Emerge, we are doing another open call but this time the show will be themed on folklore.
Q: How has the response been to the open call and what have been the challenges in putting together a cohesive exhibition?
Osveanne: Our challenge is always sourcing the artist. For the first open call we didn’t get a very big response but just a few people enquiring. The open calls are there because we wanted to make sure we are not discriminating against anyone — you don’t have to know us to participate in the exhibition.
Even if you’re in high school or an adult, if you have that passion then you can sign up. We want to make it accessible for people to reach us. The open call has been a very difficult way for us to operate, we still need to reach out to artists and any network we can find.
Q: When you choose the artists for the show, what is the criteria?
Osveanne: Specifically — no portraits, no landscapes. That was the number one thing. In a few of our briefs we stated that we want to gravitate away from the traditional aesthetic and landscapes such as paintings of Kampong Ayer, etc. I wanted to see more of the everyday Bruneian. I wanted to see them come into the gallery and hold their dialogue and for the show to be about who they are and what they feel.
Q: Do you have any plans to take Emerge outside of Brunei? There isn’t a lot of exposure for Bruneian art outside of the sultanate.
Osveanne: Absolutely. That is always one of our main aims, we want to create better exposure not just locally but internationally. One of our main focuses is to create digital brochures for the artists, to be able to create a marketing profile for their work overseas.
So we don’t just stop there. We actually go and contact people who are in the same industries overseas. We do send out portfolios to museums and galleries in the hopes that either the gallery will be interested to host a show with us or that they will find someone there who’s interested in buying Bruneian artwork, or working with Bruneian artists.
In the previous Emerge, all of the artists had exhibited internationally before, whether it was in university or participating in other shows, from Berlin to Australia, Japan and the UK.
Q: What are the challenges in terms of creating an alliance of artists? And what kind of future can fine art students expect in a market as small as Brunei?
Osveanne: With the current situation, the atmosphere is there is a lot of fear about art.
For educational institutions, your students are there to learn and you have to provide that environment, as well as the knowledge for them to be able to reach their full potential, instead of creating fear. People need to challenge themselves to not feel scared or that they can’t do anything, but focusing on what they can actually do because then they will start to see things from a different angle.
That’s how the gallery started as well. It was from ‘I can’t do a lot of things’ to ‘I’m going to do this exhibition and try for something crazy’. I didn’t have high hopes for it but I’m pleased with how it turned out.
Q: Do you think that as a society, we don’t place a high value on art or developing creative skills?
Osveanne: In other countries it would be like ‘Pick me, pick me!’, but here you have an open call and it’s like — ‘Why are they bothering me?’. They don’t realise how much it could help them in terms of their career or personal development.
People are afraid to take that leap. Sometimes it can be like pulling teeth, to get people to dig. The idea, after all, is quite daunting — putting yourself out there and committing to a piece of work.
What causes that reaction? One thing I’ve learned through my travels and other artistic and cultural exchanges is that I was working with so many people who were there because they wanted to be there.
I feel like in Brunei we’re lacking that kind of passion and commitment. Commitment is a big thing. We don’t have a lot of people who dedicate their entire lives to just one thing, even though it doesn’t give them huge returns. It’s a big thing to say ‘I’m going be an artist focusing on weaving and I’m not going to do anything else, because this is important’. We don’t have people who are brave enough yet, to just take that leap and just say: ‘This is what my life is about and if I don’t get recognised for it today, I’m doing it anyway because it’s for the people tomorrow’.
There is definitely social stigma in doing things that don’t bring about ‘success’ as how we have come to define it — through monetary value. At the end of the day, people have families and they have needs and it’s all about the bread and butter.
Q: How do you envision the future for Creative Space? How do you want it to develop and grow?
Osveanne: In our second year, I’m looking into opportunities from DARE, for example. This is a very big industry that generates billions per year, and if we can find the right artists that can produce the right quality or quantity, we’re talking about boosting our economy considerably.
I’m seeking funding or a grant to be able to create an artists fund where artists can do residencies overseas and have cultural exchanges with other curators because we don’t have people with that expertise here. In other countries there are organisations that are benefactors of art, they’ll say, ‘Here’s $10,000, do what you want with it’. And that way artists can make a living and not have to have a day job [to support themselves].
A lot of our veteran artists have worked really hard to be cultural ambassadors for Brunei, and its almost a pity to see that they don’t get that amount of support in terms of funding to go overseas to promote Bruneian culture and art abroad. As a gallery, I would like to be able to develop up to the point that we can do that, the same way we send national teams abroad. It’s something we should be proud about but at the same time that’s why this exhibition is up right now, we don’t really know who we are as artists to be able to be proud of our artistic culture and heritage.
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.