It’s only a few weeks into 2023, but Etsu Egami can already confirm that it’s been a great year.
The 28-year-old artist has just returned home to Chiba, Japan, after her sold-out solo exhibition soft-opened Whitestone Gallery’s new space in Singapore during the city’s art week; her works exhibited at the Japanese gallery’s booth at the recent ART SG also found eager buyers. She is now back in her studio in her hometown, preparing for a series of upcoming museum projects and showcases locally and abroad. Indeed, Egami is already eyeing a full schedule in the coming weeks and months, and her eyes are on the global stage.
“I want more Japanese artists, female artists and Asian artists to be seen in the international art world,” Egami said of her strong motivation to go global, speaking to Artnet News via video call from her studio.
Although there have been many great artists from Japan and Asia throughout history, she noted, the number of them who are internationally known remains small. He has appeared in exhibitions for almost a decade, achieving notable accolades – including a spot on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 List in 2021—Egami’s fiery determination to develop a career outside of Japan “is only natural.”
Japan’s Ascendant Star
From the sounds of things (and looking at the data), going global is going to be a very achievable New Year’s resolution – her hard work is already paying off. Egami’s paintings, created with thick lines of colorful brush strokes, have gained a solid following since her debut in 2015; she has shown paintings in major art cities from Paris and New York to Seoul, Beijing and Taipei.
Prices for her paintings floating in the secondary market have skyrocketed since 2021, making her one of the art market’s fastest rising stars from Asia, widely recognized as a key artist of the third generation of postwar Japanese art. Her work has already entered the collections of institutions internationally, including CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, and E-Land Foundation in Seoul.
But Egami’s rise in the market also means that she has also become a target of flippers—a fact that upsets the artist. According to data from the Artnet Price Database, most of her top 10 auction records have been for works that have held for three years or less, including her current record, which stands at HK$2.9 million ($366,921; all sale prices includes fees), for a 2021 diptych sold at Holly’s International (HK) Auctions last May. This was followed by the sale of painting Rainbow-2022-t-10 at a Holly’s Hong Kong auction in November 2022. The work, which fetched HK$1.3 million ($168,931), was exhibited at Tang Contemporary’s Seoul space only a few months earlier. On Saturday, January 28, Japan’s SBI Art Auction is offering a small 2021 painting for sale. (The auction house gave the work a rather low presale estimate of ¥700,000 to ¥1.3 million ($5,100 to $9,400), but SBI seems to have a track record of keeping their estimates at an accessible level.)
“[My artworks] are like my children, so I hope the work can stay with people much longer,” Egami said when asked about how this heated secondary market affects her. She works with her galleries to try to keep things under control: they have imposed a five-year non-sale agreement, and are extremely careful to weed out unaffiliated collectors.
However, she is grateful for the attention and hopes that it is sustainable. “I really appreciate that people like my work and collect it,” she said. “I hope people can see the messages in my work, why I make these works, and the stories behind them. I also hope that more people can spend time with my work, let their imaginations run wild and show my work rather than just keeping them in storage. I want people to focus on my art.”
To understand Egami’s art, one must trace her practice back to her high school days. Growing up about 25 miles east of downtown Tokyo in 2008, she experienced a transformational change when she was exposed to Chinese contemporary art during the Beijing Olympics.
“It was a huge shock to the Japanese art scene,” Egami recalled of the televised Olympics, which were extremely popular in Japan. This broadened her view—she grew up with the work of modern Japanese painters such as Sotaro Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara. But for a long time she felt that there was a gap between Japanese pre-war and post-war art, and the exposure to Chinese contemporary art was a light bulb moment. “It seemed to bridge this gap,” she said.
She studied oil painting in China, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, before finally completing her MFA there in 2019, under the tutelage of Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong, one of the most important Chinese contemporary artists among the art market favorites were. about a decade ago when the genre was the most sought after from East Asia.
When she first studied abroad (in China, but also in Germany), she noticed that experiences of culture shock and the miscommunication of being a foreigner had a deep impact on her, especially those beyond words. Non-verbal cultural cues and subtexts confused her the most. “I realized that it wasn’t a language problem,” she noted. “Language is a tool of communication, but at the same time it is also the barrier.”
This miscommunication became a major source of inspiration in her early creations, including drawings, paintings and mixed media installations. Her style further developed during a period spent in New York as part of a 2020 Japanese Government Residency Award for Outstanding Artists. During those months, she saw the tumultuous lockdowns, the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of targeted attacks against Asians.
These revelations spawned her ongoing “Rainbow” series. Some of the works from this series have sold well at auction, according to Artnet Price Database records. “The importance of diversity and coexistence gave me the inspiration of the rainbow,” she said. “These are lines that do not mix with each other, but they are in various colors that run parallel to each other. This is my only dream and hope, and has become my painting language.”
A big New Year
This year is likely to be a turning point. For one, a striking monumental diptych from her recent Singapore show with a title inspired by Japanese classical text Hōjōki, was acquired by a foundation that is building a yet-to-be-announced private museum in Singapore. The work is a visual ode to honoring the primitive nature and spirituality of feminine power through the artist’s signature brushstrokes in a warm color palette.
“I am very happy about this,” the artist said of the major acquisition, adding that she also met many collectors from the region during her time there, including those from Malaysia and Indonesia. “It’s nice that my work can be placed in a collection that will be open to the public,” she added.
And even though it is largely private buyers who pursue her paintings, Egami’s work will nevertheless reach a wider audience in the coming year. The painting Rainbow-2021-T-1– the work that set her auction record – was included in the third edition of the China Xinjiang International Art Biennale, which opened earlier this month. She is also working to expand her medium, and plans to spend a residency creating a site-specific audiovisual installation for a group show that will open in late February at the Museum of Modern Art in Japan’s Gunma Prefecture. For this project, the artist researched the history of the prefecture’s iconic Daruma dolls, modeled after a Buddhist monk widely known as the founder of Zen Buddhism.
Also in the pipeline are institutional exhibitions, one planned for London during Frieze week next fall, and another at a yet-to-be-announced museum in Shanghai; at both she plans to expand beyond painting, including experiments with photography, sound and sculpture. Her work will also make a fair presence at Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Geneva, both in conjunction with Tang Contemporary, according to the artist.
But Egami is happy to let her representatives take care of sales while she digs deeper into her art. “The galleries will handle the market side of things so I can focus on my work that questions about society or my feelings,” Egami said. “I want to try something new.”
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