In Conversation with Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands & Marcus Desando | Prince Claus Fund Biennial Symposium 2023

Assembling artists and cultural experts from across the world, The Prince Claus Fund Biennial Symposium 2023 was held from 3rd December to 5th December 2023. This event had keynotes, presentations, excursions and more. The fund adopted a ‘South-to-South’ information interchange, connecting the transformative power of culture. Titled “Legacies of Care, Failures to Emerging Solidarities” the symposium was focused on ventures activating a viable and comprehensive future of harmony rather than discord.  Azara Jaleel, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of ARTRA Magazine spent an exceptional and educational afternoon with Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands, the Honorary Chair of the Fund and Marcus Desando, Director of the Fund in the following enthralling discussion on the facilitating nature of the Prince Claus Fund, and Sri Lanka’s potential with this modernistic concept of coexistence which will best benefit local arts, artists and visionaries.

Marcus Desando

Q | From your perspective, what is your insight and understanding of the contemporary art scene in Sri Lanka?

Marcus Desando: One of the reasons why we wanted to do this symposium here was the fact that we ourselves were oblivious of Asian visual arts from the context of Asia itself.  Although we have interacted through funding with a number of different organizations and trusts in the past, Asian artwork was not within the scope of knowledge outside of this space. I myself would be unable to give you great insights into the Asian art scene. However, looking into your magazine I now see there is a lot more to it than I had anticipated. There isn’t much knowledge of Asia’s visual art scene outside of Asia. So, that is one of the reasons I’ve decided to be a part of this symposium. 

Prince Constantijn: I find it very interesting how Sri Lankan art is developing and that contemporary ‘art spaces’ are also literally finding spaces to develop here. We went yesterday to the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum which currently doesn't  have a building yet and is actually finding its way into establishing a narrative about what contemporary art is. As to what Marcus said, Asia is of course vastly big. We know a lot about Chinese art and Japanese art which are the main practitioners that we see in international galleries, but what you see in the Prince Claus Fund is young practitioners that are using multiple media to explore very current issues whether about the climate, identity or around other topics that we are also discussing in Europe, such as redefining what the colonial past was. I think that what we just saw was a presentation of very topical current issues around the quality of water and how global economics is impacting the local constituencies and how artists are making sense of it all. And so, I feel a necessity to bring all those voices together, for I believe that those voices don’t always meet.

Q |  The symposium is a collaborative process where you have brought together other South Asian art practitioners. Can you give me an understanding of who they are and how they were chosen to understand the premise behind the symposium?

Prince Constantijn: A lot of the artists here have different backgrounds, and carry all these different practices from various countries that haven’t typically had the opportunity to meet any others to exchange ideas with. What we find here is an incredible space for support.

Marcus Desando: It’s also about shared experiences. Because of the lack of opportunities to see what each other’s works are or what each other is participating in, artists don’t realize that they are not alone in the work that they do. The issues of climate and water are so universal, look at the sheer number of documentaries centering that in the Arab region. In Egypt for instance, there’s a huge interest in what the effects of the Nile does to local communities that have lived off the Nile for centuries. But they are so secluded within themselves that if we don’t find ways to connect with them they would not know that water and the climate are not regional issues, but that they are more of a global one.

Q |  It is crucial when art also participates with these main discourses to strengthen the reach of these movements. Have you all also taken that approach?

Marcus Desando: That is why the title of the Symposium says ‘Emerging Solidarities’. We as an organization don’t want to take the stance of being the knowledge carriers, but we’d rather facilitate a vision for people to be able to share that knowledge. To synthesize, it is about creating platforms for the practitioners themselves to find means of solidarity here.

Prince Constantijn: I think that it’s, as you say, connecting to the big topics. That has been at the core of the Prince Claus Fund. It needs to be culture and development as a pair at the core. There has always been a debate within the fund about  whether it is cultural, art for art’s sake; or whether the art should have some kind of an ulterior objective. Is it about applying art for the benefit of a more just society or for freedom of expression itself and those kinds of things? We find that most of our artists will in some way connect their art with a bigger topic.

Q |  Do you think you could share perhaps an artist or a project of the nature you have worked with that has contributed to that end or has seen through the process?

Marcus Desando: There is a great example in one of our previous laureates Ibrahim Mahama from Ghana, who has created his practice around using discarded material from factories. He scours through rubbish dumps for his various artworks. Mahama has one about used shoe boxes as well as one about tires; thereby, helping to keep the streets clean. Ibrahim Mahama is in the process of developing a whole visage within his own community where he’s building an art center, he’s looking at the climate around food production and educating the school kids and safe areas to actually interact in; not just with art, but also in what the culture can do in all the issues they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. 

Prince Constantijn:  Most artists here are laureates of the fund. We have evolved a lot and with a new approach we are looking at younger performing artists from all over, who are perhaps considered more as activists than what we had in the past. The work of the fund has been very diverse, but now it is typically moving towards young emerging artists on their way to becoming established artists.

Q | What is your perspective on art taking a role with tourism? With collectives like yours which have a very social and non-profit element, where do you see the component of value art can bring to the economy and also perhaps sets a standard for art in contributing to society in a more direct way? 

Prince Constantijn: It’s becoming massive! I can speak only for myself; however when going to places, I always want to see what the latest art there is, because it tells you something about the country and about the location. In my travels, I  see that now there are hotels merging with art centers. Big exhibitions have become so important. Even a country like Qatar understood this, by doing big installations in the Sahara desert, they now have a new feature which serves as one of their tourist attractions. It’s not easy to get there, but it’s an uncompromising installation and people are just compelled to go there and visit. So, more and more, art is becoming something a tourist would appreciate. The challenge is to have local art which will have the same kind of tourist pull. The combination of art and marketing is always a complicated one.

Marcus Desando: It is! But it’s also around art as a lived experience. And I shift it to the concept of the Netherlands, for instance, where there is a lot of interest in museums and in terms of tourist value, it’s a huge contributor to the GDP of the city. But, in the developing world, the value is in how communities interact with those arts. So, in terms of tourism, you have to look at how the community themselves translate the idea of creating a big piece of work that is attractive for tourists to come in from the point of view of the communities and how they interact with it on a day-to-day basis could be very interesting, but the Prince is really right in that the combination of tourism and marketing is the most important thing. You need to have commitments from your own local governments in supporting the idea of tourism into areas that are not necessarily their mainstream. Sometimes that is the most difficult one to sell.

Prince Constantijn:  Very often one finds that there is a lack of pride in local culture. And always find that the world is looking for these international icons instead of really looking at what is local and being proud of it and making that bigger.

Marcus Desando: Tourism should never be a source of objectification in itself. So, if you don’t create a sense of communality in how people interact with the art works and as part of tourism, then you alienate your communities and then in that sense you have less involvement in achieving that objective of what tourism could look like in those places.

Prince Constantijn: There is a lot of talk about the economy and the positioning of Sri Lanka and how Sri Lanka is trying to get back on its feet. It is also one of the reasons why we wanted to come here to support our friends in Sri Lanka and also to demonstrate that we chose Sri Lanka because it’s a place which is accessible. If you want to bring people in from all parts of Asia, it’s actually possible to get here. Sri Lanka is an accessible place for these kinds of international communities to gather, you’re always looking for places where that’s possible, which contributes to tourism.

The Prince Claus Fund Biennial Symposium 2023 was curated in collaboration with renowned artistic director Keng Sen Ong. The symposium aims to create long-lasting connections between cultural practitioners from Southeast Asia and across the world. The program featured: Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands, the Honorary Chair of the Board, Marcus Desando, Director of the Prince Claus Fund, architect and chairperson of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust Channa Daswatte; filmmaker Anomaa Rajakaruna; artist and art historian Thamotharampillai Sanathanan; and many others.

9th April, 2024 Visual Art | Paintings