Southern Art Hubs Grab Attention for Creative Economy

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Regeneration – of poor neighbourhoods, districts, even whole countries after a conflict – is both a challenge and a key to transforming lives. One approach that has a track record is turning to artists and creative people to re-imagine a neighbourhood or country’s culture, and restore pride and vitality to places beaten down by life’s hardships.

The tool to do this is the creative economy. The “interface between creativity, culture, economics and technology in a contemporary world dominated by images, sounds, texts and symbols” (UNCTAD) is seen as away for emerging economies to leapfrog into high-growth areas in the world economy.

Two approaches offer inspiring examples: a Brazilian art gallery owner is single-handedly remaking the Brazilian market for contemporary art. And in Cambodia, a new wave of young artists are creating a stir in the global art scene.

Galeria Leme ( is located in a graffiti-strewn, down-at-heel neighbourhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Brazil has seen impressive economic growth in the past decade. The country is Latin America’s biggest economy and had reached growth of 5.1 percent in 2008 before being hit by the global recession.

The gallery pursues several goals at once: its mission is to draw attention to socially and politically engaging contemporary Brazilian art, but it also aims to increase awareness of the art market in Brazil and help in the revitalization of the gallery’s neighbourhood.

The gallery is a concrete box designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha (, an award-winning Brazilian architect. Founded in 2004 by former banker Eduardo Leme, the gallery has fashioned itself into being the leading authority on contemporary art in Brazil. Leme used to work in the financial sector before moving into running a gallery, and has applied his understanding of markets and how to create demand.

This in turn has grabbed international attention, and had the global art world beating a path to this neighbourhood. In short, it creates a buzz that soon feeds on itself and draws in more people to the scene.

It’s a formula that has worked well in many other places, where a successful gallery fosters a scene and draws in audiences, buyers and new businesses. Soon, a creative economy comes alive and that means serious money. Both New York and London have shown how this can work. In New York City, the creative economy employs over 278,000 people (2002).

Sao Paulo is the commercial hub of Brazil’s contemporary art market. But previously, buyers had to search all over the city to find the works they wanted to buy.

“I think it is a really good moment for Brazilian art,” Leme said.”Brazilian art is fantastic. Due to our miscellaneous (sic) of culture and people and all these kind of things. Brazil is almost a continent. You have art made of wood, made of metal, made of plastic films, all the materials. More and more, I am seeing Brazilians moving onto the international markets, the prices are moving up. The number of fellows from museums that are coming down here to see what’s going on, it’s fantastic.

“To run this business you not just to have good stuff: you need to understand to whom you should sell also,” Leme told the magazine Monocle. “I mean also not just Sao Paulo is a rich and big city that you have a lot of collectors. There is a lot of social stuff you have to understand to be in this specific business.

“My challenge is to increase the Brazilian market. I have this kind of ambition. More partners, more people talking about art, if more people talking about art I am going to receive more feedback and I am going to grow the terms. Not just as a business but also as a man I will have more things on my mind, more information. And the financial market, the more money you make the richest you are. Here, it is not just that: my point of view is that the more challenge is the thing, the more goals I make I am going to be richer in this business.”

Another scene has taken off in formerly war-ravaged Cambodia in Southeast Asia. The country was notorious for the horrors of the Killing Fields in the 1970s (, where the extremist Khmer Rouge government executed people and Cambodian artists suffered greatly. As a result, the art community was devastated for many years.

Thirty years on, a new generation of artists has emerged from the recent years of peace. This new wave is getting attention across Asia for its innovation.

Artist Pich Sopheap is one of the pioneers. By founding the Cambodian contemporary art association with Linda Saphan, he has focused the Cambodian art scene through group exhibitions and promotion. Another tool he uses to build the scene up has been the Visual Art Open(VAO), an annual event since 2005 featuring work by Cambodian artists.

This has had the effect of building a strong community of artists within the country who can support each other. It also makes it easier for outside art buyers to discover who is working in the country’s art scene.

Sopheap works in a variety of media including oil painting, photography and sculpture. He manipulates bamboo and rattan to shape his sculptures.

“I think for me sculpture with this material is just because it is cheap. It’s easy to use, it is very relevant. The subject matter is in the work already. For me it is discovering new forms that resonant with the atmosphere, with the conditions of this country,” Sopheap told the BBC.

Sopheap’s family fled from the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. He spent his early life in the United States, where he trained in art. When he returned to Cambodia a few years ago, he found the art scene very small and weak.

“Cambodia is a young country when it comes to modern art. It takes a while for new blood to come back and actually make something that concerns the present time,” believes Sopheap. “And we are very young, in our early 30s. Before that there was almost none that was known. We are making our own way – it is all up to us. We show in different cafes, we show in bars, we show in gift shops. And when we do those kind of exhibitions it is kind of exciting, it is not really a gallery, a cold place, people go by and it exposes to a lot of foreigners.”

A Cambodian-trained artist, Leang Seckon (, takes these approaches further, using sewing, painting, metalwork and collage in ways that reference Cambodian traditions, from apsara ballet ( to fortune-telling, while subtly commenting on modern culture, society and politics. Seckon now has shows in Britain, Japan and Norway, and has become one of the country’s most successful artistic exports.

“To begin with I was not a professional artist and I didn’t realize I could jump from low to high level so fast. Things have changed so quickly for me. If I do one style of art it makes me feel so bored. But if I mix it up with other techniques like sewing and collage, it makes it more interesting for me. I don’t know if you can call that real Cambodian art but I didn’t copy or learn it from anyone: I created it myself.”

“This is a very important point for me: I can show all my work to the international community. In the countries I go to, I tell them the same thing. Cambodia has new, young artists – we haven’t disappeared: the young ones have been growing up.”

His approach is to stay away from cliched Cambodian art.

“I just think we work really hard,” says Sopheap on the group’s success to date. “I just think we work really hard and get together and organize exhibitions ourselves for the most part. It is just artists working hard and they are hungry and they are fearless and when that energy is happening, people from the outside start to actually pronounce our name correctly and afterward they come to town and just by accident they find this little scene, and they are very interested in it because it is raw.”


  • Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit 2009: The summit is about the successful and emerging creative technologies and initiatives that are driving economic growth locally, nationally and internationally. Website:
  • Creative Economy Report 2008. An economic and statistical assessment of creative industries world-wide as well as an overview of how developing countries can benefit from trade in creative products and services produced by UNCTAD and the Special Unit for South-South Cooperation in UNDP. Website:
  • An article about artists in the Caribbean and how they are using online networks to connect and earn income. Website:

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