Poised, articulate, and conversant in multiple languages (English, Cantonese, Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, and Tagalog), Adeline Ooi recently stopped in Tokyo for a few days at the end of a whirlwind tour of several major Asian cities in mid-February just before the Chinese New Year. Having just taken over the helm at Art Basel Hong Kong as Director Asia this January, Ooi boasts an extremely varied early career prior to joining the world’s most prominent international contemporary art fair.
After graduating from Central Saint Martins in London, Ooi returned to her native Kuala Lumpur in 2000 and joined Valentine Willie Fine Art as a curator. “This was the time when I began working on many projects related to Southeast Asia. One of the first large-scale exhibitions that I worked on was a Philippine survey called “Faith in the City,” which travelled to Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur before returning to Manila over a period of about two years. I also began organizing various off-site projects, such as the “12 ASEAN Artists” exhibition held at the National Art Gallery in KL in July 2000, which featured artists like Heri Dono, Montien Boonma, Jimmy Ong, and I Nyoman Danta.”
Ooi’s fieldwork in the Manila art scene led her to become acquainted with several important artist-led initiatives active in the early 2000s, such as the gallery-bar Big Sky Mind in Quezon City, and Surrounded By Water, the now-defunct artist collective founded by Wire Tuazon that included artists like Geraldine Javier, Louie Cordero, and Mariano Ching.
This was also the time when Ooi began getting more involved in the nascent Indonesian contemporary art scene. “I remember arriving in Jogjakarta for the first time on September 11, 2001, and one of the first people I met was Agus Suwage. It was an exciting time, and working with Valentine was a real privilege, since he had a vast library and archive of documents related to Southeast Asian art. You have to remember that in the absence of state-led infrastructure, it was the galleries who also took on the role of educational institutions.”
In 2001, Ooi applied for and won the Asian Public Intellectuals fellowship with a proposal to study artist initiatives in Indonesia and the Philippines. “They also gave me a follow-up grant to do more research, which I did for about two years from 2001-2003. I had an apartment in Manila, and split my time between the Philippines and Jogjakarta.”
“Subsequently, I helped to organize the inaugural Borobudur Southeast Asian contemporary art auction in October 2007, followed by the spring sale in May 2008. But after that, I discovered that I wasn’t a born dealer, and I didn’t really enjoy selling art that much. So I made a parallel move into art advising and consulting work with RogueArt, which I co-founded in 2009 — but this was a time when people didn’t really believe in paying for free advice! We worked with about five prominent collectors, but the bread-and-butter work was really for Malaysian corporations. And then sometime in 2013, I got a call from Magnus Renfrew, the former Director Asia for Art Basel, and came on board as the VIP relations manager for Southeast Asia.”
Ooi sees the past fifteen years or so “almost as a series of happy accidents.” “It’s always been organic — I certainly didn’t set out aiming to become the director of Art Basel Hong Kong. My career has always benefitted from the generosity of others, who would open doors for me when they didn’t have to. You might say that I’ve grown along with the development of the Southeast Asian art scene. During the early 2000s, it was still very much about the various Southeast Asian countries trying to understand each other. If you didn’t fly out there to all these cities, you wouldn’t make the connections you needed. And then after the art market crash of 2008, everyone in the region started to become more discerning. They realized that the market for Southeast Asian art couldn’t just be based on speculation. You also need to build a system and some kind of infrastructure.”