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From Manila, with love (via New York City and Singapore): A conversation with Silverlens & FOST

Packed with some of the world’s most established institutions and galleries, it’s no doubt that New York City has a flourishing art scene. And about to take things to greater heights are Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo, the Co-Founders of Manila-based Silverlens Gallery, as they recently launched their second outpost in the Big Apple. 

The gallery opened in Manila in 2004 and has been championing artists from Southeast Asia ever since. It even had an outpost at Gillman Barracks in Singapore from 2012 to 2016.

Most recently, September proved a busy month for the gallery. It saw the launch of its sleek Chelsea branch with a presentation of works by Yee I-Lann and Martha Atienza, which drew a crowd of nearly a thousand people. A little closer to home, Silverlens Gallery collaborated with Singapore-based FOST Gallery to present The Textures of Solitude, featuring Nicole Coson and Bernardo Pacquing.

But what brings Silverlens Gallery to New York City? What does their presence there mean for the state of contemporary Southeast Asian art as a whole? And how does collaborating with other galleries further their ethos? Read on to see what Lorenzo told me about this monumental step. 

Welcome to New York

Perhaps the foremost question on our lips was why New York City at this juncture in time? Lorenzo explained that, during the pandemic, a look at their online statistics revealed that 30% of their viewership was coming from the U.S.. This was coupled with Zoom visits from US curators and institutions from 2020 – 2021. Lorenzo commented,

“This created an energy in us; a need to see what was happening in the U.S..”

The two co-founders headed to New York in June 2021 and noticed that many galleries and institutions were exhibiting works by African-American artists. The Co-Founders believed that aside from African-American artists, “there are the brown people: us, the Southeast Asians, the Latin Americans, the South Asians.” 

As for what might be causing the interest in Southeast Asia, Lorenzo shared that “there’s a lot of interest in ‘the Other’ and minority groups,” as the U.S. “undergoes an identity crisis and cultural unrest.” While this interest might have across the years manifested as an interest in African-American and Asian-American artists, Lorenzo believes that this “groundswell, local to the U.S., isn’t a trend, [but] will stay.” 

The Co-Founders swiftly got the ball rolling as they found a space in Chelsea between 10th and 24th Street to house the gallery. Boasting a ground-floor location and twenty-foot-high ceilings, the gallery is as impressive as it sounds. “We need to establish ourselves as an established gallery. And how do you do that?” Lorenzo mused. “By showing that you are big.”

She also noted that “if you had only one day to go to galleries [in New York], you would go to Chelsea” — referencing how the neighbourhood is home to mega-galleries such as David Zwirner, Hauser + Wirth, and Tina Kim Gallery. 

And on September 8 2022, the fruits of the gallery’s labour came to life as it welcomed nearly a thousand guests for its first show in New York City. It featured works from Yee I-Lann’s Roof of the Mouth series and Martha Atienza’s‘ The Protectors series. 

On selecting these two artists to kick off their programme, Lorenzo cites how both artists’ practices are distinctly Southeast Asian but tackle universal concerns. “They live on islands and work with communities. They’re interested in development, circular economics, the climate crisis… urgent and purposeful issues that the world, in general, is concerned about,” she continued.

“People from Southeast Asia or anyone who has any knowledge [about the region] will also recognise the artists instantly as being from our islands. But their works are also very universal, so we thought it would be a good touchdown in New York.”

Championing Southeast Asia

I was always under the impression that Asian art in New York City was usually closely tied to the arts of East Asia, be it China, Japan or Korea. Or if institutions referred to anything about Southeast Asian art at all, it was most commonly seen through the lens of religion or ancient civilisations, rather than anything contemporary.  

When I ask Lorenzo what she thought about this observation, she shared that it’s a matter of particular focus being given to the antiques trade, as well as economics, and cultural exposure. The cultures of East Asian countries — primarily China, Japan, and Korea — are millennia old, while the formal construct of Southeast Asia is thought to only date back to World War Two. She believes that “the entry of East Asian art in New York is primarily through antiquity.”

The argument that one’s exposure to culture might be determined by the economy, remains sound. Lorenzo expounded on this by comparing how China, Japan, and Korea are economic powerhouses and Southeast Asia, as a region, is less so. Following this, representation of contemporary Southeast Asia in New York City (and Western art circuits) remains scarce, especially as Tyler Rollins Fine Art shut its gallery arm last year. But this is where Silverlens Gallery believes it comes in.

“Countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand are cultural powerhouses,” Lorenzo swiftly pointed out. “So we want to bring to the conversation that, even if the economics of our countries or the region is not as strong, they individually have very deep cultural roots that also go back millennia.”

Another appeal of New York City lies in its exposure to broad audiences that include decision-makers and influential figures. It also helps that the U.S. seems to boast both “a lot of institutional support and a deep collecting culture,” she commented.

“Many people go to New York to look at art, but I don’t think most people come to Manila to do so.”

Enthusiastic about the potential of making waves with contemporary Southeast Asian art in the Big Apple, Lorenzo shared a comment that she exchanged with Rillo:

“It’s not like we’re watching the television anymore — we’re in the television! So it’s a huge ripple effect.” 

Collaboration and Camaraderie

Over in Singapore. Silverlens Gallery has also collaborated with FOST Gallery to present The Textures of Solitude. While many galleries might view others as competition, this exhibition was the product of many years of friendship. 

Rillo and Lorenzo first met Stephanie Fong, Founder of FOST Gallery, when Silverlens Gallery was established in Gillman Barracks. Admirers of Fong’s programming and how she represented her artists internationally, the two invited FOST Gallery to present a show back in Manila, with a promise that Fong would host Silverlens Gallery in the future. While the COVID-19 pandemic slowed plans down, The Textures of Solitude was developed after re-initiating talks in 2021. 

Featuring works by Coson and Pacquing, The Textures of Solitude drew on ideas that were borne from the pandemic and the lifestyle changes that it brought. This was evident in Coson’s seemingly unassuming works, which featured stark black imprints of window blinds lingering on large canvases. The negative spaces between its crooked lines created the impression of pulling blinds back to look outside. While this is something that many of us resorted to doing when isolating ourselves in our homes, it also speaks to Coson’s larger interest in ideas of visibility and concealment.

On the other hand, Pacquing works with abstraction. His rich paint-laden works conceal any traces of a world beyond, inviting viewers to immerse themselves in rich textures and layers instead. The period of 2020 – 2021 saw Pacquing incorporate red in his works for the first time, and Black Matter on Red (2022) seems to be a continuation of that sensibility. Dynamic brushstrokes of black and grey are laid over a background of crimson, and the raw, visceral work proved easy to lose yourself in. 

While it isn’t his first time exhibiting in Singapore, Pacquing said,

“Every opportunity to share my perspective, in the form of art, to a wider audience is personally received with utmost gratitude… Singapore has its own unique sensibilities and my sensibilities are enriched once again by this chance to show my work this time at FOST.”

Testifying to how collaboration fits into Silverlens Gallery’s ethos is the fact that it has ten gallery partners all over the world, with FOST Gallery being just one of them. This partnership arrangement entails showing Silverlens Gallery’s stable of artists at a partner gallery and vice versa, with profits being split between the galleries upon sale. On the collaboration, Fong comments:

“I always feel collaboration is important as it gives us the flexibility and reach that one might not otherwise have working alone. It is just about finding the right partners who share the same values and priorities. In collaborating on reciprocal exhibitions with good partner galleries, we know that the artworks of our artists will be first and foremost presented well and in doing so, create opportunities for our artists in different markets.”

Not only does this model allow for artists to be seen by larger audiences, but the engagement of partners also creates more possibilities for the widening of an artist’s collector base. Silverlens Gallery’s upcoming show in New York External Entrails will tap into this arrangement as it brings in Arin Sunaryo of ROH Projects, alongside Coson, Pacquing, and Corrine San Jose. 

For those who are keen to adopt a similar strategy, Lorenzo’s advice is straightforward: “Make friends.” Perhaps she sums it up perfectly when she says: 


“Camaraderie is very important because ultimately we’re all doing the same thing but have different artists. So why not apply our skillsets to increasing visibility for our artists and other artists who we believe in and respect? Not everyone can be a mega-gallery; that’s very difficult. It’s easier to just be a community.”


Click here to learn more about Silverlens Gallery.

The Textures of Solitude runs at FOST Gallery until 19 November 2022. Click here for details on opening hours.

An earlier version of this article contained a reference to Silverlens Gallery opening in New York on 21 September 2022. The reference has since been removed.

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