The rise of the art fair

May 31, 2017 06.00PM |

by Danielle Goh

PINK-HAIRED illustrator Ms Rachta Lin, 30, asks me to wait for her to finish a drawing that a teenage fan requested for. “Just give me 15 minutes, then after we can start the interview!” she said as she looked up and smiled, before quickly picking up her pen to draw.

The star-struck teen sits in front of her, watching her sketch his favourite anime character. I can see what she is drawing too, because a camera is capturing the process live on a monitor.

At the corner of her desk, a red book catches my eye. On its cover, a green eyed blonde haired girl, brandishing a sword, is surrounded with red roses. “That’s my art book, it’s a little like an open diary, it’s inspired by my travels last year,” said Ms Lin as I picked it up and flipped through the pages of sketches and prints.

When Ms Lin was five, she fell in love with a Japanese anime she watched on television, and decided that she wanted to draw the characters she saw on screen. She tries to explain to me more about the show that first got her into anime. “It’s a little bit like Sailor moon, but much older,” she laughs.

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Armed with a degree in Visual Communication Arts at Assumption University in Bangkok, she worked with companies like Blizzard Entertainment and Wacom, but decided to leave the corporate world to be a full-time freelance illustrator. Ms Lin is supported by fans on Patreon, an online site where people can contribute funds toward projects by their favourite artist.

Her art book, Rachta Lin: Artist’s journey of 2016 was self-published and funded by her fans on Kickstarter. Within two days 60 backers pledged a total of $6,337. “Well I’m happy that I have such a strong support there. It definitely helps me to do exactly what I want to do. I was a little nervous because it was my first time starting a crowdfunding project, but it turned out great!” said Ms Lin.


Art fairs no longer just for the hipsters

With more artists creating, it’s no surprise that art fairs like Doujin market and the Singapore Art Book Fair (SABF) have been growing in scale. Doujin Market, or Doujima for short, features mainly pop culture inspired art and fan art, taking cues from Marvel, Japanese anime and game design.

Organised by The Neo Tokyo Project, Doujima is supported by NAC, and sponsored by companies such as Kaiju Den and Wacom. When it first started in 2011, there were 22 artist tables and a thousand attendees. This year, it had 170 artist tables, over a dozen corporate exhibitors and 17,000 attendees. The event, held at Suntec Convention Centre from May 6 to 7 this year, featured many student creators and independent artists.

Ms Rachta Lin drawing for a fan

SABF, organised by BooksActually, was held from April 27 to 30 this year at Gillman Barracks. While there was a drop in attendance this year, from 7,000 to around 4,000, there was an increase in sales. “This is good news. Surprisingly, we had a massive surge in sales for almost all the exhibitors. You are easily looking at eight exhibitors that more or less sold out by the last day, and almost all the other vendors had cleared at least three quarters of their stocks,” said Mr Kenny Leck, the owner of independent bookstore BooksActually and its publishing arm Math Paper Press. The event brought together the works of artists and writers from Singapore, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. It featured an eclectic mix of comics, design merchandise, zines, books, and photography catalogues.

Mr Leck felt that the venue was the key factor that caused a drop in attendance this year. While last year SABF was at the epicentre of the city, in Marina Bay Sands, this year it was at Gillman Barracks, a ten minute walk from Labrador MRT station. As for the increased sales, Mr Leck attributes it to “better curated content” and “providing the quality” that made visitors buy more.

What do art fairs add to the illustration scene in Singapore?

BooksActually was initially supposed to have a booth at Doujima, however it had to pull out at the last minute as not enough staff could make it for the event. For Mr Leck, art fairs help artists to showcase their works and engage with a wider audience here. “Doujima and SABF, allows the individual content creators, and publishers like ourselves an avenue to showcase the works, and also engage with the audience, who effectively are potentially our customers,” said Mr Leck.

Doujima brought together key industry stakeholders such as gaming companies, art studios and independent art galleries. Talks by experienced artists and networking sessions were organised to help young artists further develop their career in illustration. “We’ve supported efforts by young artists to develop work in genres like visual novels and games,” said Mr Jason Koh, account director of The Neo Tokyo Project.

From the fringe to pop-culture

Doujima was packed. But the throngs streaming into the exhibition hall were a far cry from the inaugural event in 2014, which welcomed 1,000 visitors to the upper floors of SCAPE. How did Doujima become so popular? For starters, Mr Koh pointed out that more youths are pursuing their illustration interests in schools, studios and subsequently their future careers.

TMG spoke to a group of student creators at their booths at Doujima, currently studying game art design courses in Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP). Ms Ivette Chua, 21, together with two other schoolmates, set up a booth to sell their own food inspired keychain designs and fan art posters. “I want to work with a gaming or animation company for experience first,” said Ms Chua, on her future career plans.

Many of the artists that TMG spoke to had their own online stores, or websites featuring their artwork portfolio. “Doujin Market has a large proportion of student creators and independent artists, many of whom have unparalleled popularity and a sizeable following online,” said Mr Koh. Mr Joseph Foo, 28, who goes by the artist name Strobolights, markets his artworks on social media, particularly on Instagram. Artists like Mr Foo and Ms Rachta Lin found that social media is an important tool to connect with fans and to expand their audience.

“Stakeholders and policy makers must also recognise that they can no longer look at art with the same lens, and that in order to tap into a young, yet vocal and digitally savvy audience to help revitalise Singapore’s arts scene, they need to stop thinking traditionally,” added Mr Koh.


Some challenges remain

While there have been efforts by industry stakeholders to support the illustration scene here, some artists are still finding it hard to hold down stable work.

Ms Sarah Isabel Tan, 29, a freelance artist from Singapore, makes a series of pastel, palm-sized cat figurines called Darumaos, and has self-published her sketchbooks. While she has an online business selling her artwork, she is on the lookout for work with a more stable income. After studying animation at NYP, she took up jobs with Warner Brothers, and some gaming companies in Singapore. But Ms Tan told TMG that most of her previous jobs were short term projects, aside from her work online. “I have had something like five jobs over the span of my working career, aside from freelance and nothing really lasted very long, usually due to either a volatile working environment or poorly managed cash flow,” said Ms Tan.

Ms Tan’s series of self-designed Darumaos

“I guess the biggest problem for me right now is being a sustainable artist. Having a long term job. I have friends who are successful freelancers as they have found their market but I don’t think I’ve really found mine yet,” she added.

For young artists just starting out, Mr Ng Kian Chuan, 32, manager of Collateral Damage Studios, an art studio with courses for illustration, comics and animation, noticed that many struggled with the lack of business know-how.

“For a lot of artists it’s the lack of business knowledge. They may know how to draw, but even that alone is not enough. Some artists don’t know how to price their works, they think that it’s alright to sell their works for a lower price, and they don’t know the market rate. This would be unsustainable in the long run,” said Mr Ng.


A growing market here

Recently, the graphic novel has taken a front seat in Singapore’s literary circles. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Link to our review here) was nominated in six categories at the prestigious 2017 Eisner Awards. Published in 2015 by Epigram Books, it sold 9,000 copies in Singapore, and just last year, it was awarded the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction.

It is clear to Mr Kenny Leck that more artists are creating now. Math Paper Press has published works like The Resident Tourist, an eight part ongoing autobiographical comic series by Troy Chin; The Unsavoury Alphabet, an illustrated crime diary story by Gene Whitlock; and Fatman and Superchub, a comic strip by Stephanie Ho. “There has been a supply of content in recent years. In the past, famed filmmaker Eric Khoo was originally working on his illustration work, dabbling in comic drawings but never got round publishing it. The market for locally produced content of this nature was almost non-existent at that time,” said Mr Leck.

Illustrators are also branching out to different industries. Some have ventured into the gaming industry to design characters and artwork. Ubisoft Singapore had a hand at designing the artwork in Assassin’s Creed, an action-fantasy video-game series. Kaiju Den is exploring new technologies like virtual reality (VR) with their newly released title on PlayStation, Stratos Fantasea. At Doujima, Kaiju Den invited attendees to test and experience this first hand.

Kaiju Den’s VR testing of Stratos Fantasea at Doujima

The G has also actively supported art events like Doujima and SABF. “Doujima is funded by the National Arts Council (NAC) and many sponsors, so it shows that the government supports art events like this, which is very encouraging,” said Ms Charlotte Lee from The Neo Tokyo Project.

Moving forward, Mr Koh believes that a “robust publishing infrastructure” and “more private and public funding” will help give creators a leg up. But Mr Edmund Wee, the CEO of Epigram Books said that the growth in publishing is still too slow. “The publishing and art scene in Singapore has improved, but it has not been improving fast enough,” said Mr Wee. He pointed out the National Literary Reading Writing Survey in 2015, which he found that two in five people preferred the internet and social media to reading, and that only one in four readers had read books by Singaporean writers. “Look at the survey that NAC did in 2015, that only one in four people are reading Singaporean literature. We don’t have a flourishing reading culture. That means that in the past 20 years, it was not encouraged,” said Mr Wee.

“We need a system overhaul. Start with the schools, encourage students to read Singaporean literature, graphic novels, comics, all types of books. It also requires some government intervention, and of course help from the grassroots,” he added.

Rachta’s pink hair might stand out in a crowd, but the growing throng at her booth quickly obscures her from view as the crowds stream in. Three hours into Doujima’s first day, and already the long concourse at Suntec City convention centre isn’t big enough for everyone trying to enter. Queues form. Has this fringe begun to turn mainstream?


Featured image from The Neo Tokyo Project.

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