Yue Minjun is laughing all the way to the bank. The shaven-headed Beijing painter has turned his iconic guffawing self-portraits into one of China's most lucrative exports. In June, a brightly hued canvas of Yue dressed as a merry Roman Catholic Pope sold for $4.28 million in London. That record was shattered last month when Execution, a work depicting maniacally grinning figures in a Tiananmen Squarelike setting, netted nearly $6 million in another London sale. Riffing on Deng Xiaoping's maxim "To get rich is glorious," Yue's paintings capture China's exuberant love affair with consumerism. But even as he also satirizes his countrymen's headlong race to make money, the native of Daqing, a grim oil town in China's northeast, doesn't view his shiny new millionaire status with much irony. "What's wrong with laughing?" Yue demands with a serious face, digging into a Shanghai eatery's rendition of braised pork shoulder, a quivering delicacy synonymous with nouveau riche fulfillment. "China isn't all dark anymore. We should be happy."
Throughout Asia's developing nations, once penniless painters are getting used to this most unexpected emotion. The region's contemporary-art market has never been so hot. Last year, a collection of dreamlike portraits and landscapes by China's Zhang Xiaogang raked in just over $24 million more than British enfant terrible Damien Hirst made in 2006. In March, a sale of modern Indian art in New York City raised a record $15 million, including just under $800,000 for Captives, a stark evocation of desiccated torsos by New Delhiborn Rameshwar Broota. Two months later, an auction in London elicited $1.42 million for a Tantric-inspired oil painting by India's Syed Haider Raza. Even in Vietnam, idyllic rural scenes coated in the country's distinctive lacquer that sold for a few hundred dollars a few years ago are now selling for 10 times that. A gouache-and-ink painting by Vietnamese post-impressionist Le Pho, whose work is part of the permanent exhibition at the Modern Art Museum in Paris, captured nearly $250,000 at a Singapore sale. Overall, leading auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's auctioned $190 million in contemporary Asian art last year, compared to $22 million just two years before. "This is just the beginning," says Swiss art dealer Pierre Huber, who in September oversaw a debut contemporary Asian art fair in Shanghai. "For so long, people did not know about Asian art. But now the world is turning to Asia, and what they see is amazing."
That's a seismic shift for an art world that once rarely set its sights past either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Even today, for many people Asia's developing economies still denote the world's factories its cheap call centers and efficient manufacturers of every gizmo imaginable. Yet that narrative coexists with another more compelling tale: that of a rising continent intent on recapturing its former glory. The Chinese dragon wakes, mother India rises. Even little tiger Vietnam is finding its roar. Outsiders looking to ride this remarkable wave have invested heavily in prosaic sectors like real estate or manufacturing, but now the region's rich contemporary-art scene is also beckoning. "Wherever the economy booms, art booms," says Ganieve Grewal, the Mumbai-based representative for Christie's, which has seen its annual sales of Indian contemporary art in New York City double between 2003 and last year.
In some ways, given the frothiness of the global art market as a whole, Asia's rise is understandable. Yet the boom in modern Asian art also serves as an important reminder that the region is not just a copier but an innovator as well. Asia's avant-garde artists explore the clash between ancient traditions and pell-mell development, the lure of commercialism, and, most fundamentally, the struggle for individuality on the world's most populous continent. "There's this misconception that art from Asia is static, that it's the same old boring stuff," says Eloisa Haudenschild, an Argentine-born collector who with her husband owns one of the most significant private collections of Chinese contemporary photography and video art. "But this is a place going through such upheaval, and the art reflects this very vibrantly."
The arbiters of Asian art didn't always reward such experimentalism. In the great art academies of India, China and Vietnam, technical skill and an ability to reference the region's rich cultural heritage outweighed social commentary or renegade brush strokes. For centuries, Chinese students spent their school years laboriously copying the ink landscapes of ancient masters. The same held true in India, where artistic merit often was equated either with an ability to reproduce themes from religious epics or mimic the miniaturist details of the Mughals. In Vietnam, the 20th century's most promising painters attended the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de L'Indochine, an academy set up in Hanoi in 1925 by a classmate of Henri Matisse. There, the idiom was Western classical with a dash of impressionism thrown in for modern élan. Even today, Vietnamese students at the Hanoi Fine Arts University, as the French-founded school is now known, spend an entire year sketching nude models, a rigorous exercise that has been abandoned at many Western art institutes. In all three countries, the emphasis on education means that even the most experimental artists tend to boast degrees from top art universities. "I don't think they taught me anything," says Akbar Padamsee, a leading Indian contemporary artist, of his art-school instructors in Mumbai. "But being surrounded by people who also wanted to be artists was important."