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State of the art

Rosalyn D?Mello | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 28, 2015
‘Bunting’ is a tribute to the staple ornament in most festivities. Courtesy Clark House Initiative

A Buddhadev Mukherjee painting at 'Body as Site'. Courtesy Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

Gil at ‘Double Take’. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul and Nature Morte, New Delhi;

Gil at ‘Double Take’. Courtesy: Kukje Gallery, Seoul and Nature Morte, New Delhi;

A work by Oriya artist Mayadhara Sahu. Courtesy: Sakshi Gallery

A work by Oriya artist Mayadhara Sahu. Courtesy: Sakshi Gallery

Another glimpse of ‘Bunting’. Courtesy: Clark House Initiative

Another glimpse of ‘Bunting’. Courtesy: Clark House Initiative

A Buddhadev Mukherjee painting at ‘Body As Site’. Courtesy: Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

‘Bunting’ is a tribute to the staple ornament in most festivities. Courtesy Clark House Initiative

Velvet Roses. Courtesy: Exhibit320 Gallery & Yasmin Jahan Nupur

Velvet Roses. Courtesy: Exhibit320 Gallery & Yasmin Jahan Nupur

'Messes of the Afternoon’ by Vidha Saumya. Courtesy: Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

'Messes of the Afternoon’ by Vidha Saumya. Courtesy: Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

Ketaki Sheth’s photo at ‘Conversations in Colour’, Jhaveri Contemporary. Courtesy: Ketaki Sheth and Photoink

Ketaki Sheth’s photo at ‘Conversations in Colour’, Jhaveri Contemporary. Courtesy: Ketaki Sheth and Photoink

Employees, Morvi Palace, Gujarat’ by Raghubir Singh ©2015 succession Raghubir Singh. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Employees, Morvi Palace, Gujarat’ by Raghubir Singh ©2015 succession Raghubir Singh. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Kumartuli’ by Ram Rahman ©ram rahman. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Kumartuli’ by Ram Rahman ©ram rahman. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Fresh-off-the-boat artists, barter shows, photo festivals… Prominent galleries and museums are rolling out the welcome mat for a new season ripe with textures and colours, shapes and moods

Standing at the viewing end of the glass-top counter, whose refrigerated insides contained deep stainless-steel pockets of different flavours of quintessentially Indian ice-cream, I saw the sign that assured me that my four-month period of intense craving would at last be sated. I was at Natural, Mumbai’s most beloved ice-cream maker, which had recently set up a Delhi outpost. It was mid-August. Their freezers were finally shelved with sitaphal flavour.

It had never occurred to me before that the beginning of the art world calendar so neatly coincided with the season of custard apples. It made perfect sense, considering the nature of the plump, sinful fruit: all burst, all seed, all profusion, the perfect textural description of the last two weeks of harvest. Which is not to say the year-end spell of melons and mangoes was marked by a lull. In fact the fecund introspection of the months of March to July prepared us for this more intricate ripeness. In June, itinerant arts lab Khanabadhosh successfully kicked off the first phase of its year-long collaborative project with the Zurich University, encompassing artist collectives from nine ‘creative cities’ across the world. The inaugural conference, titled ‘Draft’, was held in Mumbai, while Kolkata-based contemporary arts gallery Experimenter organised in July the fifth edition of its Curator’s Hub, a significant confluence of local and international curators. The group shows, a summer mainstay, were held across galleries, but it was otherwise quiet, albeit punctuated with a radical number of discussions and provocations. The most distinctive of these, at the not-for-profit Mumbai Art Room, was a profound ‘exhibition in process’ titled ‘Len Den or Bartered Collections’, a noble yet instigative enterprise initiated by artist couple Shreyas Karle and Hemali Bhuta. They invited 14 artists, whose work they would have liked to acquire had they the capital, to barter with them and each other. The show, which opened on June 5, looked more like a storage zone than a conventional white-cube exhibition, and evoked numerous questions about the category of the collector, the significance of a collection, the arbitrary relationship between price and value, and the prevailing hierarchies that both mark and mar the Indian art world. Mid-August, the display was once again turned on its head in order to accommodate the new works that had been acquired by the fresh bunch of artists who’d been invited to barter. The show’s extension, from the beginning of the monsoons until pre-winter September, establishes, in a sense, a continuum of thought and dialogue about the existing ecosystem of the art world.

Different strokes

The art market, the target of Karle and Bhuta’s curatorial critique, continues to function across a specific median, mercifully embodying none of the over-exuberant speculation of the early 2000s and all of the cautious optimism that set in post the 2008 crash. What changed during the intermediary years, I am told, was that artists sought refuge in the integrity of their individual studio practice, where art was once again the unwitting consequence of an ideational and material pursuit rather than a product created for the convenient consumption of fly-by-night collectors. Those who’d entered the ecosystem to cash in on the overnight profit had weeded themselves out. Indian galleries soon began to shift their focus to international fairs and to expanding their collector base while contemporary Indian artists themselves have begun showing abroad more regularly than ever before. Perhaps inevitably, the more established of the lot have begun once more to take better risks, to experiment with greater confidence, and to seek material transcendence.

Subodh Gupta, who opened a three-month-long impressive mid-career retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in 2014, is a fine example of an artist rebelling against aesthetic complacency. Gupta, 51, has been working tirelessly on a solo planned for February 2016 at Hauser & Wirth’s year-old bucolic space, spread over a disused farm, in Somerset. Though he continues to dwell on his past preoccupation with everyday objects, my most recent visit to Gupta’s studios in Gurgaon, where works conceived at least five or six years ago were being steadily realised, confirmed what many had been hoping for, that the superstar artist with Bihari roots was moving into new and exciting territory. Gupta’s contemporary Jitish Kallat, who curated the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale to critical acclaim, has similarly stepped into new-old domain by returning to the constellation-like pattern that has recurred in many of his visual motifs and focusing squarely on the automaticity of its form. Kallat’s new suite of wind studies, which will soon be shipped to Paris for his upcoming solo at Daniel Templon, is beguilingly meditative in its process and stunningly luminous upon completion. Intuitively sketched lines connecting an array of circles are lined with an adhesive and set ablaze, the direction of the temporary flames navigated by the wind, leaving behind an endoskeleton-like cluster of burnt incandescence.

What lies beneath

The growing impulse towards interiority, inclusiveness, and self-awareness, rather than being led by market trends, are manifest in the upcoming programming of many Indian galleries. The young Delhi-based gallery Exhibit 320 — which could be credited with officially ringing in the new art season — exemplified this mature spirit with ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, an exhibition that brings under one roof three emerging female artists from the Indian subcontinent: Bangladeshi Yasmin Jahan Nupur, Lahore-based Nurjahan Akhlaq, and home-grown Parul Gupta. Before the wine could be served, before the electric buzz of conversation could take over the gallery, its in-house researcher and curator, a fellow artist, Meenakshi Thirukode introduced to an eager audience Akansha Rastogi, who proceeded to offer a nourishing slice of her ongoing research on India’s exhibition history. It seemed poetic to inaugurate the bravely new by remembering the interstitial moments of a vibrant past. Rastogi’s presentation was the first in a series of interventions planned at Exhibit 320 over the coming weeks by PRACforum (Professionals in Art and Curation), a year-old informal umbrella organisation of practising curators.

Located a few kilometres away, Nature Morte, one of Delhi’s most prestigious galleries, recently opened ‘Double Take’, a group exhibition of 17 artists from 12 countries. Curated by Mumbai-based American Diana Campbell Betancourt, the show promised to “transform the gallery into a ‘fun house’ — or an attraction that includes ‘various devices intended to surprise, frighten, bewilder or amuse”. Throughout the show, which is on till October 3, a North Korea-born migrant labourer, Lee Mahn-Gil, will supposedly occupy an oval couch sans backrest at the gallery, dressed in a dramatic white bunny suit, to simultaneously reference the idea of sheer amusement as well as expose that which lies buried under the surface and exemplify the show’s premise, to question “what are the powers, mechanisms, and sleights of hand that affect the way we perceive the world around us?” In a similar vein, ‘The Coriolis Effect’, a show opening on August 30 at KHOJ, promises a cross-continental dialogue exploring the political, social, and cultural relationships between India and Africa from the 13th century; it is the outcome of a four-week-long international residency.

Fresh notes

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, galleries in the famed art district in SoBo (South Bombay, for those who came in late) are literally abuzz with activity. The ubiquitous bell that signals the gateway between the bustling chaos of the streets and the contemplative calm of the vast, high-ceilinged interiors, is being rung more often than usual during working hours, much to the pleasant surprise of gallerists, most of whom have risked a fair amount of capital and faith in featuring either fresh-off-the-boat talent, like the Oriya artist Mayadhara Sahu with his debut solo ‘Village Tales at Sakshi’, or emerging but experimental ones who aren’t inherently ‘sellable’. That includes Mumbai-based French artist Fabien Charau, whose computer-generated art is almost archaeological in its obsession with digging into the layers underneath the pixelated surface of digital images, which is the principal idea behind ‘Thousand Kisses Deep’, his ongoing solo at Chatterjee & Lal.

In keeping with this focus on fresh talent, Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke will soon host ‘Body as Site’, which is bound to be an excellent show considering the quirky practice of the two featured artists: Vidha Saumya, whom we first encountered as one of the gallery’s employees and who has proven to be prodigious in her skill with ink and pen and in creating gender-fluid figures full of personality; and Buddhadev Mukherjee, a printmaker whose suite of 101 watercolour works exhibited at the gallery’s booth at the India Art Fair this year was an effortless demonstration of his humorous fixation with a kind of reverse anthropomorphosis, endowing a singular male form with animal-like accoutrements.

‘Bunting’, signalling The Clark House Initiative’s welcome month-long takeover of Chemould Prescott Road, is rife with youthful energy, with work that adequately questions the conceptual as it builds itself around the notion of the bunting, a staple ornament in most festivities. The refusal of participating artists to embrace the authority of an individually-derived authorship, by not ascribing any work to a single artist in favour of promoting the spirit of the collective, has deep political undertones. And yet, Sumesh Sharma, the Initiative’s spokesperson, reminds us in his brief introductory text that most of the participating artists are in fact from Vidarbha, the Maharashtra region infamous for a shocking number of farmer suicides. “That very hinterland Vidarbha sends the largest contingent of students to the JJ School of Art, and forms the largest inclusion here,” he writes. This is a fact well articulated at ‘Rethinking the Regional’, a landmark art historical survey show at the Mumbai branch of the NGMA, which is curated by Manisha Patil, current professor and former Dean of JJ School of Art, and contextualises the work of at least 170 artists from the various districts of the state.

Frames apart

Despite the fact that photography as a medium is often given the step-sisterly treatment within the art world and economy, or perhaps on account of it, photo festivals have begun to mushroom across the country. At last count, at least six prominent ones had sprung up in a span of just five years. In October, the Delhi Photo Festival opens its third edition, titled ‘Aspire’, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), promising to be bigger in scale and more ambitious in its programming. Early next year Pondy Art, helmed by Kasha Vande, will unveil its second edition. In September, the NGMA will finally open the most-anticipated retrospective of the iconic Prabuddha Das Gupta, accompanied by a publication featuring his prescient body of work. Currently on view are 23 photographs by the legendary and eclectic late colour photographer Raghubir Singh, so displayed as to be in dialogue with three other photographers. Titled ‘Conversations in Colour’, Singh’s work shares space with those of Ram Rahman, Sooni Taraporevala and Ketaki Sheth, the latter two of whom he had actively mentored.

The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai has mounted a month-long show of vintage photographs by Bourne & Shepherd, the oldest surviving photo studio in the world that has operated under the same name since 1913. Shown in collaboration with Tasveer, these cultural artefacts demonstrate the studio’s much-acclaimed picturesque style of photography. Almost simultaneously in Delhi, the IGNCA is displaying a grand range of work from the Mahatta Studio in a show titled ‘Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Photography in India 1915-2015’. The event also includes a book release and an exhibition of their cameras.

Early next year, the art world will immerse itself in the India Art Fair’s eighth edition, which promises to revamp into a classier affair to regain its edge. For the moment all eyes are already turned to Bangladesh for the bi-annual Dhaka Art Summit, hosted by the Samdani Art Foundation, which set its standards quite high with its rather riveting second edition in 2013.

Rosalyn D’Mello is a Delhi-based art critic, writer, editor

Published on August 28, 2015
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