The focus on South Asia appears to be an enduring one for the India Art Fair (IAF). In 2016, we saw a pronounced emphasis on Bangladesh and Nepal, and this year too we are going to see more art from these regions, as well as from Sri Lanka. This of course will be in addition to a strong presence of indigenous art from around India. Neha Kirpal is the founding director of the fair, which opens at New Delhi's NSIC grounds on February 2. The MCH Group, the company that runs the Art Basel fairs, is the new co-owner of the IAF.

“At a global level, the South Asian market is supported by a buoyant Indian economy. It has seen the strength and significance of India Art Fair grow rapidly over the past few years,” says Kirpal. As a multi-pronged approach is needed to grow the South Asian art market, both global and local strategies are in focus at the fair, she says.

The new year on the art calendar will see the return of ‘Platform’ — a segment at the fair that gives the best of established and emerging South Asian galleries, artists and artist collectives an opportunity to exhibit on an international platform. Participants include Britto Arts Trust, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Nepal Art Council, Kathmandu, Nepal; Theertha International Artists’ Collective, Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Blueprint 12, New Delhi, to name a few.

Another new section at the fair this year is ‘Vernacular in Flux’, curated by Annapurna Garimella. On show will be a rich selection of vernacular art, with a special focus on Gond, Madhubani and Mysore painting. While the term ‘vernacular’ is a debatable choice of title for arts and crafts produced by indigenous people, it does allow art that slips between the traditional and modern to be showcased too.

From the artist’s film studio

The fair’s film section continues to thrive, and this time around the Godrej India Culture Lab will be presenting a package curated by Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker Avijit Mukul Kishore and architect Rohan Shivkumar. The opening film is unmissable — Ashim Ahluwalia’s Events in A Cloud Chamber, a redux of painter Akbar Padamsee’s film of the same name, which was lost or destroyed 40 years ago. Another must-see is Watermelon, Fish and Half Ghost by Payal Kapadia. The film is based on a story by the late painter Bhupen Khakhar. Narrated like a folktale, it is rich in mythology and tinged with the melancholia of lost love. Revolving around a family living in a Mumbai chawl, the film shows how mere proximity encourages the formation of unusual friendships.

One can also look forward to archival films like Koodal, a radical 17-minute documentary made by the late Tyeb Mehta in 1970; and MF Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter, a highly abstract and experimental film made in 1967.

A melange of categories

The Special Art Projects programme will present a selection of outdoor and indoor works — their creators span the range from high-profile Indian artists like Reena Saini Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Mithu Sen, to international artists like the Algerian-French Francis Limerat, Joël Andrianomearisoa and Anila Quayyum Agha, a Pakistani-American artist who has been making waves at Art Dubai with her evocative creations. Other emerging names like Parul Gupta, Hemant Sreekumar, Avinash Veeraraghavan and Rathin Barman can also be spotted at this section.

While Saini Kallat will present an installation of wires and yarn that traces the points of conflict between indentured labourers, asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants across the planet, Sen will be making a new work which straddles defined categories of art-making as well as the distance between the artist and her audience.

Limerat’s work is minimal and relies on viewer’s participation to make it come alive. At the fair he is displaying a column of wood that has been perforated with voids and lines, and viewers are invited to peek through them. The work is a playful confrontation.

Quayyum Agha presents delicately patterned and layered installations titled ‘All the Flowers are for Me’. The work pays homage to the identity, beauty, and femininity of her mother and other mothers, obscured by the gravestone and the shroud.

Barman’s work looks at architecture and erasure with the passage of time. He will be presenting maquettes of century-old buildings in Kolkata that are about to be demolished. Gupta’s works are rooted in a performative subjectivity of body, perception and architectural space, while Sreekumar’s is an unfolding process — where the ‘growth’ manifests as a sequential decay into nothingness and re-emergence.

Veeraraghavan’s work consists of three laser-cut veneer panels and a video in a room that’s covered with thousands of images from the artist’s visual archive.

Then there is a breathtaking light installation by American artist Brookhart Jonquil. He has been brought to the India Art Fair by the Floodlight Foundation. His artistic oeuvre is marked by his desire to represent nothingness, to imagine and present the immaterial, through glass, mirror and light, materials that make their presence felt only when interacting with other objects.

The round-up this year looks like an interesting mix of highly conceptual art by international artists on one hand and technically potent indigenous works by local artists from across the country.

Collateral displays

Those interested in gaining a deeper insight into visual art can attend the Speakers Forum. Especially exciting is the Future of Museums segment, which will explore the evolving role of these institutions and that of South Asian art. With two prominent US museum representatives — Sheena Wagstaff, the Leonard A Lauder Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of New York, and Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York — at hand, this section promises a deeper perspective into Asian art vis-à-vis the international art scene.

Apart from the events at the venue, there are collateral events in the form of exhibitions at several galleries. For instance, there is Renu Modi’s project ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which showcases the works produced during a three-year exchange programme between Indian and Sri Lankan artists. Gallery Espace, in collaboration with Theertha International Artists Collective, brings us the story of this artistic engagement, through an audio-visual media documenting the interactions of the artists with the city and with each other.

Viewers and buyers

Since its inception in 2008, the IAF has presented viewers with a variety of art and approaches. Pointing out that an art fair can experiment with different approaches, Kirpal says this is what makes it an interesting and exciting space. Despite the change of venue, from the centrally located Pragati Maidan to the slightly off-the-beaten-track NSCI grounds in Okhla, the fair has managed to retain and even double its audience. As rightly observed by many art critics and historians, the purpose of an art fair can never be purely commercial... given that visitors anyway outnumber buyers.

From statistics compiled by the IAF team itself, it is clear that people who attend the fair are not really art collectors but mostly those who only want to look at art. Nonetheless, the fair, though it does not profess to be an alternative space, performs an altruistic service. The excitement generated around an art fair cannot be equalled by any art opening in the city, which is why, despite complaints, galleries come back year after year to display their artists.

While 2016 saw a few dropouts, viewers were actually relieved that they were not overwhelmed by a surfeit of artwork, which eventually leads to fatigue. Kirpal, who was originally not from the ‘art fraternity’, is not afraid to learn and is more than happy to take pointers from those experienced in the business. Which is why one can always look forward to something fresh at the IAF.

Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer