By Madhusree Chatterjee
Art in India has been relentlessly striving to break through the ivory walls of its elitist chamber to reach the masses in the last decade – especially since the money market crash of 2008 when the art market bubble burst in inflated price fiascos brought about by unscrupulous investors and galleries leading to a violent purge of inferior art from the market and stringent price corrections.
The price correction in the art market is still holding strong even five after the global economic meltdown — and now as India battles a fresh wave of slowdown in market, the movers and shakers of the art market are finding new ways to make aesthetics affordable to the mass market. The United Art Fair– an artist to buyers’ showcase — is one such initiative launched by an enterprising businessman Anurag Sharma last year (2012) to provide young contemporary artists from across the country and even abroad a platform to reach out to people and buyers directly without the intervention of galleries.
The independent fair – modeled loosely on the Affordable Art Fair in US — at the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi Sept 15-17 hosting more than 2,500 art works by nearly 270 artists — allowed buyers, investors and collectors to transact their picks directly with the artists. “Buy. Buy and Buy” was the refrain at the fair in an attempt to revive the Indian art market (estimated at Rs 2,000 crore annually) that threatens to slump again with slow buying.
Curated by five Indian experts in the world of art — gallerist Peter Nagy, graphic designer Ram Rahman, art historian Alka Pande, art critic and curator Meera Menezes, India-based American arts curator and activists Heidi Fichtner and writer-curator Mayank Kaul — the fair brought a bohemian collection of creatively refreshing contemporary art, backed by a powerful retro-section of curated photographs by iconic Indian lens-people and works by older artist to add heft to the showcase. The exhibit spread across segments — paintings, prints, photographs, sketches, multi-media work, new media work, new age solid art, installations, sculptures and ethnic art.
The “affordable” price tag swung a wide arc between Rs 10,000 to Rs 300,000 with the bulk of the work priced between Rs 40,000 to Rs 100,000. The business model was simple — it was a 50-50 (percentage) arrangement between the organizers and artists. The artist donated one work to the fair which sold it to cover the costs.
“The fair is not going through the gallery, it is going directly to the artist. The artist has given one work each to us as a commission,” co-curator Ram Rahman told this writer told this writer at the fair Sept 14— when it opened doors to the media and VIPs for sneak preview walk.
“The collection on display (this year) is quite varied to suit different sensibilities and tastes for art. Each curator was assigned to choose works of his choice keeping the principles of meaningful art, relevance and identifiable aesthetics in mind. I personally curated a large photographic section with historical photographs- some of which have not been seen in 50-60 years— together with several young photographers,” Rahman divulged.
The rounds of wine and “hors d’ oeuvres” were interspersed with guided tours of the fair by the curators. The fair was laid out in two categories — open display space and solo booths for senior artists. It combined a culture capsule as well to celebrate “everything Punjabi” on a music stage set right in the middle of the exhibition space.
“I concentrated on the photography. Some of Ram Rahman’s curations were very impressive … And Manu Parekh’s old works,” Jawahar Sircar, CEO of Indian Public Broadcaster Prasar Bharati, told this writer, as he surveyed the exhibition space like any other visitor free of official trappings. Sircar, the former secretary in the ministry of culture, is a self-taught art connoisseur and a critic.
The cue from Sircar led to vintage photographs — more than 100 of them in photo essays by heavyweights like Ram Dhamija, Raja Deen Dayal, O.P. Sharma, unseen photographs by Liesl De Souza, Italian photographer Tina Modotti’s cache of chronicler’s images of Ghadar Party leader Pandurang Khankhoje’s life in Mexico as farm revolutionary and a cinema tribute in portraits by old Mumbai photographer J.H. Thakker (to mark 100 years of Indian cinema) .
A separate still photo-narrative of nine frames by filmmaker Dev Benegal shot during the making of the movie, “Road” stood out for their profound commentary on the pulse of Bollywood- India’s movietown, Mumbai. The travelling truck photographs depict the anatomy of mass cinema and the forces that drive the industry — the multiplex, old cinema hoardings, shooting space, cinema awareness on the roads and how the family decides on the kind of cinema to make.
The country’s demographic rainbow came alive in Mumbai lensman Nishant Shukla’s photo-essay and collage, “Brief Encounters”- individual shots of commuters on three train journeys across India, like an overview of a multi-cultural nation on the move. A photo-narrative, “Ways of the Road” by French photographer Fabien Charuau, captured a “bus route” in the remote Partapur village in Rajasthan by shooting three random images at every kilometer of the road to depict its people, life and the environs. The paneled essay was like a probe into the dilapidated heart of the state- where development has failed to make inroads, leaving it empty and forlorn.
The fair was a startling contrast of brilliance and mediocrity. While a unseen photo-essay in black-white like a collage of legendary classical Bharatnatyam dancer Balasaraswati in different “mudras (poses)” looked like a motion picture, a section on acrylic art by young artists raised serious doubt about curation of paintings in emerging artists’ section with their “callous derivatives from works by masters” and garish use of flat colours in the photo-realistic styles. In a departure, a selection of folk inspired art in mixed media — with extensive use of textiles and thread work — brought out the densely layered heritage of Indian contemporary in a very comforting indigenous idiom. A group of Indian artists has been experimenting with fabrics and the rich diversity of traditional needle craft in combination with conventional mediums to create new stories that connect the history of country’s craft techniques with modern art and universal contents.
Young Indian contemporary art has been grappling with a curious set of circumstances — while it has become global over the years with more exhibitions and international residencies developing an universality in content and creative mental kinetics, it has lost touch with roots with mindless “derivative practices” culled from western masters and movements. This has led to a monotony in expression on the coloured canvas and in the new mediums, which was felt at the fair. Senior artists advocate return to the indigenous roots to evolve distinctive a language with references of social realities.
Some of new works were disappointing— almost bad, lashed out independent critic, curator and writer Georgina Maddox.
Experiences were dime a dozen. “In course of my search, I discovered an old installation of a car behind my home one day — made by an artist in the neighbourhood,” co-curator Ram Rahman said. The installation “Self-Defence” by Badal Chitrakar ( an ethnic artist) is telling comment on the need for personal safety in troubled times and at the time, on the conflicts around. The installation pushes new frontier of creativity — a Maruti 100 car modified to resemble an armoured vehicle with a combat aircraft mounted on it — and soldier sitting inside the car. It was complimented by a contemporary photo-essay in small frames by Chandan Gomes about the “growing atrocities on women in New Delhi and around the country and their victims made famous by the media”.
“While I was travelling with a friend on a Delhi bus to a get-together one evening, around the same time, a young woman was being gang-raped not far from the where I was travelling…,” the photographer spun in his caption. True or false… there was no time to introspect. The effect was sobering.
Folk art was an important component of the fair. A separate section presented by the Delhi Crafts Council hosted a motley ethnic group — represented by Ambika Devi with drawings from Mithila, Soni Jogi with dot painting, Raju Kalbelia with embroidery on Malkha Khadi, Chakradhar Lal with Madhubani paintings on paper, Odisha tree painting by Kailash Chandra Meher, Nirmala Marandi with kathwa appliqué. Tribal art in India – the point of origin of Indian aesthetics in pre-historic times with ancient paintings in caves and rock faces— have travelled a strange route down the epochs to tailor to new ethos by conveying contemporary artistic messages with ancient practices and motifs, registering minimal changes in stylization but complete makeovers in thinking. Ethnic art in India is now a fashion statement among collectors – fetching respectable prices in the mainstream markets.
“Six months ago, we were approached by a Delhi-based gallery owner Peter Nagy ( a co-curator of the United Art Fair) , to create a collection of traditional and tribal folk art for the United Art Fair. We worked with eight artists to create over fifty pieces especially for the fair. We have supported the craftspeople with material, equipment, financial assistance and space to work,” Pratiksha Somaia, general secretary of the Delhi Crafts Council told this writer.
One of the key aspects of the fair was the participation of foreign artists from US, UK, Japan, Israel and Switzerland — most of whom were inspired by Indian creative expressions and traditions to craft cross-cultural expressions of art. American artist Katherine Virgils was one such artist- who used motifs from Rajput and Pahadi miniatures to create a fable in collage essay, “Miniatures with Monkeys and Parrots”.
“In comparison to Switzerland, where we have Art Basel, one of the biggest international art showcases, this is an artist-driven fair- and a good one. Modern Indian art share many similarities with contemporary Swiss art with so many styles, elements of kitsch… I have been enjoying my interactions and exchange with Indian artists,” Swiss artist Augustine Rebetez, who exhibited give photographs and prints at the fair, observed. Rebetez was one of the artists sponsored by the Swiss Arts Council to the fair in India.
It is about giving young artists the exposure and bringing new creativity to the mainstream, pointed out Alka Pande, one of the five curators of the fair. “There is something for everyone here. While curating, I kept Indian aesthetics, rasa (emotional sensuousness), saundarya (beauty) and the country’s plurality in mind,” Pande said.
For artists, it was a relief from the stranglehold of galleries, which charge anything between 33 per cent to 50 per cent as commission from artist — and are known impose their writ on artists and deprive them of fair “deals”. “Such platforms should be encouraged,” artist Moutushi Chakraborty, who exhibited drawings and prints on gender tussle, commented on the space.
It is an interesting model, founder-director of the India Art Fair Neha Kirpal said. “It encourages a whole new layer of local artists — it is a complimenting parallel model to the India Art Fair, which is the country’s biggest international gallery-based fair,” Kirpal pointed out.
A mixed bag — 50 leading artists have been left out, lamented a New Delhi-based curator.