February 15, 2015


By Georgina Maddox

The India Art Fair in its seventh edition was arguably a mixed bag, with a variety of work and several points of entry into various themes that emerged from the Fair.

The usually crowded tents at NSIC grounds gave way to a better designed, spacious layout this year at the India Art Fair (IAF), it appeared a little less crowded, however artists, collectors, gallery owners and viewers did pump up the numbers to over 80,000 visitors.

 While some gallery booths, like Gallery Espace, Shrine Empire Gallery, Sakshi Art Gallery, Latitude 28 and Nature Morte came up with exceptional artwork, there were quite a few lowbrow commercial artworks designed to cater to drawing rooms.  The Art Projects curated by Girish Sahahane shone a beacon on new talent and experimental art that pushed the envelope while Delhi Art Gallery put up a stunning display of modern art that traced the journey of Indian art from Bengal to Tamil Nadu.

Overall, erudite viewers have responded to the India Art Fair as a toss-up of good and bad.  Most galleries reported good sales with six sell-out booths. However many regular viewers complained that there were lesser ‘big international names’ among galleries and artists while some felt it was less cacophony than most times. There was an absence of many blockbuster international artists like Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst just to name a few. 

On the flip side, the absence of galleries from the West may have provided us with the ideal platform for a dialogue between the South Asian countries. “We are concentrating on a regional flavor for this year’s Art Fair,” adds Fair Director Neha Kirpal.

With a rich cultural history, the nations of South East Asia should be dialoguing with each other more, because they have a lot in common. This is a widespread sentiment among many cultural theorists like Dr Jyotinder Jain. Importantly the dialogue has to be carried out without falling into the Orientalist trap that imagines South Asian identities as created by colonial literatures.

Trawling through the Fair, one comes across a large green lung, crafted out of metal on an embroidery ring and wired to light up. Titled Siamese Trees it features a joint image of a Peepal tree, the national tree of India and the Deodar the national tree of Pakistan. This work, created by Reena Saini Kallat an artist of Indo-Pak origin, is the perfect metaphor for one of the prevailing themes at the India Art Fair—that of a renewed artistic dialogue between India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Why should the only dialogue between Asian nations be a military one? Saini Kallat for instance points out, “Nature does not acknowledged these geo-political boundaries that divide our countries and I have attempted to stretch that thought in this series of works,” says Saini whose solo booth was hosted by Chemould Prescott. Besides the trees Saini has created graphite and charcoal sketches of hybrid animals like the tiger and the markhor, birds like the peacock and the chukar. Saini also points out with a smile that there are inter-marriages between Indians and Pakistanis in our very own art community.

While Saini concentrates on plumbing the depths of this dual identity, artist Seher Shah explores the notion of Pakistani Diaspora. At the Art Fair, the Brooklyn based Shah was hosted by Nature Morte that showcased her collection of archival Giclee Prints celebrating Islamic architectural forms and patterns. In her recent body of work, the Karachi-born artist investigates her Muslim identity in New York…something that changed drastically after 9/11.

After 9/11 Shah began to question her identity as a Muslim and produced images that were associated with and influenced by the media, personal travel photographs, animation, graffiti and even hand-drawings. "The connection of time, architecture, memory and music are all fused together in a hazy state and sometimes can be distilled through images," says the artist.

Sitting precariously at an angle was Kashmiri – Pandit Veer Munshi’s installation titled Serenity of desolation. It was a tribute to the Kashmir flood victims, and featured an upturned home, replete with carvings characteristic of Kashmiri homes. Inside the house Munshi’s watercolours depicted a 100 local faces, from the milkman and the ironing-woman to the vegetable vendor and the local barber. The drawings were accompanied by a video of news footage from the Kashmir floods viewed through a lattice, screened ‘window’. Munshi’s identity as an exiled Kashmiri Pandit is an interesting one for he speaks of his motherland through the lens of dislocation and forced migration. His work forms an important middle ground between India and Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Another frequent flyer from Pakistan is Muhammad Zeeshan.  A contemporary miniaturist, Zeeshan’s lexicon expands the notion of the traditional miniature. He now creates large works in tempera and gold-leaf on Wasli in a painstaking style which essays human forms through a mesh of textures and layers. For the Fair he conducted an experiment immersing two of his paintings in a tank that slowly filled with ink that consequently destroyed the works. “It is my comment on the commoditization of art,” shared the artist.

Bangladeshi artist Ayesha Sultana was showcased by Experimenter. She created works that investigate the process of drawing, time and space while exploring gaps in visual memory. Her works look at the periphery, essaying what is overlooked in plain sight. In essence her graphite on acid-free paper works was stunningly minimal and led one to contemplate the porous boundaries of countries.

Moving toward the Caucasus region, Faig Ahmad from Azerbaijan, Baku, displayed his works at another booth hosted by Nature Morte. Ahmad works with traditional Middle Eastern carpets, reinvented and re-contextualizing them to comment upon contemporary life. He uses traditional materials like woolen threads and arabesque patterns to elasticize our perception of the icon.  Ahmad disassembles the conventional structure of the carpet and randomly rearranges the resulting components of the traditional composition to stretch our minds into viewing tradition from a new angle.

From Srilanka Anoli Perera’s gigantic scarlet dress presented a dialogue of change. The contours of the body that expand and contract are in constant flux and Perera captured this vividly with her larger-than-life, woven garment—a symbol and monument of the body. 

Continuing the cross-border dialogue is an ongoing project, My East is your West featuring Rashid Rana and Shilpa Gupta. The two were in conversation at the Art Fair talking about their ongoing project at the Venice Biennale that will strive to present an altered view of the two countries. The exhibition is curated by Natasha Ginwala and sponsored by Feroze Gujral.

We hope that this continued dialogue will shed more light on the sometimes strained relationships between India and her neighbouring nations. The India Art Fair is just the beginning of what might become a fruitful cross-pollination of cultures from South East Asia.