Sadequain at AICON, New York

Josheen Oberoi visits AICON Gallery’s expansive Sadequain exhibition

New York: It’s been a quiet month in the New York art world. With half the community decamping to Art Basel and the rest distracted by the blessed warm weather (we had a tough winter here!); interesting shows have been relatively thin on the ground. Not for South Asian art, thankfully. AICON Gallery is showing a mini retrospective of the Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain (1930-1987) and I was excited to see it not only for the quality of art but also the rarity of having access to such a body of work.

Occupying the entire expansive space of AICON’s Lower East Side gallery, this exhibit shows the gamut of Sadequain’s oeuvre. One of Pakistan’s most celebrated modernist artists, Sadequain was born in 1930 in Amroha, east of Delhi, in a family of calligraphers. He subsequently moved to Pakistan after his graduation from Agra University in 1948. He shot to fame at the young age of 31, when his work won recognition at the 1961 Paris Biennale.

A self-taught artist, he is most commonly identified with the development of a uniquely idiomatic calligraphic aesthetic. However, his visual language is in fact one of the most variegated and complex of the South Asian modernists working post 1947. He simultaneously worked through a variety of calligraphic, narrative, abstract registers, with artistic influences that ranged from multiple mediums; poetry, Western and South Asian historical artistic traditions. His compatriot, collaborator and famed poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz stated about his work, “In spite of his considerable pre-occupation with the solution of technical formal problems, Sadequain has never been purely a formal painter. Recordist, abstractionist, social critic, emotional visionary, within a few short years, Sadequain has sped from one role or compulsion to another with equal impetuosity.”

Three standing figures

Three Standing Figures, 1966, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Sadequain’s engagement with language was seminal to his work and this is visible in this exhibition. Comprising twenty seven paintings and three drawings, the show is dominated by a collection of paintings from the 1960s, when Sadequain lived and worked in Paris. Titled The Lost Exhibition, this set of eight paintings are dancing figures of calligraphy; lyrical despite their scale. These works are considered examples of what the artist called “Calligraphic Cubism”. Employing the scratched surface technique on the background, the texture produces volume and three- dimensionality. Seemingly caught in action, the elongated movement of the script along the vertical axis make these works appear monumental in viewing. Sadequain described himself as a figurative painter and the dramatic execution of the Arabic Kufic script in these works, the ensuing conversations that are taking place on the canvas, did bring home that idea to me. These are the strongest works in the exhibit and definitely worth a dekko.

Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery

Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery

Some of Sadequain’s formally figurative works are also part of this exhibition and these underline the remarkable range of his visual vernacular. Line, form, perspective – I was hard won to find a singly unifying element among these paintings. One of the more striking of these was Man With Dagger, showing a man holding a dagger in one hand and a head that resembles his own in the other, accompanied by a smaller figure of a woman holding a leaf. These muscular renderings, so different from The Lost Exhibition, are echoed in another set of calligraphic paintings in the exhibition, Untitled (Abstract Formation I and II). Interestingly, the image of a severed head is repeated in one of the works on paper, Untitled, Headless Self-Portrait. It clearly shows the headless artist in a studio, with a work of calligraphy in the background.

Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York














In 1962, an edition of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro rightly noted, “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.” He shifted the paradigms of calligraphy, especially in his realization of its abstracted and stylized forms. This post cannot effectively capture the entire spectrum of his languages and so I would strongly recommend a trip down to the gallery to see them yourself if you’re in New York.

You can learn more about Sadequain at the Sadequain Foundation website (co sponsor of this exhibition) and from this article by art historian Iftikhar Dadi.

Raja Ravi Varma’s Legacy

Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart discusses Raja Ravi Varma’s influence on Indian illustrative arts over the decades

New York: A conversation about the nascent phase of westernized Indian art is incomplete without a mention of Raja Ravi Varma. The famed painter of the royal Gaekwad family of Baroda, he has many firsts to his credit. He was one of the first painters to use oil as a medium, creating magnificent portraits of the Indian royals in the western academic style. He started his career in the princely state of Travancore in southern India, where he was the court painter from 1857 to 1872. He went on to open the first printing press in India, a move that had a decisive impact on Indian art, beyond what would have been Varma’s understanding and intention at the time.

Raja Ravi Varma, Shakuntala Patralekhan,  Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art Image credit:

Raja Ravi Varma, Shakuntala Patralekhan, Collection of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
Image credit:

Other than using oil paints and creating portraits seeped in realism, Raja Ravi Varma’s style of painting played a foundational role in defining the Indian prototype imagery in the proceeding decades.  His rendition of the characters from Indian mythology decisively shaped the Indian visual culture, the impact of which can be felt even today. The voluptuous heroin with long dark hair and defined features complemented the muscular heroes depicted with chiseled bodies and intent expressions. It is interesting to note that these images seem to be a product of his travels- presenting a generic Indian prototype and not an ethnically definable character. As Deepanjana Pal, the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma explains “The images were a composite created out of what he saw during his travels – the skin color was from north India, the way the sari was draped was Maharashtrian and the jewelry was usually from south India.”

Raja Ravi Varma, Lakshmi, Oleograph
Image Credit:

Varma’s images gained immense currency among the Indian masses that in 1894 when his paintings traveled from Baroda to Bombay for a public appearance, lines upon lines of people filed through the halls for viewing. The public response to his paintings encouraged Varma to set up a printing press so as to generate images for public consumption. He imported a printing press from Germany to reproduce affordable lithographs of his illustrated paintings. Even though the press was an unsuccessful venture and he eventually sold it off, his initiative had a lasting impact. Fritz Schleicher, a German lithographer who bought his press, turned around its fortunes by using Varma’s mythical figures on advertisements, flyers and ultimately calendars. This episode had a monumental impact. Varma’s imagery percolated the Indian household and mind. The popularity of the printing medium, mass production of goods and images and increased public consumption helped in the dissemination of the new Indian imagery. Other printing press that sprung around India and later comic books like Amar Chitra Katha started producing and emulating Varma’s imagery.

The printed image in India owes a significant debt to Varma’s creations and efforts. In turn, these images rendered on ink and paper, decisively impacted the illustrated arts in India. Even contemporary Indian artists continue to build on this tradition. They have gone on to adapt these early images and weave them into a new discourse- constantly re-imaging and re-imagining the role of the Indian hero and heroine. Chitra Ganesh and Pushpamala N are two such contemporary Indian artist whose practice clearly draws from Varma’s oeuvre.

Pushpamala N. The Native Types - Lakshmi (After Oleograph from Ravi Varma Press, Early 20th Century) 2001 C print on metallic paper 61 x 50.8cm. Image Credit:

Pushpamala N. The Native Types – Lakshmi (After Oleograph from Ravi Varma Press, Early 20th Century) 2001 C print on metallic paper 61 x 50.8cm. Image Credit:

One thing is for certain, Varma’s legacy will continue to have a lasting impact on India’s artistic traditions in the years to come. Some will enjoy it in its original garb while others will re-create it for the contemporary audience- just as Varma had done over a century ago.

Wynyard Wilkinson on ‘Silver from the Indian Sub-Continent 1858-1947’ at Saffronart

Emily Jane Cushing shares a note on a talk given by Wynyard Wilkinson at Saffronart in London

Wynyard Wilkinson introducing the evenings event.

London: On Wednesday 15 May, before the preview of the new Saffronart exhibition ‘Silver From the Indian Sub-Continent 1858-1947’ author and Antique silver specialist Wynyard Wilkinson held an informative discussion on the decorative nature of the silver articles on display.

Wynyard Wilkinson describing ‘Cutch’ style silverware.

Despite the many aspects of silver production during the colonial period in India, given the diverse nature of decorative designs varying from region to region, Wilkinson touched on all the key styles. He noted the aesthetic features and purposes of various pieces, and underlined the relationships between geographical areas and designs, also noting that various regional designs often inter-link.

Wynyard Wilkinson discussing Kashmiri style silverware.

First, Madras “Swami Ware” was taken in to account. Wilkinson noted that despite the fact that ‘swami’ designs exhibited fine and intricately detailed ornamentation of Hindu deities and mythological figures, the style was a huge success in Europe and Great Britain. The most frequently depicted deities in this genre are Vishnu and Brahma riding their vahanas, or associated animals.

Bangalore Silver 'Swami-ware' Three Piece Tea-set by Krishniah Chetty c. 1900.

Bangalore Silver ‘Swami-ware’ Three Piece Tea-set by Krishniah Chetty
c. 1900.

After the Madras region, the discussion turned to Cutch silver, known for its attractive patterns of scrolling foliage intertwined with animals, birds and hunting scenes. The Cutch style was the most venerated Indian silverware in the late 19th century. Wilkinson particularly noted the resemblances to 17th century Portuguese pottery decorations, and distinctive similarities in the depiction of animal and bird figures with Persian decoration.

Next, Wilkinson focused on Kashmiri silver, highlighting the shawl pattern in particular. Taking inspiration from the prevalent Kashmiri weaving industry, this pattern illustrates vines of blossoms and leaves amid and between flowing scrolls; these scrolls sometimes lack detailing as to accentuate the distinction between the floral and the scroll aspects of the pattern.

Kashmir Parcel Gilt Set of Four Finger Bowls and Plates in 'Shawl' Pattern c. 1900.

Kashmir Parcel Gilt Set of Four Finger Bowls and Plates in ‘Shawl’ Pattern c. 1900.

Wilkinson then moved on to silverware produced in Lucknow. Designs from this region are most commonly recognized for their use of two patterns, the ‘jungle’ and the ‘hunting’ pattern. These patterns feature, although not to scale, forests of palm trees containing both animal and male figures, and bold male figures on elephant back pursuing wild animals or competing in sporting activities.

Lucknow Silver Swing-handle Basket in 'Hunting' Pattern c. 1890.

Lucknow Silver Swing-handle Basket in ‘Hunting’ Pattern c. 1890.

The eclectic diversity of the silversmithing in Bombay, as a result of immigrant artisans from many regions of India who brought with them a wide range of design and decorative influences, was also discussed. Wilkinson noted, when discussing specific pieces, the use of domestic picture design by Bombay artisans, as a conscious move away from Cutch style foliage designs.

To conclude his informative talk, Wynyard Wilkinson drew the audience’s attention to two unique oversize examples of Indian colonial silverware on display. First, a large hand-rinsing fountain produced in Cutch in 1910, and, second, a voluminous two-handled vase crafted in Madras in 1890.

The exhibition will be on view till May 31, 2013, from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm Monday to Friday, and Saturday by appointment at Saffronart, London.

The catalogue may also be viewed online.

‘Radical Terrain’ at the Rubin Museum of Art

Josheen Oberoi shares a note on the ongoing ‘Radical Terrain’ exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York

New York: In November 2011, the Rubin Museum of Art opened a three-part exhibition of modernist art from India. The thematic series, curated by the museum’s Assistant Curator Beth Citron, started with an exhibition titled Body Unbound focusing on figuration, followed by Approaching Abstraction. The final installment, Radical Terrain currently on view, opened in November 2012 and examines the genre of landscape in post independent India. Interestingly, this third exhibition also features contemporary artists, not all from India, whose praxis is centered within a broad definition of landscape. The resultant dialogue adds an incredible depth to the experience of viewing both the modernist and contemporary works on exhibit.

The museum also has an ongoing Artists on Art series which sees Assistant Curator Beth Citron in an informal conversation with international contemporary artists. Currently this series features the contemporary artists from the Radical Terrain exhibition. You can find the schedule for these talks here.

You can read Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of the exhibition here. It is a great, informative read as always.

Watch this space for more of our thoughts on the exhibition. Till then, enjoy a few images of the show and please go visit!

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The Sovereign Art Foundation and Prize

Medha Kapur of Saffronart shares a note on The Sovereign Art Foundation and its esteemed Prize

The Sovereign Art Foundation Established in 2003, The Sovereign Art Foundation is a registered charity in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. The Foundation works with M’Lop Tapang, Kalki Welfare Society, Kids Company, and many more charities and funds to raise money to help disadvantaged children using the arts as rehabilitation, education and therapy. The Foundation was set up by Howard Bilton, a tax lawyer who turned his art-collecting hobby into the Foundation, which also runs what is now Asia’s largest art prize. Howard is also the chairman of The Sovereign Group.

The Foundation annual Sovereign European and Asian Art Prizes give recognition to some of the most important artists of our time. They essentially invite established artists to enter the competition which carries a first prize of US$ 25,000. All artists that enter the competition are judged by a panel of art experts, and the longlisted 30 show their work at an exhibition. The announcement of the prize winner is made during the exhibition or at the Foundation’s charity auction dinner. A US$ 1,000 Public Prize is also awarded by the Foundation based on votes cast by the public at the exhibition or through the Foundation’s website.

In 2011, the Sovereign Foundation launched the Sovereign African Art Prize which aims at raising public awareness about African art, offering recognition and opportunity to African artists, and raising significant funding for charities in Africa.

Sarnath Banerjee

Sarnath Banerjee
Lalbazaar Detective Department: Lower Pile

Sarnath Banerjee is an Indian graphic artist who has made it to the top 20 of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize this year. His artwork at the Foundation is mainly text and image based, with the intention of simplifying complex systems chiefly to understand them. In the process, he brings levity and emotional depth to otherwise incomprehensible subjects. You can vote for Sarnath Banerjee on the Foundation website, and read an earlier interview with him on this blog here

Miguel Payano Sha-Boy

Miguel Payano
Winner of the 2010 Public Prize
Image Courtesy

JeongMee Yoon The Pink Project II - Lauren & Carolyn and their Pink & Purple things

JeongMee Yoon
The Pink Project II – Lauren & Carolyn and their Pink & Purple things
2011 Sovereign Asian Art Prize Winner
Image Courtesy

Halim Al-Karim - Witness From Baghdad 1

Halim Al-Karim (Iraqi, b. 1963)
Witness From Baghdad 1
Image Courtesy

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