Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart discusses Shilpa Gupta’s works and her eventful start to 2013
New York: A contemporary Indian new media artist, Shilpa Gupta’s body of work presents a consistent progression in theory and practice that has rightfully earned her a firm spot in the arena of contemporary Indian art. Alumni of the Sir J. J. School of Fine Arts in Mumbai, the main crux of her artistic practice is to explore the role and purpose of art- this enquiry taking many forms.
The artists has had a packed start to the year, currently exhibiting at Galerie im Taxispalais in Innsbruck, Austria in a show titled Will we ever be able to mark enough?, curated by Renee Baert and which will subsequently travel to Montreal and Bruges.
Gupta is also showing at Art Basel. Her works at the art fair include Stars on flags of the world with the Mumbai based gallery Chemould Prescott Road, Untitled shown by the Parisian gallery Yvon Lambert and 2651-1 by Dvir Gallery from Tel Aviv, Israel.
In the first half of 2013 alone, she has been featured in various group shows at places including the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in England, the Singapore Art Museum, the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, the Guggenheim in New York, the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates and a group show at the Faurschou Foundation in Copenhagen.
Gupta is careful in her rhetoric not to delegate categories to identify her work or practice. She prefers to call it ‘everyday art’ given her preoccupation with daily observations and current events. To relegate her works to set categories would be limiting the scope of their discourse and its reception by the viewer. In “Stars on flags of the world” a glass vitrine holds hundreds of steel stars, like those found on national flags from around the world. The piles of stars are reflective of the appropriation of this particular insignia in constructing a national identity and narrative- much like alphabets that are put together to form words. Although seemingly political, her works hold a wider conversation with a willing ear and keen eye.
Regardless of the content and narrative of her works, Gupta is clear that her works are not simply ‘political’- a badge often pinned to works of art that comment on political and social scenarios. Her preoccupation is rather centered on the meaning of language. The multi layered contexts of her works not only point at the different tangents that they traverse, but their reception by the viewer also highlight the gamut of popular perception that a work encounters on its completion- the afterlife of the work. The viewers’ response is an integral part of her practice- sometimes evident and at other times concealed.
Shilpa Gupta’s “Threat”, first created in 2009, depictsa stack of bricks simulating a wall. The bricks are cast soap embossed with the word THREAT. The smell is powerfully soapy; it builds as you near the work. The work is performative- the viewer is encouraged to pick and take back a brick, this action depleting the ‘threat’- physically and symbolically. The degenerative and fleeting tactility of a bar of soap makes the viewer think of the emotional response to threat- sudden and strong, yet impermanent and short-lived.
“2652-1”, being shown by the Tel Aviv gallery Dvir at Art Basel, recounts the number of steps the artist took between Al Aksa Mosque, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Gupta assembled small photographs that she took while walking between the three sites, resulting in a thin 42-meter long canvas. The work highlights the physical proximity of these geographical locations juxtaposed with the political, religious and ideological schisms that creates separation between them. The process of globalization over the past decades is traced in varying doses in her works. Narratives of identity, nationhood, borders and boundaries and power relations are implicitly imbedded is the coded discourse of her multivalent works. It is this quality that makes her works relevant to a contemporary international audience of varying sensibilities.
Manjari Sihare recommends a short essay on the revival of miniature painting tradition in contemporary Pakistan
New York: Contemporary Pakistani art can be credited for the revival of the age-old miniature painting tradition. Pakistani artist and academic researcher, Murad Khan Mumtaz traces the history of this art form back to Mughal India and shares insights on its evolution. This essay was commissioned by the Guggenheim UBS MAP Initiative.
Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment (detail), 2007. Gouache on paper, 9 x 7 inches. Photo: Courtesy Aicon Gallery, New York. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Despite its strong association with the modern nation of Pakistan, the genre of contemporary miniature painting belongs to a larger history of Indian art. In terms of technique, it is closely linked to the age-old tradition of Indian miniature painting, and specifically to Mughal painting, known locally as musawwari. Both musawwari (which after the colonial period was known as “miniature painting”) and its modern derivative share a penchant for naturalism that is rooted in European influences. During the Mughal era, royal patrons encouraged their painters to assimilate aesthetic principles from the illusionistic vocabulary of Renaissance art. The new emphasis on linear perspective, naturalistic modeling, and individual portraiture was a direct result of the encounter between east and west. However, Mughal artists maintained a strong sense of continuity with the Indian tradition in terms of both form and content.
In the golden age of the Mughal Empire, from 1556 to 1658, painting was an art of the book. Favorite projects included the fanciful illustration of popular romances, royal histories, Hindu and Muslim mythologies, morality tales, and mystical poetry. Also popular were folios recording court life, royal portraits, exotic flora and fauna, and hunting and garden scenes. Under the later Mughals, painting followed similar models but became more static, losing some of the innovative spontaneity that characterized the classical Mughal sensibility.
The British, who succeeded the Mughals as rulers of India, introduced an alien set of values that privileged the western conception of “fine art” over “applied art.” As a result of the new hierarchy, traditional painting and most other indigenous art forms were relegated to the level of craft. The history of contemporary miniature painting is thus rooted in the history of colonialism in India. In 1872, the British founded the Mayo School of Industrial Arts in Lahore in order to stimulate the production of local crafts for the purpose of international trade. Under British patronage, miniature painting was viewed as yet another exotic product; local artists were encouraged to copy portraits of the Great Mughals alongside dancing girls with hookahs and other stereotypical scenes of the decadent east.
After the partition of India and Pakistan, the Mayo School was reorganized as the National College of Arts (NCA). As it remodeled itself according to a modern, European paradigm, the traditional art forms previously taught at the school disappeared, with miniature painting barely subsisting. In 1982, Bashir Ahmad, a student of one of the last traditional master miniaturists in the country, succeeded in introducing it as a major subject in the fine art department. Over the last two decades, the program has become the most successful in the school, and the work of graduating students remains in demand from international dealers and collectors.
Murad Khan Mumtaz’s studio in Charlottesville, Virginia, January 2013. Photo: Murad Khan Mumtaz
However, in order to survive within a contemporary art institution, miniature painting had to be modified and “modernized.” Consequently, the traditional master-disciple relationship has been sacrificed. Instead, the intensive apprenticeship that formerly unfolded over decades has been condensed into two to four academic years. On one hand, the academic format in Pakistan has allowed miniature painting to survive and evolve; on the other hand, students of the practice can hope to build only a superficial understanding of the tradition.
Even though the essential techniques of Mughal musawwari have been disseminated, material knowledge has undergone a process of abbreviation. For example, students are no longer taught the traditional way of preparing wasli paper; instead, cheap, mass-produced paper is used. Knowledge of pigment preparation has followed a similar course of departure from tradition. As well as zinc white—safaida—which continues to be used as the vehicle of opacity for all pigments, students rely on imported commercial watercolors. Current students’ lack of exposure to traditional material preparation has led to a marked indifference toward craft. Perhaps this is one reasons why it has been inevitable for NCA miniaturists to break from traditional models.
Partons’ recent focus on contemporary practice has also served to widen the gap between traditional practice and its current manifestations. In a global art economy, miniaturists are now encouraged to invoke “ethnic” aesthetics; however, paradoxically, they continue to be influenced by and judged according to an established European canon.
New York: A few weeks ago, I shared an article by Susan Hapgood on performance art in India commissioned for the Guggenheim’s UBS MAP Initiative on South East and South Asian Art. The exhibition, No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, features works of some of the most compelling artists and collectives in South and South East Asia today. It is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, until May 22nd, after which it will travel to the Asia Society Center in Hong Kong followed by a venue in Singapore, details of which are yet to be confirmed. All the works in this exhibition have been acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. The exhibition’s title is drawn from the opening line of the William Butler Yeat’s (one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature) poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) that is referenced in the title of American novelist, Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men. The use of this title brings forth the concept of a culture without borders. The concept has been emulated on the exhibition webpage, which hosts a series of essays on the different facets of art creation from South and South East Asia. June Yap, Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, South and Southeast Asia, introduces the project in this video. We are thankful to the Guggenheim Museum for sharing this content on our blog.
Here is an article by Mumbai based cultural theorist and curator, Nancy Adajania, discussing two Indian institutions who have largely facilitated the creation of cultural knowledge in post-colonial India, Gallery Chemould in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. In the coming weeks, we will be re-posting more essays from this series, and also a review. Stay tuned.
Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Müller with Cybermohalla Ensemble, Bureau of Contemporary Jobs in the Cybermohalla Hub at Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shamsher Ali . Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Rather than conduct a general survey of contemporary Indian art, I would like to draw attention to two major and formative histories of artistic production and the creation of an infrastructure of cultural knowledge in postcolonial India. These histories, which have not so far received the appropriate degree of critical attention in the Indian art world, were brought dramatically to light by two recent events: first, the death of Kekoo Gandhy, founder of Gallery Chemould, Bombay, one of India’s earliest commercial art galleries; and second, by the fiftieth-anniversary celebrations of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, a transdisciplinary research institute devoted to the social sciences and humanities.
The Progressive Artists Group surrounded by supporters at the Bombay Art Society Salon. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Why link two institutions—Chemould and CSDS—that, at first glance, appear to have little in common? Both were founded in 1963 and embodied the impulses of a late Nehruvian modernity, with its simultaneous emphasis on a self-critical national renaissance and an internationalist expansion of horizons. Both institutions have made important contributions to the production and sustenance of a lively public sphere, building coherent communities around themselves: while Chemould was active in mobilizing both the art world and civil society, CSDS has worked in a hybrid space between scholarship and activism.
Khorshed, Shireen and Kekoo Gandhy outside Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Kekoo Gandhy (1920–2012) was a visionary and cultural catalyst who shaped the contours of Indian modernism by generating cultural infrastructure. His tenacious lobbying for private and state patronage resulted in the foundation of the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Bombay branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. A cultural entrepreneur of great foresight, Gandhy first brought visibility to the works of modernists such as K. K. Hebbar, S. H. Raza, K. H. Ara, and M. F. Husain, exhibiting them at his framing shop, Chemould Frames, in the 1940s and ’50s. From the early ’60s onward, Gallery Chemould, which he cofounded with his wife Khorshed, was housed on the first floor of the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay’s first public gallery. Chemould’s small space, which hosted exhibitions of work by significant artists including Tyeb Mehta, Bhupen Khakhar, Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Atul and Anju Dodiya, and Jitish and Reena Saini Kallat, greeted the visitor with a table for conversation before curving away toward a wall of paintings. At this table, Gandhy shared his dreams of political and cultural freedom with artists, cultural producers, lawyers, and activists.
Gallery Chemould does not fit into a classical gallery ecology because Gandhy did not see the production of art as separate from larger political and cultural questions. During the Emergency (1975–77), when an authoritarian regime muzzled dissent and imprisoned those in opposition, the Gandhys sheltered activists in their home. During the 1992–93 riots in Bombay, when Hindu majoritarian militants targeted the city’s Muslim community, Gandhy contributed actively to the mohalla committees—neighborhood groups that promoted interreligious amity. Whether by presenting subaltern artists for the first time at his gallery (Warli artist Jivya Soma Mashe’s exhibition in 1975, for example) or by helping secure the secular ideals of the republic, Gandhy devoted his life to the pursuit of equity and justice.
Both Gandhy and CSDS (which was founded by political scientist Rajni Kothari and funded mainly by the Indian Council of Social Science Research) believed in sustaining and strengthening Indian democracy—still a work in progress. Early on, academics at CSDS polemicized Western theoretical models of modernity, instead advocating the approach of multiple modernities. After the Emergency, Lokayan, which was linked to CSDS, propagated non-party politics and worked with social movements at a grassroots level, nurturing civil-society activists such as the environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Medha Patkar, who would go on to develop and articulate alternative, sustainable models of development.
Sarai Reader 09, curated by the Raqs Media Collective, Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, 2012–2013. Photo: Shveta Sarda. Image credit: Guggenheim Museum
Academic research conducted at CSDS resonates in public life, particularly in debates conducted around policymaking and the transformation of the media. In 2000, CSDS’s Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan launched the new media initiative Sarai, working in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective (artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta), to analyze critically the impact of emergent, informal, and independent media in the public domain. Sarai, true to its name, which is taken from a word for public resting place, has become a refuge and transit point for architects, filmmakers, writers, and artists, and has avoided a narrow academicization of knowledge by adopting multiple methodologies. As a Sarai-CSDS fellow myself in the early 2000s, I found the space to generate alternative contexts for new media art and to test out what Okwui Enwezor has called the “will to globality” expressed by subaltern media practitioners in a post-national context—one in which the old certitudes of nationalism have failed, but have yet to be replaced by new interpretative frameworks.
Sarai, along with the NGO Ankur, gave birth to the Cybermohalla project, which works in the interstices between legal and illegal domains, old and new media, creative pedagogy and art, in Delhi’s working-class neighborhoods. Participants in the Cybermohalla project are today published writers and established media practitioners in their own right. In an art world that tends to fetishize creative output as commodity rather than nurture it as conversation, Kekoo Gandhy and Sarai-CSDS (more informally in the former case and more programmatically in the latter) have attempted to produce new socialities in which the Gandhian, the Nehruvian, and the Marxist, the academy-trained artist and his or her subaltern rural/urban counterpart have generated a discourse through the alternately tight and loose weave of consensus and dissensus. Especially over the past decade, when all value seems to have been dictated by the market, it is important to flag alternative frameworks and platforms that have sustained significant forms of artistic articulation and critical inquiry in the Indian art world.
Nancy Adajania is a Bombay-based cultural theorist and independent curator. She was artistic codirector of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.
As a curator new to Mumbai, I found the metropolis thriving, fascinating—and sometimes maddening. There is a tight-knit contemporary art community in the city that has become accustomed to international curators swooping in and out like the ubiquitous Bombay crows. They flit around the city, alighting briefly to snap up morsels of sustenance. Yet no bird’s-eye view, colleague’s description, or online research could substitute for sustained experience on the ground. I arrived in India for a sabbatical of sorts in September 2010, and my method of acclimating was to call as many artists as possible right away, to find out what they were up to and who was most interesting. Within about six months, I had founded a contemporary art exhibition space known as the Mumbai Art Room, a small nonprofit that provides a platform for artistic experimentation.
My first impression of the Bombay art scene was simplistic. I observed an abiding preference for painting and sculpture, built on a solid foundation of local modernism that was established in the late 1960s and early ’70s. But looking closer, I realized that performance, photography, video, and social practice were also quite healthy in a communal atmosphere characterized by mutual respect, open discourse, and experimentation. Performance art, it seems to me, is particularly strong; there is a lot brewing, and the vibe is infectiously positive. A couple of caveats, however: both public and private funding for the arts is grossly inadequate, and right-wing Hindu extremism is a constant potential source of swift censorship and draconian repression.
Tejal Shah, still from Between the Waves, 2012. Five-channel color and black-and-white video installation with sound, 85 minutes. Image courtesy: The Guggenheim New York
One of the two artworks I want to discuss here, though made in India, would likely be shut down in a heartbeat if it were shown in public in Mumbai. It is a 2012 video installation by Mumbai artist Tejal Shah, who self-identifies as multidisciplinary, feminist, queer, and political. Titled Between the Waves, this multi-channel work was exhibited at Documenta 13 and features Shah and others as fictitious creatures—“humanimals”—cavorting and engaging in various activities, some of them explicitly erotic. It is a strange, beautiful, and imaginative work, but also one that pushes uncomfortably at the boundaries of societal expectations around transgender identity, sexuality, and narrative form. Between the Waves garnered a decidedly mixed critical response, and Shah herself has described the work as “awkward” and “unbounded.” Shah is a bold and innovative artist, yet she is also vulnerable and in need of critical affirmation at a time when, mid-career, she cannot expect broad local support.
Tushar Joag, Hypohydro Hyperhighrise, 2011. Public performance. Image courtesy: The Guggenheim, New York
The second artist I want to spotlight, Tushar Joag, has little in common with Shah except for a use of innovative performative methods to address politically charged subject matter. Joag again and again probes the problematic and inequitable development of land in Mumbai in particular, and in India in general. He cannot stomach the greed, unfair distribution of basic resources, and resulting displacements of disenfranchised citizens. In Hypohydro Hyperhighrise, 2011, for example, a project that was commissioned as a part of a series of public art interventions throughout Mumbai, he presents a simultaneously entertaining and incisive scenario. For this work, Joag hired a troupe of boys and young men to form a 20-foot-tall human pyramid and water fountain. The pyramid component of this acrobatic stunt referenced a familiar annual religious tradition celebrating the Hindu god Krishna. Joag cleverly repurposed the action to refer instead to inadequate planning around the skyscraper apartment buildings that have sprouted throughout this densely populated city, and the water shortages that have resulted from it. The message was dead serious, while the atmosphere was quasi-carnivalesque. Curious crowds gathered wherever the work was performed.
All over this country, one bumps into street processions, public acts of political activism, folk performances, and religious rituals. Within the more circumscribed field of contemporary art, performance has been nurtured for over a decade by KHOJ International Artists’ Association in New Delhi, and more recently by Mohile Parikh Center and Art Oxygen in Mumbai. Even when new works are too sensitive to present locally, they still manage to resonate in the international art scene. Myriad forms of public expression, action, and acting out are very much a part of this culture’s DNA—in the world’s largest democratic country, they simply cannot be suppressed.