F N Souza and M F Husain were integral members of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group and had their own distinct styles. We look at their unique and long-lasting friendship through a painting that goes on auction in the Evening Sale next week.
Eesha Patkar highlights the five revered gemstones from Saffronart’s upcoming jewellery auction
Last month was a milestone for Saffronart. We held our most successful sale ever in our 15 year journey as an auction house. We achieved world records for four important Indian artists, both Modern and Contemporary. We made headlines. And we basically raised the bar.
Even as we pat ourselves on the back—just the tiniest bit—we are already preparing for our next auction. This time, we’re adding some sparkle in the dry days of October. Not to mention, a bit of polish.
For the next few weeks, we will cover some of the highlights of our auction in a series of blog posts. Today, we look at the Big Five: pearls, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies. They’re part of an important order of nine gemstones—or navaratna—in Indian gemmology, and highly valued.
History is littered with stories, gruesome to romantic, that involve these prized jewels. And our auction features a bunch of them. They’re guaranteed to invite looks of envy. After all, as Harry Winston famously said, “People will stare. Make it worth their while.”
“You can’t cry on a diamond’s shoulder, and diamonds won’t keep you warm at night. But they’re sure fun when the sun shines.” —Elizabeth Taylor
An Important Diamond Necklace (on auction)
DIAMONDS have a long history in India, which was the world’s first and only source for this precious gemstone for more than 2000 years, until the discovery of diamond mines in Brazil in 1729.
The Venetian explorer Marco Polo, who travelled to India in the 13th century, narrates an exotic — and exaggerated — tale about the unapproachable diamond valleys of Golconda inhabited by deadly, venomous snakes and eagles who fed upon them, and the arduous manner in which the diamond seekers got their prize.
Maharajas, Mughal courts and royal families collected vast quantities of loose diamonds both, for their treasuries as well as for jewellery. These diamond crystals were rarely cut, so as to retain their original size and weight, and flaws were only camouflaged with small facets.
Of the many ways a diamond could be cut, the rose-cut—the flat-backed, domed and faceted top, as seen in the three-tiered diamond necklace on auction—was attributed to Indian lapidaries. Mughal jewellers used this technique to make the best use of irregular, flat type of rough diamonds.
The lot on auction is a modern version of diamond necklaces favoured by royalty. It is significant for its use of unusually large, rose-cut diamonds, inverted, with a nod to the flat-cut diamonds used in traditional Jadau jewellery. The use of spacers with peacock motif as a harness is a subtle nod to traditional Indian design, while maintaining a modern minimalism which allows for a focus on the stone rather than the setting.
Fact: In 1947, King George VI—the last Emperor of India—inherited 239 loose diamond collets, believed to be from India, among other Crown heirlooms. He had a diamond necklace commissioned for his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, using 105 of these stones, set in a style similar to those in the necklace on auction. The resulting piece was named the Queen’s Festoon Necklace. After her ascension to the throne, the Festoon Necklace has adorned Queen Elizabeth II at various state dinners and galas in 1957, 1958 and 1962 and later.
“Pearls are always appropriate.” —Jackie Kennedy Onassis
A Five Strand Natural Pearl Necklace (on auction)
PEARLS are classic. They have been admired since antiquity, appearing in all kinds of variations in traditional Indian jewellery. In the navaratna order, they’re associated with the moon (the celestial deity Chandra) for their soft radiance and satin sheen.
In the Mughal era, pearls were ubiquitous among the ruling class. Emperor Akbar was frequently depicted wearing multi-strand pearl necklaces. Later portraits and accounts of the Maharajas of post-Mughal India—which depicted them decked head-to-toe in jewellery worth their weight—show an abundant display of pearls in necklaces, turban ornaments and other sartorial accessories. According to historian Oppi Untracht, the natural pearls owned by the Maharaja of Patiala were considered to be among the world’s finest.
Most natural beds of pearl-bearing oysters ran dry due to over-harvesting in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, natural pearls are extremely rare and expensive. By the early 20th century, cultured pearls—grown under tightly controlled conditions through a technique perfected in Japan—came into mass production, and were widely used in the jewellery trade.
The five-strand magnificent pearl necklace on auction bears a setting seen quite commonly in traditional Indian jewellery—pierced and strung as beads. Pearl stringing was an art, requiring experience and judgment, and a great way to determine the value of a necklace by its arrangement.
The lot on auction is a striking example of the sharp graduation style of pearls, where the focus is on the size and lustre of the central pearls. The design is further enhanced because all five strands end with larger sized pearls which connect to the clasp, as opposed to the more conventional way of stringing pearls according to size. This style of sharp graduation was popular among royal families all over India.
Fact: In medieval Europe, only royalty and high nobility were allowed pearls. Queen Elizabeth I, although abhorrent of them initially, came to love pearls so much in her later life that she had them sewn on to her wigs and dresses.
“Girls can wear pearls, but it takes a woman to wear serious emeralds.” —Hettie Judah
EMERALDS have a powerful place in the world of gemstones as the most famous members of the Beryl family. Ancient myths credit this brilliant green stone with magical properties, from the ability to predict the future, to detecting falsehoods. Emeralds were even worn as protective talismans and were believed to cure fatal diseases.
In Hindu texts, the emerald was one of the navaratna stones, representing the planet Mercury. In Persian culture they symbolised goodness and purity. But it was in medieval Europe—where jewels held symbolic importance in political circles—that this gemstone was perhaps considered the most sacrosanct. According to Hettie Judah, “Sumptuary laws of Byzantium, and many from medieval Europe, forbade the wearing of gemstones such as emeralds by those outside the circles of the court; money alone could not purchase the right to wear jewels.”
The earliest known emerald mines were in Egypt, dating as far back as 330 BC, and functioned well into the 1700s. The Egyptian queen Cleopatra was known for her love of emeralds, often using it in her royal wardrobe. In the 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors discovered emerald mines in Colombia, which produced infinitely finer emeralds in terms of colour, clarity and size.
The quality of an emerald is largely assessed on the basis of its colour. For the longest time, Colombian emeralds have led the market, as they are “blessed with near-perfect colour chemistry”, according to Jonathan Self, author of Emerald: Twenty-one Centuries of Jewelled Opulence and Power.
A Colombian Emerald and Diamond Pendant (on auction)
Microscopic inclusions in a Colombian emerald can cause the light penetrating the stone to scatter, giving rise to a rich “green fire” that is widely recognised by experts and desired by collectors, who consider Colombian emeralds as undisputedly the best. The pendant on auction contains a step-cut emerald from Colombia, weighing 24.11 carats.
Fact: India became acquainted with emeralds through Portuguese traders, who brought it through the ports in Goa and Deccan. One of the largest emeralds, dating back to 1695, is believed to have come from the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the last of the Mughal rulers. The Mogul Emerald, as it is known, weighs 217.80 carats and is about 10 cm high, with one side inscribed with Islamic prayers and the other with flower ornaments. In 2001, it sold in auction for a cool $2.2 million.
“A kiss on the hand may feel very, very good, but a diamond and sapphire bracelet lasts forever.” ―Anita Loos
A Burmese Sapphire and Diamond Ring (on auction)
A bracelet it’s not, but the Burmese Sapphire and Diamond Ring lot on auction not only feels good, and is one to last for eternity. The blue sapphire—(yes, sapphire comes in a range of colours, besides blue)—belongs to a translucent, dark-blue variety of the mineral species corundum.
From 1880 to 1920, Kashmiri sapphires had attracted a lot of attention, found after a landslide hit the region at an altitude of 16,000 feet. The pure, intense blue with the subtle undertone of violet—mined heavily for over eight years—is still considered the holy grail of the sapphire groups. This prized sapphire is rare and coveted now, given that the region was completed depleted of its sapphire sources.
In the last few years, fine Burmese sapphires from the Baw Mar area of Mogok have gained recognition in the market. After the Kashmiri sapphire, the Burmese colour is regarded as highly valuable—ranging from a rich, full royal blue to a deep cornflower blue. The ring on auction has at its centre an oval-shaped natural Burmese sapphire cabochon of vivid blue colour, with no indications of heat treatment.
In Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon, mining for gemstones began since antiquity, and the oldest sapphires are found there. Sri Lankan sapphires are recognised for their luminosity—colours range from light to mid-blue.
Today, most blue sapphires come from Australia or from Thailand.
While a lot of Indians treat the sapphire with superstition and wear it with great caution—due its association with the unpopular Saturn (Shani) planet in Hindu mythology—many other cultures enjoy its cool, spirituality-invoking colour. The visual allusion to blue skies and the infinite universe is an easy one to make. Those who adopt gem therapy believe the sapphire brings about tranquillity and better concentration, and can cure rheumatic aches, ulcers and eye problems.
Fact: The world’s most famous sapphire and diamond ring is as engagement ring worn by Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. It was once worn by Princess Diana during her engagement to Prince Charles, Prince William’s father, and has a great resemblance to the ring on auction.
“Rubies do not age. The fire that was locked in their hearts millions of years ago still burns, even after the emperors and empires that fought for them have crumbled to dust and ashes.” —Fire and Blood: Rubies in Myth, Magic, and History
An Impressive Pair of Ruby and Diamond Ear Pendants (on auction)
Rubies have been called the Ratnaraj, or “The Emperor of Gems,” in Sanskrit. In Hindu mythology, the Ratna Pariksha describes the demon Vala, who was dismembered for a sacrifice. Each of his body parts turned into a brilliant gemstone as it fell to earth, the ruby being one of them. Rubies were believed to treat heart and blood diseases, and to bless the wearer with longevity and excellent health. A Burmese legend mentions that warriors embedding rubies in their flesh to remain invincible in battle. Whether it was the allure of its brilliant red or its reputation as an amulet, many sought their claim to this lyrical gem.
The ruby has a rich genealogy. Rubies are related to sapphires and belong to the corundum family. They earn their fiery red colour from the presence of chromium. Rubies vary in colour, and are assigned value accordingly. Until recently, Burmese rubies dominated the colour valuation with their pigeon-blood red colour.
The discovery of ruby mines in Montepuez, Mozambique, however, has had many turn their attention to Mozambique as a significant source of fire-red rubies. Mozambique rubies are distinct for their rich, deep, red colour, which is highly coveted today. The price of Mozambique rubies is still a steal for the quality of colour and value they provide.
Fact: The ruby ear pendants on auction were worn by Mila Kunis, the brand ambassador for Gemfields—a gemstone mining company headquartered in the United Kingdom—at an event by Burberry, held at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, earlier this year.
Eesha Patkar takes a look at one of South Africa’s foremost artists and filmmakers
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – RETROSPECTIVE at Johannesburg Art Gallery (3 July – 23 October 2005), Exhibition Poster
William Kentridge, one of South Africa’s leading artists and authorities on the subject of apartheid, has made his way to StoryLTD. For the next few weeks, we are featuring prints and posters from his art shows around the world.
Our collection of posters shows Kentridge’s continued presence in his hometown of Johannesburg where he exhibited steadily at the Goodman Gallery, but internationally as well, at Annandale Galleries in Sydney, Australia, and K20 Grabbeplatz in Düsseldorf, Germany. These are, of course, mere hints of the entire breadth of Kentridge’s achievements.
Between the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, Kentridge started and developed a reputation as a charcoal artist and printmaker. In the ’90s, he produced the first of his many animated films—Monument (1990), Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991), Felix in Exile (1994), to name a few—a series of nine films that he eventually exhibited together as the “9 Drawings for Projection.” You can find the poster for this exhibit here.
9 FILMS – WILLIAM KENTRIDGE 9 DRAWINGS FOR PROJECTION, Old Fort, Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, 22 -24 March 2004, Exhibition Poster
Among others, we also have two posters that were once part of a limited edition triptych series. The posters themselves are designs for Kentridge’s six minute short film A Lifetime of Enthusiasm that was part of the installation “Telegrams from the Nose” at the Annandale Galleries in 2008. The third one remains elusive as of now, but those intent on possessing it and completing their collection can make a quest of it.
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – A LIFETIME OF ENTHUSIASM, Annandale Galleries Poster for Telegrams From The Nose, 11 June to 17 July, 2008.
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – A LIFETIME OF ENTHUSIASM, Annandale Galleries Poster for Telegrams From The Nose, 11 June to 17 July, 2008
Kentridge’s works were hardly ever standalone pieces: when he focused on a project, he created a cornucopia of art work that he abhorred to waste. It all became part of his narrative somehow, either in the original piece that he was designing it for, or a retrospective afterwards. For instance, the 2005 poster “Preparing the Flute” was designed for the exhibition celebrating Kentridge’s operatic production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte/The Magic Flute that opened earlier that year at the La Monnaie theatre in Brussels, Belgium.
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – PREPARING THE FLUTE, The Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, South Africa, 4th June to 16th July, Exhibition Poster
Likewise, with this poster designed for the 16th Sydney Biennale in 2008, featuring one of Kentridge’s famous collaborative pieces “Telegrams from the Nose.” The exhibit at Cockatoo Island, during which he worked with composer Francois Sarhan, consisted of a multi-projection film titled I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine (2008) and referred to a future production of an opera that he directed for the Metropolitan Opera of New York at the time.
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – TELEGRAMS FROM THE NOSE, 16th Biennale of Sydney, 2008, Exhibition Poster
The opera, which premiered in 2010, was a re-adaptation of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 opera The Nose, originally borrowed from the short story by the famous Nikolai Gogol.
I first read Gogol’s The Nose sometime in 2010 myself—in tandem with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—both stories evoking the feeling of absurd, a genre that was particularly relevant and heavily employed in literature, theatre and arts of early 20th century, post-war Europe. Of course, Gogol wrote The Nose much earlier in 1836, to be revived by Shostakovich a century later. There have been several reappropriations of the story over time, but it has never been more consistently experimented on and beautifully explored than in the works and art of Kentridge.
Kentridge, already well-known for his politically inflected work, sought to incorporate the absurdity of The Nose into a series of palimpsestic works of art that defied any clear medium. His charcoal drawings became stop-action animated films that turned into highly interactive multimedia installations. And practically everything that he worked on during 2007 and 2010 was gearing towards the grand pièce de résistance, the final opera.
Gogol wrote The Nose, like most of his short stories (The Overcoat), as a satirical device poking fun at the egotistical excesses of Russian politics during his time. In it, a barber named Ivan Yakovlevich finds a pale nose in the bread he’s about to eat for breakfast. It belongs to Kovalyov—“Major Kovalyov” as he pompously deigns himself—a member of the Municipal Committee. Afraid to be seen with a bureaucrat’s appendage, the barber throws it off the Isaac bridge in the Neva river below. Meanwhile, the Major has just woken up without his nose attached to his face, and proceeds to spend the rest of his day trying to find it and commandeering the local police to catch it for him.
Ludicrous in narrative, yet clever in form, Gogol transforms the nose as a metaphorical and synecdochical arc to puncture the flatulent grandiose of not just the Major, but his peers and superiors as well. The value of a socially acceptable and dignified appearance, given importance through sartorial mentions of uniforms, coats, and cloaks—or lack thereof, in case of the barber—is particularly striking. The Major’s appearance is marred (“flat as a pancake”) without his nose, leaving him impotent and unable to “snub his nose” at those he encounters daily. But I find the Indian idiom “naak kat gayi”—literary translated as “nose cut off”—far more apt here. To find one’s nose (figuratively) cut off, is to be humiliated, ashamed and beaten even. Which is exactly what happens to the Major: he hides, blusters in shame and doesn’t regain his confidence until his nose is returned to its rightful place. Of course, he fails to find any humility in the process and continues in his megalomaniac ways, reaffirming the story for the satire it truly is.
During his work on the opera, Kentridge saw parallels between the politics of Russian bureaucracy and South African socio-economic politics of his own homeland. He found the Absurd as a perfect vehicle for expressing and exploring this dynamic: “(t)he extraordinary nonsense hierarchy of apartheid in South Africa made one understand the absurd not as a peripheral mistake at the edge of a society, but at the central point of construction. So the absurd always, for me, is a species of realism rather than a species of joke or fun. And that’s why one can take the joke of The Nose very seriously.”
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – WHAT WILL COME, The Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa, 10th November to 14th December 2007, Exhibition Poster
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE – K20, 27 March – 31 May, 2004, Exhibition Poster
Kentridge was a genius. Whether he was deconstructing three dimensional reality through mirrored cylinders in installations such as “What Will Come” at the Goodman gallery, or reflecting on identity and individual choices in a politically conflicted landscape as he did through his films at the K20 exhibit—at the heart of it was always the voice of an artist striving to inform, interrogate and possibly change the world.
Josheen Oberoi chats with Meera Sethi about identities, processes and her forthcoming projects
New York: Meera Sethi is a Toronto based artist of Indian origin. With a graphics design background and an artist’s curiosity. Meera’s art straddles many worlds; fine art and design, Indian and diaspora. Her work has been featured widely in publications like Vogue India, CNNgo and MTV Desi. Some of her works are now available on StoryLTD.
Her recent work has tackled complex questions about identity and migration with pictorially vivid imagery. She makes these questions accessible through her visual images in ways that allow us viewers to engage and celebrate them. As an admirer of her work, I was very happy to have an opportunity to learn more about her art. In our conversation below, Meera Sethi will trace the contours of her life as an artist and tell us how she creates her vibrant body of work.
Q: Meera, let’s start with the question of how your engagement with art began.
A: Although art was always my favourite subject growing up, I never planned to be an artist. I entered university interested in cultural studies, anti-colonial and feminist studies. I followed this through by completing a BFA in Art Theory and a Master’s in Interdisciplinary (Cultural) Studies. However, during my entire academic education, I was quietly working away as a self-taught graphic designer, accepting occasional freelance design projects.
Little did I realize at the time that it was the making of imagery, as opposed to its study, that would emerge as my passion. After graduate school, I went from working as an arts researcher, to being employed as a graphic designer, to eventually working full-time for myself as a freelance designer and now a visual artist. My life as a professional artist began unexpectedly after I spontaneously embarked on what was to become my first and most influential series – Firangi Rang Barangi – in the evenings after returning home from my 9-5 day job. What I saw surprised me: I had a natural inclination to combine colour with form.
Q: Where do you feel you are, as an artist, and what has brought you here?
Meera Sethi in the studio
A: It’s certainly been a journey. Now, when I look back at some of my earliest drawings and sketches, I see an interest in portraiture and depicting clothing. In fact, the only surviving artwork I have from when I was a child is a self-portrait done at age 5, in which I have attempted with much detail to convey the texture, colour and pattern of my plaid dress. When I rediscovered this drawing, I was shocked to see the similarity in my choice of subject 30 years on! Today, I find myself drawn to the cultural, political and spiritual lives of diasporic South Asians and the hybridity of our identities as expressed
Meera Sethi, Self-Portrait, Age 5
Q: That is an interesting point because your work appears to function at the intersections of art and design to a great extent. Could you tell us about your approach and process?
A: I tend to look at things through the lens of design. What I mean by this is that I look at work for its aesthetic appeal and function before I enter the deeper meaning it conveys. I tend to use this approach in the making of my own work where I am as much concerned with the beauty and the function as I am with the story it is telling. I think this comes from my long history as a graphic designer who never fully fit into the art world. Not to discredit the important conversations happening within artistic communities, but I would still rather pick up a Creative Review or Eye than an ArtReview or Frieze. At the same time, I make art, not design. My work is not solving a problem or responding to a client brief. There is of course sometimes a fine line between the two disciplines. I am most comfortable on this edge. My research for new projects increasingly involves a combination of reading popular and academic articles, looking at art, design and craft sources, and meditating.
“Intersections” in progress
Q: You have also worked with large scale formats like murals. Please tell us about the work.
A: In late 2013, I completed my first large-scale public outdoor mural. It is a massive 44 feet x 39 feet wall-painting called “Intersections” that commemorates the cultural, social and political intersections made by LGBTQ South Asian communities in Canada. It’s a giant celebration of our organizing and partying, our identities, diversity and presence. The mural itself references Rabari mirrorwork from Rajasthan as a symbol of the unifying power of incredibly diverse South Asian textile traditions.
“Intersections” in progress
Intersections, Church Street Mural
Q: Along with the large scale format, you actively work with prints and creating two different scales of the same visual images. Could you speak to that choice a little bit?
A: Much of my work is quite large in format, making the work difficult to transport and higher in cost. At the same time, the quality of line, colour and form in my work is quite even and sharp, so it translates well into a print medium. I like to make high quality, limited edition small-size prints available of some pieces as a matter of accessibility. In my mind, a simple but important intention is to have my work inspire the hearts and lives of others. To have my art seen by multiple people in daily life is one way to do this. Perhaps, indebted again to design, before making work, I often imagine it in someone’s home, where it makes a small but consistent impact on everyday life decisions by inviting a sense of beauty and joy.
Q: Tell us what comes next. Are you working on new projects?
A: I am in the process of working on three different projects. The most immediate is a new series of acrylic paintings on canvas called “On the Margins of the Divine” that look to Mughal miniature albums as a starting point. Next, is an international, collaborative performance art piece called “Unstitched” that takes a sari and creates a line of community and continuity among 108 people. And lastly, a two-part photography and mixed-media painting project called “Upping the Aunty” that celebrates our elders and their fabulousness!
Elizabeth Prendiville of Saffronart discusses the Indian Pavilion in the upcoming Beirut Art Fair
Beirut Art Fair 2014 Photo courtesy of Beirut Art Fair.
This September Lebanon will once again thrive as a major cultural hotspot in the global art community with the 5th edition of the Beirut Art Fair. Held at the Beirut International Exhibition Leisure Center, the fair will represent the most contemporary and innovative work from the local and international art markets. As it grows in popularity the Beirut Art Fair is proving more and more to be a vessel of booming international art sales, meshing together buyers and artists from both the Western and Eastern art markets. Last year, the 4th edition of the fair, displayed galleries from 14 countries and welcomed over 18,000 guests. Leading collectors throughout the Middle East and beyond flock to this event, because it assembles a global showcase of work in a creatively liberated environment.
Beirut Art Fair 2014 Photo courtesy of Beirut Art Fair.
In past years, the fair has focused primarily on a wealth of offerings from local galleries. However, there is a growing trend for outside influences. Last year the fair featured a South East Asia pavilion curated by Richard Koh. This year the focus will be the Indian Pavilion curated by Fabrice Bousteau. Bousteau’s previous credits include co-curating “Paris-Delhi-Bombay:India Through The Eyes of Indian and French Artists” at Paris’ Centre Pompidou focusing on the Indian subcontinent. The curator’s approach to the Indian Pavilion will break away from the now-typical rhythm and layout of traditional art fairs. He plans to channel a cabinet of curiosities, displaying a wide range of sizes and mediums. Bousteau’s vision of small and ornate rather than large and dramatic purposefully goes against what he believes is a trend in contemporary Indian art. “It will represent the Indian art scene from Subodh Gupta, the star, to the youngest Indian artists…the concept of the exhibition is to create a cabinet of curiosities. Indian artists love to make enormous sculptures…The idea was to [exhibit] some very small things, for a number of reasons, one of which is a question of budget…The idea is that small art is beautiful” Bousteau told The Daily Star. This shift away from large pieces should present an opportunity for less represented artists or artists with a different artistic process to be shown. The curator utilizes themes in traditional Hinduism as well as drawing comparisons between the Middle East and Indian societal makeup to select the works that will be presented. This nuanced curatorial approach may make the Indian Pavilion the creative focal point of Beirut.
By going against the grain in terms of classic fair curating, the Indian Pavilion may be tapping into a new buyer experience. How will art sales change if the offerings of a fair are depicted as a museum or private collection rather than a commerce-driven gallery? This is surely a more thoughtful and engaging methodology. The Beirut Art Fair 2014, and the Indian Pavilion specifically, will clearly be a pivotal event in the international art world this year. The Beirut Art Fair will run September 18th-21st, for more information about the fair please click here.