Coming under the hammer
While 2018 did not see anything that matched the $450.3 million sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which came under the hammer in November 2017, it certainly was not a boring year for the art market. With his 1972 canvas Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) selling at Christie’s New York for $90.3 million, David Hockney became the most expensive living artist. Jenny Saville, meanwhile, became the most expensive living female artist, with her 1992 nude self-portrait Propped selling for $12.4 million at an auction. Closer home, Tyeb Mehta’s monumental 1989 untitled work Kali fetched Rs 26.4 crore, setting a new world record for the artist. A new record was also set for Amrita Sher-Gil when her The Little Girl in Blue fetched Rs 18.69 crore at Sotheby’s maiden auction in India.
Several personal collections also went on sale — from David and Peggy Rockefeller estate to Howard Hodgkin’s collection, which included paintings by Bhupen Khakhar. Closer home, Amrita Jhaveri auctioned works from her Amaya Collection.
Apart from record pricing, the auctions also made headlines for acts termed as “clever tricks”. As soon as the winning bid of $1.4 million was announced for British street artist Banksy’s 2006 Girl with Balloon at a Sotheby’s auction in London, a mechanism in the frame was triggered to shred the work. While some termed this a “rebuke of empty consumerism”, others called it a publicity stunt. Some months later, Banksy was again in the news when artist Ron English acquired a mural by Banksy at an auction and then vowed to whitewash it to protest the commodification of art.
Delhi and Mumbai might still be the commercial centers where most trade takes place but last year saw several festivals dedicated to art in cities across India. If the year began with the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival in January, it ended with the Bodhgaya Biennale in December. While the Kochi- Muziris Biennale has arguably emerged as the most prestigious art event in the subcontinent, this year India also hosted its first Ceramics Triennale in Jaipur, putting the medium under the spotlight, and comprising works of stalwarts such as Ray Meeker and Madhvi Subrahmanian. The Bhubaneswar Art Trail saw artists interact with the local communities and explore the town while ideating the works.
Women in Art History
In its fourth edition, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is still a fairly young event in the global art scene. The appointment of Anita Dube as the curator for the current edition is seen as an important move towards ceding space to women. While the #MeToo movement made many question the deep-rooted patriarchal biases and misogynistic structures, more women in art took long strides. Indian video and performance art pioneer Nalini Malani had a retrospective, comprising five decades of her work, at the prestigious Centre Pompidou in Paris, and photographer Gauri Gill made her major US debut at MOMA PS1. It was also a good year for a reappraisal of women’s contribution to art history, underlined by the massive Guggenheim show of “mother of abstract art”, Hilma af Klint. Also significant was the acquisition by the National Gallery in London of a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, which has sparked greater global interest in the works of the hitherto underappreciated Baroque artist.
Repatriation of Art
Debate on the contentious issue of were the antiquities acquired by colonial powers or do they really belong to their former colonies sharpened this year with the publication of a report commissioned by the French government. The report, written by Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and French economist Bénédicte Savoy, recommended the complete repatriation of objects taken “without consent” by soldiers, administrators and explorers from Sub-Saharan Africa during the French colonial period, from 1885 to 1960. While French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to return 26 objects to Benin as a symbolic gesture, the report has made major museums uneasy about discussing the demands made by the former colonies for the return of their national treasures.
It was only after the #MeToo wave had shaken the media and entertainment industries that it finally hit India’s art scene. Some of the country’s biggest names in art, including Riyas Komu, Subodh Gupta, Jatin Das and Gaurav Bhatia, were accused of sexual harassment and abuse through anonymous posts on the Instagram account Herd and Scene. Komu stepped down from all managerial positions at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and from his position as curator of the Young Subcontinent special project at Serendipity Arts Festival. Gupta, too, stepped down as one of the curators at the Serendipity Arts Festival, while Bhatia, who is managing director of Sotheby’s India, has been sent on a leave of absence by the auction house, as investigations were conducted into the allegations against him. While the Instagram account continues to post stories of sexual abuse within the art world, it remains to be seen how much of an impact it will have on the power structures that prop up the scene.