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Portrait of the Year in Art: Awards, protests and records

It was the year of making and breaking records, protest and prominence for Indian art and artists.

Written by Vandana Kalra , Pallavi Pundir , Pallavi Chattopadhyay |
Updated: December 28, 2015 12:26:51 pm
Art, artists, indian art, indian artist, artists 2015, art 2015, Anish kapoor, Bose Krishnamachari, Riyas Komu, Ai Weiwei, Banksy, talk (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Anish Kapoor
If last year ended with his appearance at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, where he left behind his water vortex Descension, Anish Kapoor was in the news in India through 2015 as well. The Indian-origin British artist’s monumental trumpet-shaped 60-metre steel and rock sculpture, Dirty Corner — described by the artist himself as “the vagina of the queen coming into power” — at the Palace of Versailles, France, was vandalised more than once. In September, Kapoor, 61, joined hands with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for an eight-mile walk from London’s Piccadilly, to show solidarity with refugees around the world. He was part of Indian politics too. After a scathing column against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in The Guardian, where he compared Modi’s rule to the Taliban, Kapoor’s name was dropped from a new cultural panel instituted by the Rajasthan government. The controversial year ended with an honour though — Britain’s new passport design now features the “inspirational works” of the artist alongside cultural figures from the last 500 years, including William Shakespeare.

Bose Krishnamachari & Riyas Komu
While all eyes are now set on the coming edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016-17, to be curated by Mumbai-based artist Sudarshan Shetty, the acclaim received for the last two editions of the Biennale fetched its founders Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari a spot in the global art power list compiled by ArtReview, a leading international art magazine based in London. Only Indians on the list, the duo is ranked 86 in the annual list of 100 most influential people in the contemporary art world. The two shared the accolades with their entire team, including curator Jitish Kallat, for the 2014-2015 edition.

Ai Weiwei
Artist Ai Weiwei took upon Danish toy company Lego, brick by brick. The artist, whose works are often critical of Chinese authorities, was denied a bulk order of plastic toys on political grounds by the company in October, for his show slated at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. His fans worldwide blasted Lego for the decision and quickly began donating their own Lego bricks at collection spots set up in different countries, to help him in creating an artwork on the freedom of speech.

From the ’90s underground street art scene in Bristol to taking over the world, from one wall to another, Banksy has come to represent all that we know about the subversive and the whimsical. Relying on visual imagery that plays with various subjects such as poverty, hypocrisy, absurdity and alienation, this anonymous artist has been successful in turning the art world upside down. This year marked the creation of three of the finest works by Banksy. Coinciding with the conflict in Gaza earlier this year came the artist’s Banksy in Gaza clip which he created after his visit to the country, in which he tells the viewers, “Make this the year YOU discover a new destination”. Dismaland turned out to be one of the more popular works this year. This temporary “bemusement park” in Westen-super-Mare in the UK was created as a “family theme park unsuitable for children”. The latest came this year in the vicinity of Calais, France. The striking imagery depicted late Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs carrying a sack over his shoulder and a Macintosh computer, responding astutely to the migration crisis.

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Number Game
It was a year of making and breaking records. At the beginning of the year VS Gaitonde held the record for the most expensive Indian artwork, with his 1979 landscape selling for 3.7 million dollars in 2013. In September this year, Francis Newton Souza broke that record with his epic work, Birth, that sold for $4.08 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York. In December again, an untitled 1995 oil by Gaitonde fetched 4.4 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in Mumbai.

Taking Credit
If Pablo Picasso’s 1955 Les Femmes d’Alger set the record for the highest sum ever paid for an artwork at an auction, selling for 179.4 million dollars, the same stage also saw a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti setting a record for most expensive sculpture, at 141.3 million dollars. Meanwhile, Liu Yiqian, a former taxi driver-turned-billionaire art collector, bought Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché for 170.4 million dollars. It was the second highest price ever achieved at an auction for a work of art.

Lost Art

The ISIS’s hostility is towards many things, and among those is towards ancient archeological sites and priceless historical artifacts. As the Salafi jihadist militant group ravaged Syria and Iraq, they also looted (and sold) and plundered cultural heritage, often revealed in released videos of operatives smashing artwork with sledgehammers and drills. Amid this was the beheading of renowned scholar Khaled al-Asaad and hanging him from the Roman column in the ruins of Palmyra in Syria. The Palmyra, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Side, is replete with historical artifacts comprising 2,000-year-old Roman buildings and magnificent pre-Islamic statues among others. Al-Asaad was killed because he refused to reveal the location of some of Palmyra’s hidden valuables.

Statues Come Home
In response to a major federal investigation into the activities of notorious art dealer Subhash Kapoor, currently on trial for running an international smuggling racket, many countries returned stolen artifacts to India in 2015. The idol in Mahishasuramardini avatar, stolen from a temple at Pulwama in Kashmir in the ’90s, was handed over by visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October, three years after it was spotted in a museum in Stuttgart. Modi also welcomed the return of two ancient Hindu art treasures by Australia that were allegedly stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu. In September, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott handed over a spectacular 900-year-old bronze sculpture of Shiva Nataraja and a stone statue of Ardhanariswara (Shiva in half-female form), from circa 1100, during his visit. The 900-year-old Parrot Lady sandstone sculpture from Khajuraho was also returned by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Modi during his visit to Canada in April.

Art of the Problem
This year, the inscrutable Indian spoke out. A wave of “award wapsi” engulfed the protest against the increasing atmosphere of intolerance in the country, by prominent writers, filmmakers and scientists. And the artists duly stepped in. While SAHMAT, an art and activism collective, released a statement standing in solidarity with the writers relinquishing awards, Anish Kapoor, too, spoke up. “Can our leaders not see that our tradition has always thrived on our openness and tolerance?” he asked. A few weeks later, at the Jaipur Art Summit, artists Anish Ahluwalia and Chintan Upadhyay were taken in police custody after they refused to bring down The Bovine Divine, an installation depicting a cow made of Styrofoam suspended by a balloon.

In Memoriam: This year, the art world bid adieu to several prominent names

Mrinalini Mukherjee
With her, India lost one of its foremost women sculptors who was known for her bold and powerful work and personality. Daughter of acclaimed artists from Santiniketan, Benode Behari and Leela Mukherjee, Mukherjee succumbed to a prolonged lung problem at the age of 65. A graduate in painting from MS University, Baroda, Mukherkjee was most known for her sculptures knotted with hemp ropes and the cast bronzes.

Sunil Das
Holding the distinction of being the only Indian artist to have won a National Award (the Shiromani Kala Puraskar) while still an undergraduate, Das died of cardiac arrest in August. Born into a middle class family, the 76-year-old Padma Shree awardee shared his love for horses with MF Husain. During a career spanning five decades, the post-modernist painted thousands of stallions and bulls and also canvassed for gender equality through his work.

Shamshad Husain
He lived and died under the shadow of his father, MF Husain. Diagnosed with liver cancer in September, Shamshad’s condition rapidly deteriorated, leading to his demise in October. Postgraduate from the Royal College of Art, London, Shamshad was best known for flattened surfaces and figurative depictions in a subdued palette, with themes ranging from environmental and social concerns to dark realities and human relations.

Hema Upadhyay
She had one of the most gruesome deaths that Indian art has seen. On December 12, bodies of Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer Harish Bhambhani were found dumped in a drain in Kandivali in Mumbai. The Mumbai artist was just 43, on the road to success, with numerous prestigious projects in India and abroad. Known for her multi-media installations, the experimental artist touched on issues of personal identity, gender, alienation and migration.

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