From being a forum that brings artists from all over the world to the one that will focus on South Asia, India Art Fair (IAF) has changed its course over the nine editions since it debuted in 2008. The transformation was obvious when the four-day event opened on February 2 at NSIC grounds in Okhla.
Dominated by artwork from India, followed by Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the opening had the biggies from the art world in attendance. Among those present were artists Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta, Riyas Komu and Tayeba Begum Lipi, curator Shanay Jhaveri, collectors Kiran Nadar, Anupam and Lekha Poddar.
Also seen in the aisles were Sheena Wagstaff, the Leonard A. Lauder Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York. Here are some of the sights and sounds from the IAF.
Personal is political, and, boy, does art reflect it all too well — from Nalini Malini’s Little Red Riding Hood (2016), a mixed media on paper with the verse “Little girls shouldn’t wander off in search of strange flowers” scattered across it, inspired by the late Indian poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem by the same name, to Mithu Sen’s Phantom Pain.
The latter is a throwback to Sen’s visceral depictions — a floating circle of what looks like melting flesh embedded with dental prosthetics, a metaphor for “biting incarcerations, warped sexuality and bleeding violence”.
Prominent Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi’s Womanhood-2 at Shrine Empire booth brings with it women’s blouses made up of razor blades, a blunt representation of a woman’s body reduced to lecherous stares and illicit groping. You will also stumble upon Chitra Ganesh, known for her women-centric comic-book depictions.
In Familiar Territory
While the fair predictably has numerous works of the modernists — from Krishen Khanna’s bandwallahs to Ram Kumar’s landscapes and Madhvi Parekh’s The Last Supper — there are some significant works of the contemporaries as well.
Among others is Sudarshan Shetty’s Taj Mahal that scales down the grandeur monument into metallic miniatures, bolting them together to form a monumental block. Being showcased by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the work recontextualises the significance of the historic monument from a symbol of immortal love to a tourist souvenir.
The curator of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale has another work at the Galleryske booth, where his temple hut in recycled wood is a shrine where you find the words, “God envies my mortality”.
The fair also has the first major work of Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha to be shown in India. Her poignant installation titled All The Flowers Are For Me, has as its central structure a metal box with elaborate laser cut-outs of floral patterns and geometric motifs. Lighted from inside, it casts its shadow in the exhibition area, the light and dark projecting the artist’s conflicting emotions, deriving from her son’s wedding and grieving over the loss of her mother.
Chemould Gallery, meanwhile, has NS Harsha’s recent untitled work where the Mysore-based artist taps into the collective consciousness of group gatherings. He seats his protagonists on plastic chairs, and tries to analyse what they are driven by: “political, social, religious or cultural issues”.
It’s All Political
Much of the art in the subcontinent draws from its complex politics and history. At the Nature Morte booth at the IAF, a rifle covered with delicately carved white flowers will tense you up. Conflict and suffering? One might wonder.
But Bangladeshi artist Promotesh Das Pulak’s untitled installation is simply made up of spongy shola stems, which grow in the subcontinent’s marshlands. The shola flowers, held together with wire, transform a dangerous weapon into a fragile object of admiration. Riyaz Komu’s Fourth World (2017) at the Vadehra Art Gallery booth throws up a bold imagery of three terracotta sculptures of the emblem, revolving atop recycled wood.
But it can’t get more direct than Sunil Sigdel’s “Peach Owners II” series, where he captures the global political tide with satirical imageries of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un , playfully merging them with Buddhist motifs.
A Revival Story
A solo project brought by Photoink presents “Kanu’s Gandhi”, an exceptional series of archival photographs taken by Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Kanu Gandhi. In 1934, Mahatma moved to Wardha and founded Sevagram. In 1936, Kanu joined Mahatma’s personal staff and developed an interest in photography. After persuading Mahatma to get photographed, Kanu began to take photographs under three conditions — that he would never use a flash; he would never ask him to pose; and that the Ashram would not fund his photography. This long-forgotten archive came out of the dead last year in the form of a book produced by Nazar Foundation. It makes its pitstop at the IAF.
In March 2014, artists from both sides of the border concentrated in the villages of Bholaganj in India and Puran Bholaganj in Bangladesh for a community-based project titled No Man’s Land. They met each other without any visa, to discuss and discover the historical and socio-cultural contexts of the neighbouring countries.
A documentation of this project’s execution, including photographs, video and sound art, is being shown at a booth that features the artists meeting each other alongside a video that documents the same.
In another project conceptualised by Renu Modi, director of Gallery Espace, artists from India and Sri Lanka embarked on a journey to understand the politics of cities, religions and the stories that places tell by visiting the historic cities of Anuradhapura and Varanasi.
The fair also has artists interacting with the audience. With Memoir Bar, artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra attempt an “emographic” of the world. Visitors write a memory on a piece of paper and tick the emotion that describes their memory best.
They shred the paper and mix it with colours that the duo has assigned to each emotion and prepare a cement tile that is tagged with their name and into a grid. Eventually, there’ll be a different grid for each city where the project travels. “No two tiles are the same,” assures Tagra.
While technology and commerce are blurring geographic boundaries, there are inherent contradictions that the electric wires here seem to suggest; both as conduit and barrier. On one hand, they serve as channels of transmission and yet, on the other, their linear formations evoke barbed wires or different kinds of fencing,” says Reena Saini Kallat, introducing her much-talked-about work Woven Chronicle. The global tapestry with a giant world map has multi-coloured wires tracing the movement of migrants across the world. “By changing the instrument of this quasi-cartographic drawing from a pencil line to a wire, I’m interested in the notion of the map as dynamic, ever changing, streaming and transferring data with the global flows of energies and people, as the courses of these travellers intersect,” adds Kallat.
The audio resonates with the sounds of high-voltage electric currents, the deep-sea, factory sirens, ship horns and migratory birds.
She, though, isn’t the lone artist who has used maps in her work. The Nature Morte booth has the map as the base for Bharti Kher’s I’ve Seen More Things Than I Dare To Remember, where the Gurugram-based artist uses her trademark bindis over a map of the western hemisphere in one of the works. Showing at 1×1 Art Gallery, Sachin Bonde, meanwhile, uses maps to discuss the oil wars. He juxtaposes it with the historic commodification of desires by sketching an elephant and a rhino over the maps. He places an elephant’s tusk in fibreglass, representing the nozzle of a petrol filling station.
If at the Ananth Art Gallery stall Pakistani artist Noor Ali Chagani has miniature terracotta bricks to represent “the absence of home” and the “power of the colossal walls”, Rathin Barman’s works, as part of “Experimenter’s booth” as well as a solo art project, see his engagement with physical spaces through works such as Reconciling Abandoned Architectural Spaces III and One, and The Other, in which he uses materials such as concrete and red bricks.
Show Me the Money
At the MONDO Galeria booth, Venezuelan artist Alberto Echegaray Guevara whisks visitors in like a merchant luring in customers to his prized product. Known for confronting the “taboo with money” by shredding currency notes for art, Guevara is easily one of the big draws at the fair.
Last year, he had come with USD One Million Sphere and Le Dictateur (The Dictator), the former depicting shredded $ 1 million in a blown glass case, while the other comprising shredded dollars, blood and screws. Today, he points towards a heap of shredded Indian currency, all demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in what he calls, Empty Illusion. He shred them a year ago. Why, we ask.
“I just did. But when demonetisation happened, it made more sense,” he says. The shredded amount amounts to Rs one crore. “The demonetisation process is centred in destroying a social contract based in an illusion (fiat currency), and replace it with a new system of illusion (virtual and electronic money),” reads his note. He is also here with 33 Riches and Corrupt Heads of States in the World, a work with 33 currency notes with heads of world leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Pablo Lazarenko and Saddam Hussein. “I should add one more,” he says. Fancy a guess?
India Art Fair is on at NSIC grounds, Okhla. The nearest metro station is Govindpuri. Tickets are priced at Rs 499. For students the tickets are priced at Rs 250