In the previous posts of Art1st’s ‘The Visionaries’ series we have seen the emergence of nationalist discourse on arts and aesthetics in the wake of colonisalism. What these nationalist forms of pedagogical constructions and rewriting of history did was it standardized the history and art practices of this country. To create a nationalist narrative of continuity and homogeneity certain schools, styles and artefacts of certain dynasties were included while others were excluded. One of the significant issues with the nationalist art history is that it overshadows or dominates the regional histories. Region acts as a marginal domain from which nation draws its inspiration. This existence of the region is never acknowledged properly and is always sidelined. Even in the art historical discources of nationalist period we see these exclusions in terms of history writing, the mapping of chronologies, and adaptation of a styles and schools from the past as authentic. The Bengal School and the nationalist aesthetic thought led by Ananda Coomaraswamy et al. did the same. Meanwhile a radical art movement which departed from the homogenization of art turned towards the west especially towards Europe. Progressive Artists Group which emerged in the late 1940s was a strong counter-movement against this trend. Its inspiration was European Modernism. While these movements originated in the anglicized cosmopolitan metros of Calcutta and Bombay, artists form the south were excluded from these movements. The history of the south, its past, and its artists from the modern period were not considered worthy to be placed either in the history of the nation or in its national-modern. In today’s issue of Art1st’s ‘The Visionaries’ series we will discuss the role of KCS Panicker in establishing a counter-movement against the nationalist hegemony and internationalism by foregrounding the region.
KCS Panicker who was a renowned artist and pedagogue, and who later taught in the erstwhile Madras for decades, was a staunch opponent of both these hegemonic movements. He aimed for modernizing art but one which was rooted in the local, emphasizing on an alternative to the national-modern which many call as the regional modernism. The immediate tasks at his hand was to break away from the academic realism practiced in art institutions and also challenge what he saw as a sterile imitation of European modernism.
He joined the Madras School of Arts in 1936 for a three-year course under the eminent sculptor Roy Chowdhury, who was also the then Principal. Soon after Panicker emerged as a painter and later he joined the Madras School of Arts as a teacher. These two artists and teachers represented different strands of Indian art. Chowdhury believed in the mimetic qualities of art and emphasized on a realistic way of representing body. These sculptures evoked a masculine energy, while Panicker’s reflected a vulnerability. This difference between them can be articulated through an anecdote. Paniker used to write under the pen name Sunanda, combining the names of his daughter Sumitra and son Nandagopal. While Roy Choudhury was into wrestling and hunting. “Come on Paniker, try,” he once said, giving him a rifle to shoot at a bird. Paniker shot and it fell to the ground. Paniker determined, “I will never shoot again.” He never hid his emotions.
Panicker emphasized on the autonomy of the artist to choose his own visual idiom.
Panicker’s own visual style was slowly changing from realistic to abstraction. Though its conceptual roots lie in western art, Panicker drew his inspiration from the traditional visual forms of South. Panicker was critical about western art since 1950s. KG Subrahmanyan notes “His western excursion affected him like it affected most Indian artists of any artist of individuality; it threw him back on himself. It was as if across the seas a strange longing for his land caught him in the pit of his stomach. On his return he became committed indigenes, though not in a traditionalist sense.”
Panicker established Cholamandal Artists Village, near Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu with the objective of constructing a substitute to the artistic stimulation from the so called Western way. According to him; “Life in India today seems to provoke her artists to begin to think more pertinently of their aesthetic requirements, and to evolve in their own minds a clearer picture of what they are looking for in the art of their time. They fairly accept that what passes for modern Indian art in many quarters here is, at best, an almost sterile Indian inspiration, which alone can ultimately fuse the apparent contradictions into an acceptable pattern…”
The name Cholamandalam was inspired from the historical Chola dynasty which was known for its political might and aesthetic achievements. It was the first residential colony of Indian artists. He conceptualised it as a place where artists live and work together.
Cholamandam was the first aesthetic approach in India to bridge the gap between high art and crafts. Here artists were asked to make craft objects and also sell them at a nominal rate. Several artists who were trained in Madras School of Art later explored the possibilities of Cholamandal. Some of them are P.S. Nandan, Haridasan, S. Nanda Gopal, Vasudev, K. Jayapala Panicker, Gopinath, Senathipathy, M.V. Devan and Richard Jesudas.
”You can describe their artistic ideas as metaphysical and poetic,” said Josef James, an Indian art critic who has followed the Cholamandal experiment from its beginning. ”They were consumed with the challenge of finding an Indian response to the sort of art that was coming out of the West. They were influenced first by Mark Rothko, then De Kooning and later Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella.”
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.
Through the various previous blog posts we got an idea about how does curating India abroad, how curating abroad in India functions. But what about exhibitions which feature artists from different nationalities to address certain universal political and social crisis. How would the curator address this diversity of the artist and strategically situate the artworks in the purview of his curatorial objectives. Would a foreign artist be able to understand the concerns of a different country? This is one of the most contested questions in contemporary art. Also, how do artists from different nationalities collaborate on a common concern is a perplexing question. All we can do is to attempt and see. The route map of this journey, the interactions between the curators and the artists are the important milestones which remain even after the exhibition is over.
Another important issue I would like to address today is how do we see our times. How can a curatorial exercise reflect our times. I do not disagree that we all see the world through our own vantage points. But there are certain truths which one cannot surpass are merely subjective. The political and economic crisis of our times is a reality. Not a fiction scripted to distract us form our valuable existence. Art or artists are not away form these issues and questions. Therefore one has to address them. Since art, curation, writing, etc., are the medium in which we work, we will address the crisis through this medium. In today’s issue of Art1st’s “The Curator” we will look at “A Preview to Desolation” curated by me at the Italian Cultural Center. The exhibition, a group show featuring eight Indian and Italian artists, imagined the contemporary as a desolate landscape, a terrain stripped of hope and peace. Quests for justice, equality and asylum have become more important than ever, but these struggles are always met with dismissal and brutal crackdown. Eight artists have responded to this topic, which is of utmost importance, through their works.
Exhibition: A Preview to Desolation
Curator : Premjish Achari
Venue: Italian Embassy Cultural Center
Artists: Atul Bhalla | Beatrice Pediconi | Gigi Scaria | Giuseppe Stampone Maura Biava | Sharmila Samant | Tushar Joag | Varunika Saraf
One of the major concerns of this exhibition was to address the apathy and indifference which has engulfed people in our times. We see incidents of violence, inequality, injustice but fail to respond to them. When there should be a collective demand for justice, equality, asylum, and human rights, instead all we see around us is a brutal crackdown on the marginalized and the oppressed. Because of this, the lives of the dispossessed has become even more precarious. The refugee crisis, the rise of right wing ideologies is destroying co-existence and plurality in our society. The state aided violence by the fringe elements in many countries has become a serious concern. The main objective of this exhibition is to address this crisis through art. Therefore I had included artworks which confront and respond to this situation. The aesthetic concerns of these artworks address the fundamental instability caused by the ‘bad new days’, a phrase used by Brecht to denote these times of crisis.
This exhibition is premised on a concern about the violence, apathy, and brutality of the “bad new days”. These oppressions are real but on the other hand we ignore them and celebrate a different vision of life which exclusionary in nature. So I imagined our times or the contemporary as a landscape, a terrain of desolation stripped of any hope and beauty which could keep us going. The urge to control people, especially minorities, by branding them as “aliens” is increasing day by day. Furthermore, the larger global economic crisis and the economy of war and invasion have left thousands dead and much more homeless. Through the artworks and the exhibition, in general, I attempted to draw the attention of the viewer to this crisis.
It was definitely a challenge to get artists who also think similarly and are sensitive to these issues. It needs political sensitivity to ally with these concerns. Artists included in this show were constantly working to make the artwork more active and participatory, in terms of their involvement in the material processes behind the creation of an artwork and an exhibition. I was fortunate to have found such a wonderful group of artists from Italy and India who responded to this exhibition through their brilliant works.
This exhibition uses ‘precarious’ as a conceptual category to understand the cataclysmic contemporary climate; through this it attempts to survey the vastness of this desolation and disarray. It enables us to plot the coordinates of crisis and the political conditions generated by conflicts for power.
Through this exhibition I attempt to show works which confront and respond to this situation. Its aesthetic concerns remain to address the fundamental instability caused by these ‘bad new days’. How a precarious regime of aesthetics is developing, based on speed, intermittence, blurring and fragility. It reasserts the necessity to locate the ideological foundations of Fascism and its aesthetic sensibilities, which are rooted in passive consumption. It allows this by activating and politicising art to protect the present and future from becoming a part of its political project.
“Bad new days” is an apt way to describe the times we inhabit. In the last few decades, unprecedented economic, political and social turbulence have resulted in a climate rife with insecurity and precarity. An undeclared state of emergency has displaced millions of citizens across the world, creating unjust socio-economic disparities. This has given rise to an atmosphere of intolerance, which thwarts any form of debate, engagement and dissent, virtues associated with a democratic society. Historic amnesia is favoured over historic memory. The human condition has become fragile; it is more insecure, fragmented, and susceptible to injustice and oppression. Our very existence has become precarious.
A video feature of this exhibition was done by NDTV-Mojarto which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wrv4VTILJog
Here are some of this exhibition views.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st
By now it is a well-established fact that there are more number of female nudes in world art than female artists. For centuries, artists (male) have used female bodies as their favourite subjects. The prolific presence of male artists in the art world and the marginal presence of female artists and female subjectivity has been a major issue of contention in the last few decades. Though occasionally, in history, very few female artists have challenged this domination and had taken powerful stands against this discrimination. Art historians like Linda Nochlin, Carol Duncan, and Griselda Pollock, theorists such as Audre Lorde, Laura Mulvery and Bell Hooks’ have challenged this dominance in art making and history writing. They have offered new ways of looking at art.
More problematic is how the female subjectivity is often objectified for sensuous pleasure or the female body is used by the male artists to shock the public. The female subjects in arts is often submissive, tamed, and are sometimes depicted as sensuous women whose main role is to titillate or otherwise embody the examples of ideal women. Feminist art collectives such as Guerilla Girls have militantly challenged this assumption. They have also radically intervened in this problem through their acts of “vandalisms”. Gender equality is a major concern of our times. Compared to the western art world, most of our critically acclaimed and successful artists are women. We also have to look at the successful female gallerists who played an important role in heralding the arrival and consolidation of contemporary Indian art. As curators, how do we tackle the problem of gender discrimination.
In today’s Art1st’s “The Curator” series we introduce you to an important exhibition co-curated by eminent curator Roobina Karode, which could be politically identified as feminist. Also important is the venue of this exhibition which was at the Women’s Studies Research Center and Mildred Lee Gallery, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.
The Curator #11
Title: “Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture”, 2007.
Roobina Karode is the Director and Chief Curator at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the first private modern and contemporary art museum in India. Since its inception in 2010, she has curated several acclaimed exhibitions at KNMA. Karode curated ‘Open Doors’ at the launch of KNMA Noida in 2010 and ‘Time Unfolded’ at the opening of KNMA Saket in 2011. Karode specializes in Art History and in Education and has been involved with the teaching of Western and Indian Art History (1990-2006) at various institutions, mainly The School of Art & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, The National Museum Institute, College of Art and the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Karode was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship in 2000 and was placed as a Visiting Scholar at Mills College in California, where she curated Resonance, an exhibition on California Painters and Sculptors from the Mills College Art Collection. As a critic, she continues to contribute thematic essays and reviews to art journals and the Art India Magazine. She has written extensive monographs on contemporary Indian artists across generations and for cross-cultural collaborations. Karode co-curated a seminal exhibition titled ‘Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture’ in 2008, showcasing contemporary art by seventeen women artists of India at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, USA. She has also curated a major retrospective exhibition on the internationally acclaimed US based artist-printmaker Krishna Reddy at the IGNCA, New Delhi. (Courtesy: KNMA)
The exhibition in discussion was a radical departure from the conventional ways of portraying women and women artists. The other two curators who were part of this project were Elinor Garden and Wendy Tarlow Kaplan. It emphasized on the aggression and ferocity which is required to smash the structures of female oppression. It featured painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and video art of 17 established artists. The works of these artists responded to ongoing patriarchal aggression and communal violence in India. The title of the exhibition invoked the image of the fierce tiger to denote this aggression in speaking out about their issues.
The 35 pieces comprising “Tiger by the Tail!” were organized around universal narratives: Transforming the Myth; Subverting the Icon; Performing the Body; Issues of Identity; Memory and Loss; and Healing and Empowerment.
According to Karode, “The artworks are culturally specific and address the current and historical concerns within the Indian context. At the same time, they resonate with global concerns and introduce a woman’s subjectivity, which has been excluded from Indian art until now.”
“Gogi Saroj Pal subverts the icon of the tiger, which in India has long symbolized primal ferocity. In her painting “Hatyogini, Shakti,” a woman sits atop the wild animal, playfully domesticating it as if it were a household pet. A self-portrait, the painting transforms traditional Hindu iconography of the goddess Durga into an image that is both powerful and erotic.
Anita Dube presents a paradoxical motif in her black and white photographs “Sea Creature.” Four open hands are covered with the all-seeing eyes of the Hindu devotional practice. In her work, the small ceramic eye, traditionally offered to the goddess for protection, is subverted when employed in the secular domain. In this way, Dube transforms the sacred object into a marker of mindless religiosity.
Vasudha Thozhur’s “Untouchable” recalls the Hindu practice of sati, in which a widow commits suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre. In her transgressive treatment of this patriarchal horror, Thozhur paints herself seated defiantly on a burning pile of wood, inviolable and untouched by the flames.” (Courtesy: Brandeis University)
The exhibition was able to show that feminism is not a monolithic movement. The challenges and discrimination faced by women across the world are different. The stretegies used to fight back vary. But most importantly one has to realise that there is a universal discrimination.
The catalog of the book is available online for purchase.
Have a happy weekend friends. Please let us know what you think about the issues mentioned in this article in the comments section.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st
The Curator #10
Most of the curators whom we have discussed in this series, except Naman P. Ahuja, had in a way represented Indian art in India. It would be too simple to call them as Indian art because their approaches were thematically diverse, concerns were different, the choice of artworks, artists and spaces were also individually motivated. In the exhibition “Body in Indian Art” we saw the two possibilities of an exhibition representing Indian art abroad and Indian art in India. The act of representing India is a nationalistic act. It means that you put together artworks of artists from different linguistic, ethnic, geographical groups under the category of nation. How does it function in the age of globalization especially during the beginning of this decade when the idea of nation-state has not strongly returned as it has returned now? How do we define citizenship in this new context where people move freely, artists collaborate internationally, show their works across the world? How does a curator represent the cultural diversity in this context, still being placed in a homogenizing platform like national pavilion?
We know that Venice Biennale, one of the oldest in the world, is a platform which actively encourages national pavilions. Countries try to send their best artists and curators to represent their art world. Though Indian artists have been represented in Venice Biennale in the past it was the first time in 2011, the 54th edition, that India got an official pavilion. Renowned curator, poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote was selected by Lalit Kala Akademi to curate the pavilion. Today in Art1st’s “The Curator” series we will discuss Ranjit Hoskote’s exhibition ‘Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode…’curated for the Indian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
The Curator #10
Curator: Ranjit Hoskote
Title: ‘Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode…’
Venue: Venice Biennale, 2011.
According to Ranjit Hoskote, his objectives in curating this show was to, “mark a sharp rupture with these pre-existing notions of how India’s national art scene should be represented. Since I have long argued that contemporary Indian art is defined by multiple horizons of value, I wished to disclose artistic practices from locations other than those synonymous with the Indian art market: practices that transit among disparate economies of image production, traverse asymmetric cultural and political situations; that are nourished by diverse circulations of philosophical ideas; and that grow, often, from improvisational forms of research and collaboration.”
Hoskote’s focus was to draw attention to multiple locations from which value is created in the context of Indian art. Instead of giving importance to the aspect of nationality and fitting artists into the institution of nation-state, the curator emphasized on the idea of cultural citizenship. This was a significant shift from the idea of monolithic culture to a transcultural existence. It expanded the idea of what is India especially through the lens of migration and hybridity.
The four artists/ artist groups chosen to represent India in this pavilion were:
- Zarina Hashmi (print-maker and mixed-media artist; born in Aligarh, 1937; now lives and works in New York).
- Praneet Soi (painter, sculptor, video artist; born in Kolkata, 1971; now lives and works in Amsterdam and Kolkata).
- Gigi Scaria (painter, sculptor, video artist; born in Kothanalloor, Kerala, 1973; now lives in New Delhi).
- The Desire Machine Collective (Sonal Jain, born in Shillong in 1975, and Mriganka Madhukaillya, born in Guwahati in 1978; DMC is a media collective based in Guwahati, Assam, and works across film, installation and public space projects).
The exhibition was a ‘laboratory, stage and school’ for the curator to understand these developments. It became a site to map these important shifts post 90s in India. According to Hoskote, “Zarina Hashmi, Praneet Soi, Gigi Scaria, and the Desire Machine Collective act as compass points for an alternative atlas of references. An idiosyncratic line of latitude connects them across the globe, running west-east to link their theatres of life and work across New York, Amsterdam/Kolkata, New Delhi/Kerala, and Guwahati. To my mind, it was vital to honour the historic occasion of India’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale by proposing such positions, which demonstrated the linkages between contemporary Indian art and global art at large, while retaining the distinctiveness of sensibilities engaged with the South Asian predicament.”
Through their works, Hoskote used the exhibition space as a laboratory to test the ‘idea of India’, a conceptual phrase developed by Sunil Khilnani. The artists developed their works to re-imagine what it means to belong to India. The title of the exhibition was taken from a a book by an anonymous group of theorists called The Invisible Committee which was shared by Mriganka Madhukaillya of the Desire Machine Collective. The opening of the book read: ‘Everyone agrees. It’s about to explode. It is acknowledged, with a serious and self-important look, in the corridors of the Assembly, just as yesterday it was repeated in the cafés… The newspapers conscientiously draw up the list of causes for the sudden disquiet. There is the financial crisis… the failure of the educational system… the existence of a youth to which no political representation corresponds… what power is confronting is neither just another crisis, nor just a succession of chronic problems, of more or less anticipated disturbances, but a singular peril: that a form of conflict has emerged, and positions have been taken up, that are no longer manageable.”
The pavilion was conceived not only to ask questions on what is nationality and on nation-state but also to enquire what is global art.
You can listen to Ranjit Hoskote talk about the exhibition in this link https://www.aaa.org.hk/en/resources/videos/everyone-agrees-its-about-to-explode-curatorial-reflections-on-the-india-pavilion-54th-venice-biennale-by-ranjit-hoskote
A video of Gigi Scaria’s installation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vasYjXFzlg
Please read, share and comment. Happy weekend!
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.