A new exhibition in Delhi introduces the rare genre of ‘colour field’ painting to art lovers
How does an artist’s canvas reflect natural landscapes, without using any kind of recognisable shapes, images, forms or human figures? A good example of this style of art-making is the work of Pandit Bhila Khairnar, who is known as a ‘colour field’ artist. Delhi-based Gallery Threshold recently inaugurated a solo show of the artist, who hails from Nashik city in Maharashtra.
As a young man, Khairnar found himself drawn towards abstract painting, and began his training in art at Yashwant Kala Mahavidyalaya, Aurangabad, and L. S. Raheja School of Art, Mumbai. His early interest in abstract painting deeply influenced his artistic vocabulary that we see today, so much so that he is now considered one of the lesser known, but foremost, colour field painters of India.
How Colour Field Painting Started
Before we discuss his paintings and other sources of creative inspiration that shaped his art, let us look at the genre of colour field painting, which is a very uncommon form of art seen in Indian galleries or museums. Colour field painting is understood to be an offshoot of Abstract Art, which was one of the most defining characteristics of the Modern Art movement that emerged during the 20th century in the West.
The term ‘colour field’ began to be associated with artists during the 1950s and 1960s in the US. These artists were in pursuit of an abstraction far beyond familiar realities. Their canvases largely depicted (deceptively) simple compositions using one or more flat colours, without adding a specific shape, form or any obvious focus of attention. Often, their art acquired mysterious, spiritual, and sometimes other-worldly proportions. One of the earliest pioneers of colour field art is 20th century American painter Mark Rothko, who is known for “significant open space and expressive use of colour” in his paintings. The result is a ‘meditative’ effect on the viewer, who is exposed to a large expanse of colour on the canvas.
The Non-Physical Art of Pandit Khairnar
When I walked into Delhi’s Gallery Threshold, Pandit Khairnar’s oil paintings had the same contemplative effect on me. His paintings are colourful explorations of his inner thoughts, without figurations, decorations or complicated patterns that we often see in art. Mounted on bare walls, these large canvases not only imbued a sense of stillness in the gallery, but the whole experience of looking at his works was no less than taking a solitary walk in the countryside. And this is exactly what the artist is seeking to convey through his paintings.
Khairnar’s upbringing in the historically rich and verdant terrain around Nashik, which is known for antiquated monuments and (now) sprawling vineyards, shaped his artistic sensibilities. As a school boy, he showed a lot of interest in drawing and painting, which caught everyone’s attention. Soon, he befriended the potter community in his village, and began painting their statues for local festivals.
As a young man, he moved to Mumbai, where he stayed for 25 years. He then returned to the serene beauty of Nashik, which inspired him to paint. His Nashik memories are full of regular jaunts to agriculture fields, often helping his father cultivate fruits and vegetables on the farm. Being in regular touch with the soil made him dabble in statuette-making too. He was also taken in by the mysterious colours of twilight and dusk, which he explored in his art.
From Colour Drawings to Abstractions
Through shades of greens, oranges, blacks, reds and yellows, the artist splashes his memories on the canvas, creating an ‘infinite’ or ‘limitless’ field. In other words, he is trying to portray his experience of observing a vast natural landscape, instead of actually painting a tree, sky or river. His canvas could be showing the pigment of a leaf or the mixing of colours in the sky when night begins to fall. To such representations, he gives an ‘intangible’ or a non-physical form.
Explaining his trajectory as an artist, Khairnar said he initially started with colour drawings on paper. Several of them were abstract in nature that made way for what he is doing now. “In these drawings, I was in a sense opening and discovering the substance out of the frame, to find what I am left with, which is pure and sublime,” the artist said. Interestingly, he rejects the label of being referred to as a colour field artist, calling it a “comfortable categorization” that may lead to “superficial” understanding of his art.
“How would you explain your work to the young learners of art?” I asked him in an email interview.
“Colour is something that gives character. We can’t imagine a monochromatic world. What we see on the canvas essentially arrives from the subtle observations of inner and outer world,” he wrote back, somewhat summing up his style of painting.
It is because of the nature of colour field paintings, which are devoid of a form, the genre is not only not popular in India; there is also little awareness about it. They could be difficult to interpret too. And that is true of many other forms of abstract art. Little wonder, in India, Khairnar belongs to a small group of colour field painters, which include V. S. Gaitonde,Natvar Bhavsar, Sohan Qadri and Rajendra Dhawan. Gaitonde, Rothko and Dhawan—who are known for their powerful abstractions—inspired Khairnar to explore and question different interpretations of the ‘real’ and the ‘illusory’.
As I spent some time in the gallery, quietly sipping some tulsi chai, I noticed a few subtle forms in Khairnar’s paintings. The sudden discovery seemed very odd as I didn’t remember noticing anything like that when I walked in. Some looked like dots, seen together they could be somebody’s eyes. In other paintings, for example, the forms were far less obvious, resembling vague silhouettes of a human face. Perhaps these lingering forms pointed towards the galaxy, a theme aptly conveyed in the show’s title – ‘Cosmic Balance’.
The exhibition will be on view at Delhi’s Gallery Threshold until September 15, 2018. You can share your thoughts on Pandit Khairnar’s works below.
Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.
Many of you are now introduced to the idea of totem poles through the Grade 3 book of Art1st. You have learnt about its symbolic functions, its aesthetics and also asked students to make their own totem poles. Most of these works were also displayed in the annual exhibitions in the schools curated with the help of Art1st mentors.
Today we will feature an interview with Dr. Tracy J. Prince who is a Scholar in Residence (Research Professor) at Portland State University in the United States. Tracy is also an accomplished writer and has done extensive research on the history of Blacks and Native americans. She was part of the Chateau de La Napoule art residency along with me and I had a chance to interact with her about her writings and research. She also did a wonderful art workshop with the kids who were visiting the museum at the Chateau on Native American art and patterns. In this interview she will talk about the Native American art, the relevance of totem poles and contemporary artists who are using totem poles and the aesthetics of Native American art in their works.
Premjish: How was your experience with the students in La Napoule teaching Native American Art? What were your objectives?
Tracy: I wanted to show the children images of Native American art from over 100 years ago to today, so that students could see that Native Americans have been an important part of American history and that thousands of Native artists are active today. I enjoyed teaching them via an interpreter. They were intrigued that I am a descendant of Pocahontas. They seemed very excited to learn about Native Americans.
Premjish: What is your experience with the Native American Art? (In terms of academics and research and outreach)
Tracy: I’ve taught Native American Art for over a decade. I’ve published about Native art in several of my books on Portland, Oregon’s history. I’m working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon, based upon my research and teaching. In outreach, I’ve advocated with the Portland Art Museum to promote the work of contemporary Native artists (though they still tend to focus on historical Native art), and I’ve given hundreds of talks to civic groups in the US on Native American art.
Premjish: In the Art1st grade books we have a chapter dealing with Totem poles. You have researched a lot on totem poles. Could you give our teachers a brief overview about its functions, visual appearance and relevance.
Tracy: The most important thing to remember is that totem poles are traditional only for tribes in part of the Pacific Northwest. In the US, totem poles were made only in parts of Alaska and a small part of Washington state, and in Canada, totem poles were made only in the province of British Columbia. The Pacific Northwest areas where carving was/is most intense is a rain forest where enormous evergreen trees grow that are excellent for making totem poles—most are made from western red cedar. There are over 500 Native tribes in the US. Less than a dozen of those tribes have totem poles as a tradition. Throughout the world, totem poles have captured the imagination and have come to stand for all Native people of the US and Canada. But in reality, totem poles represent only a small part of a few western tribes in Canada and the US. They capture the imagination for good reason. Totem poles are carved of wood. They are beautiful, grand, and visually striking. They are usually enormous poles carved from a single tree. Totem poles can be found in many museums around the world. Their function was/is to celebrate a person’s achievements, to honor someone still living, to praise a great miracle, to serve as a funeral marker, to tell a tribal legend, and for many other functions. The icons carved onto the pole differ from tribe to tribe. Common imagery includes: a raven (a trickster figure—tricky, greedy, mischievous), eagle, bear, salmon, whale, wolf, frog, and mythical creatures such as the thunderbird and Dzunukwa. Dzunukwa is often depicted with pursed lips. The legend is that when children hear “who, who” calling in the forest, they should run so that Dzunukwa doesn’t capture them. This legend helped keep children from wandering into the vast wilderness of thick forests that these tribes were surrounded by.
Premjish: Do communities still make totem poles and believe in its symbolic quality?
Tracy: All tribal communities that made totem poles historically are still making totem poles today. Many Native people (in Canada the preferred terms are: aboriginal, indigenous, or First Nations) were Christianized and many of their traditional beliefs and practices were forbidden until even as recently as the 1950s. However, even with attempts to decimate cultures, many Native people still place great value on the symbolism of the imagery on totem poles. All tribes place great value on the cultural importance of the tree, taken from Native land, representing stories that have been handed down in that tribe.
Premjish: Could you tell us more about the contemporary artists who are working in this visual idiom? Especially abstract, geometric patterns, etc.
Tracy: Wendy Red Star (Crow tribe) satirizes and critiques stereotypical ideas about Native Americans. Sometimes using pop art style, with an underlying critique, she grapples with American history and the present story of Native Americans. She wants viewers to see that Native people are not just people of the past.
And she plays with traditional Native American geometric shapes to explore contemporary art.
I like the work of Marcus Cadman (Navajo and Kickapoo tribes). He has strong regional recognition and growing national recognition. I’m especially intrigued by his paintings that use discarded bingo cards from the Navajo reservation as the background. Bingo games are pervasive throughout Native American tribes. So, he is anchoring the viewer to contemporary life on the Navajo reservation by using bingo cards.
(To see Cadman’s works, see his website http://www.marcuscadman.com/carousel.php?galleryID=109931)
I wrote about Pat Courtney Gold (Wasco Chinook) who does basketry. Her designs are quite traditional and are meant to honor the past rather than critique it.
(See the book online https://books.google.co.in/books?id=dCYnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA95&dq=%22lillian+pitt%22+notable+women&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%22lillian%20pitt%22%20&f=false)
Pat Courtney Gold
Premjish: Is it always necessary that Native American artists always work in their own native visual style?
Tracy: In the 1960s and 1970s, Fritz Scholder and T. C. Cannon famously exploded the idea that Native American art must reverentially harken back to the past artistic language.
They used abstraction (Scholder) and pop art (Cannon) to play with, deconstruct, and analyze Native American art. Many contemporary artists, such as James Lavadour (Umatilla), don’t feel obliged to paint typical Native American subjects. He paints abstractions of the landscapes near his home on the Umatilla Reservation.
(Read the article on these by clicking here)
Premjish: Could you tell us what are the new interventions happening in the art of totem pole creation?
Tracy: Being able to carve in the totem pole style and with particular figures is considered the privilege of certain tribes. These privileges are passed down through generations. It is considered cultural appropriation when a Native American person carves a totem pole but is not a member of a tribe where totem poles were carved. Rick Bartow (Wiyot and Yurok) has a fantastic piece at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC that shows a modern interpretation of the totem pole but is not trying to replicate traditional styles. He lives in Oregon with ancestry from California tribes. So he is not from a tribe where totem pole carving is traditional. Bartow’s spectacular sculpture, “We Were Always Here,” was erected in 2012 at the Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum.
Bartow says that they aren’t totem poles, but “pole sculptures.” “We didn’t want a totem pole. There is a predetermined idea of what that is going to look like, a built-in iconography. There are traditions. It reflects family stories, lineages. I have no lineage right to that … and it would be stupid of me, who is not Haida or Tlingit … to pretend like I was all of the sudden just for this job. It would look like hell, frankly.”
Bartow’s work explores a new sculptural form and iconography to delve into contemporary interpretations of Native American art.
Tracy J. Prince, Ph.D. is a Scholar in Residence (research professor) at Portland State University in the United States. She is the author of four books: Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National Identity, Notable Women of Portland, two other histories of Oregon, and is currently working on a book on Native American Art of Oregon. She has taught for two decades, published about, and given hundreds of public lectures on Native American art and literature. Read more about her: https://works.bepress.com/tracy-prince/
Sometimes you come across a perfect combination. Sometimes these combinations become metaphors, like fries and ketchup. Tara Books has a winning combination in Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper!
So let’s talk about their book ‘Alphabets Are Amazing Animals’. Here are some obvious points. It’s a book about Alphabets and Animals, so if you like either, you’ll probably like this book too.
Ravishankar’s witty use of alliteration conjures imaginative scenarios with every Letter. Pieper’s illustrations interpret these quirky lines hilariously and accurately. The pictures match the simplicity of the words in their primary colours against black and white.
‘Alphabets Are Amazing Animals’ is best read between the lines.
Reading ‘Eight Eels Eight Eleven Eggs’ I can’t help but animate the scenario in my head. As these elegant eels swoosh across the algae-coated water, they find three extra eggs! Do they argue about who gets to eat them or do they sweetly share?
As you get to the end of the question, you’ll be left with a singular question- what’s a Xeme, anyway?
Writer at Art1st
PS. Have you noticed how all books about alphabets mention ‘X-rays’? Maybe we need only 25 alphabets after all…
Okay. We’ll admit it. We love books about crayons.
(mostly because they’re so colourful and fun)
Well, this is a story about a little bundle boy called Harold.
Our hero Harold has a purple crayon. And with that crayon, he draws the world!
This Papa’s palm-sized purple paperback is rich in imagination and its applications. Johnson’s illustrations explore the flexibility of a simple line as Harold makes his purple journey. Purposefully minimal, the pages of Crockett Johnson’s ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ allow the imaginative reader to fill in the colours.
The next time you’re in bed, but can’t quite sleep, grab hold of a purple crayon and see where it will take you.
Writer at Art1st
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
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.
Over the last many issues of this series we have discussed the curation of collections from museums, galleries which mainly included paintings, sculptures, contemporary art forms, etc. We have not focused exclusively on the art of photography. But how many of us see photography as art? If we look at the conventional histories of art, including nationalist or mainstream histories of art which is manifested mainly in museum displays, don’t give photography its due space in terms of its importance and aesthetic relevance. Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh, Pablo Bartholomew or Prabuddha Dasgupta are not our household names. There is an injustice in this ignoring and it is time to dispel such erasures.
Photography is one of the most popular and accessible media of our times. Outside museums, galleries and in its print forms, it is now manly accessed through screens. The arrival of mobile cameras has democratized this form like never before. But what are the reasons why photography always had a marginal presence in the domain of high art. One important reason could be this mass production of images and its consumption. An image can be reproduced as many times we want to. There is no concept of original in photography. All products are a copy. Hence it lacks an exclusivity. Why would someone acquire an artwork which is easily reproducible and accessed by a larger community? Connoisseurship feeds on rarity, not on profuseness. Other reasons for its marginalization as an art form is also due to the fundamental nature of photography. It is seen as an objective medium which can document reality as it is. Hence it lacks the “fictional” elements of art. But this was challenged by the later developments. Surrealists, Dadaists and other modern artists have used photography to create fictional works. We also forget that the photographs which we see are also composed and authored. It is the outcome of the choices made by the photographer which include how the image is composed, how it may be cropped, edited, or otherwise altered after it is taken, the point-of-view deployed and inevitably impact how we receive and understand images. The subjects in photographs, many times are also posed, rather being candid. These aspects related to the creation of a photograph gives it an artistic touch.
Today in Art1sts’s “The Curator” series let us look at an important exhibition curated by Devika Daulet-Singh titled “Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka,” which was exhibited at the first edition of the Delhi Photo Festival, Delhi.
The Curator #9
Curator : Devika Daulet-Singh
Exhibition: Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, 2011.
Devika Daulet-Singh established PHOTOINK in 2001 as a photo agency and publication design studio, based in New Delhi. In 2008 PHOTOINK expanded into a gallery to exhibit contemporary Indian photography and international photographers. Her engagement with the world of photography has been as an editor, curator and publisher of photo books.
Devika was the associate curator for the Indian presentations at the 2007 Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival and the 2007 Photoquai Biennale in France. She was the Project Director for The Photograph: Painted, Posed and of the Moment, which included 8 exhibitions, held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai (2008). She co-curated The Self and The Other – Portraiture in Contemporary Indian Photography for the Palau de la Virreina, Escort woman in Turkey Barcelona and Museo Artium, Vitoria in Spain (2009). In 2011, she curated a group exhibition, Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which was exhibited at the first edition of the Delhi Photo Festival, Delhi.
Daulet-Singh’s exhibition “Photographing the Street” was an attempt in foregrounding the shared history of these countries despite its separation as distinct countries in the modern era. Even though the relationships might have strained, culturally there is something which unites them all. Singh identified streets and street life as an important trope to connect these countries and establish the shared nature of it. “Despite the many differences in the eight countries,” writes Devika Daulet-Singh in her curatorial note, “there are narratives that overlap, intermingle and are reminiscent of our shared histories.”
All the 117 photos were taken from the existing archives of the photographers. “Street photography could explore the shared histories and bridge some of the differences between these countries. It had the potential to transcend the conflicts of the times and present conditions of civil society as it progressed and evolved across these countries,” says Daulet-Singh.
The exhibition was able to use photography to bring together this shared nature of these countries brilliantly. These curatorial exercises are usually done by using premodern art, or modern or contemporary mediums with a heavy reliance on paintings and sculpture. Singh was able to break that monotony and give it a new twist. These are not pictures that will make it to National Geographic, they are not picturesque. Many of them do have an atmospheric quality, because they are so evocative,” says Daulet-Singh.
- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.