The past decade has witnessed a growing interest in India. As an emerging economic powerhouse with a rapidly growing middle class the spotlight continues to move from its enormous market potential to its arts and culture. It was no surprise that India featured visibly in the over 400 nominations that Artes Mundi collated this year. In 2006 Subodh Gupta one of India most prominent contemporary artist was one of the eight finalist.
I have always tried as much as possible to follow art developments in India and it was a country pencilled down one day for visit. As a co-selector for Artes Mundi the biennal international artist prize, the opportunity presented itself. The 8 day trip would include visits to some of the major capital cities of this subcontinent of over a billion people. My visit initially was to Mumbai and Delhi but a chance meeting and introduction to Indian curator Suman Gopinath convinced me that Bangalore had to be added to my itinerary.
Even though I live in a city of over 15 million in Lagos, Nigeria, I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the number in some of the megacities on my itinerary especially Mumbai and New Delhi who are fast approaching over 20 million. I was pleasantly surprised that in spite of the extremes of poverty and wealth that one encountered as one drove from one end of the city from the airport to the other central part of town the fairly good planning contained the crowd in a way made it looked almost empty to me in comparison with the chaos that is Lagos. I remember at one stage asking my taxi driver ‘where is everybody’ as we criss-crossed sprawling Delhi to visit artists’ studios. Finally reality dawned that Lagos has grown relatively unplanned, with little or no recent public infrastructural development result the overwhelming crowding we experience daily. These are the results of decades of military dictatorship and the lack of proper governance of the nation’s oil windfall.
The India art scene is still smarting from the recently missed opportunity presented in the form of an invitation from Robert Storr, artistic director of the 52nd Venice Biennale to organise an official Indian pavilion. The same invitation extended to Africa and Turkey. It seemed the bungling bureaucracy threw away an opportunity to present the vibrant Indian art scene to an international audience. And even if they got their act together would it have like another Egyptian pavilion showing ‘official’artists.
Little or no public funding or infrastructure is available to nurture, support and develop visual arts there exists artists run initiatives, private galleries, independent curators and writers doing really interesting work and projects. I noticed a visible and strong attitude towards self initiated projects whether it is artists collectives, commercial galleries or individual art professionals. I visited 3 very interesting organisations whose structures are different but complimentary. Mohile Parikh Center for Visual Arts in Mumbai is a private initiative started in 1990. Its focus is on developing discourse in the fields of art and architecture through cross-cultural exchanges nationally and internationally and by organising lectures, seminars and workshops. Their international conferences have hosted international luminaries such Homi Bhabha, Thomas McEvilley, Apinan Posyananda and Charles Merewether. In Delhi, there is Khoj a dynamic and vibrant artist run space with an ambitious programme of residencies and workshops that accommodates international, local and regional artists. I found their short mentionship residency for recently qualified graduated art students very innovative and much needed. Also in Delhi is the cerebral Sarai collective, publisher of the influential annual Sarai Reader which is freely downloadable from their website. Sarai’s interest include media research and theory, the urban experience in South Asia, digital culture, the history and politics of technology, and web based practices to name a few. They have a diversity of programmes apart from their publication such as talks, conferences, film screenings, online forums and fellowships. Unfortunately the Raqs Media Collective members were not around but I was able to catch a group exhibition in which they were participating in a very nice commercial gallery Nature Morte.
Started over a decade ago by an American artist who visited India and liked the country so much and decided to stay. Nature Morte has played an important role in offering a platform for many artists locally and also those living in the Diaspora. They have a blue chip rooster of Indian artists and have built international partnerships with other institutions especially in American to present the artist abroad. Whilst they made a Herculean effort to present Indian artists at the 2004 Venice Biennale, it would be problematic for an American to be in charge of the official pavilion. In India, the commercial galleries are doing an admirable job providing artists with professional exhibition spaces, towing a thin line between being profitable and showing work that goes beyond lovely paintings and sculpture. In Mumbai I visited Sakhti gallery which has been going for over 20years and works across generations of artists. From the earlier modern India pioneers to the young cutting edge conceptual artists. The art scene in India is booming in tempo with the economy. The interest from abroad especially Europe and America is unprecedented. And prices for young artists are soaring to the quarter of a million to half a million euros. Finally, the galleries are now benefiting from the economic boom, a wealthier middle class and a confident and more daring contemporary art collector base. As things are gallery are more capable to financially and professionally support more artists and their ambitious projects. The art scene in Bangalore is in its embryonic stage but it seems that it will soon catch up with the more established cities. And as the centre of India’s technological revolution, you can smell and see the money all around.
Visit to artist studios is missing from this account as we have to wait until the end of September for the official announcement of eight selected finalist for the 3rd Artes Mundi Art Prize. But inspite of the frenzied schedule I was able to spend a good amount of time with all the artists and other individuals that I met. The themes are very diverse but many of the recent work is inspired by or a response to the social upheavals in the country such as religious tensions especially between Hindus and Muslims some of which have resulted in substantial loss of lives. Others explore the impact of modernity on tradition.
In each city I visited I met lucky to meet with some the independent curators and writers who are developing a discourse from within the country. Lucky because they are all very busy working on one international project or the other. Internationally renowned Indian art historian Geeta Kapur’s immense contribution is legendary Her insightful writings are an important starting point for anybody interested in modern and contemporary Indian art and I am proud to say I am a big fan of her work. So I was really happy when she took time out of her busy schedule to invite me to tea at the International India Centre ( with some name like that. Excuse an errors) I also met with Gayatri Sinha who is also very active. I had met her at a lecture she gave on transnational curating she gave at University of the Arts in London in 2006. We had a fruitful conversation which I hope will result between Africa and India one day. In Banglore I met with Suman Gopinath an emerging independent curator working her first solo curator project large ambitious exhibition of Indian contemporary art for the kunsthalle in Switzerland. It will feature over 30 artists. Gopinath is also one of the curators for the Lyon Biennal.
I think it is interesting that artists have encouraged galleries to work together by insisting that their exhibitions got to at least 2 or 3 other major cities. It must travel. These are part of the survival and growth mechanism and it also provides the opportunity for younger artists and a wider national audience to see what other more experienced artists are doing. It helps to develop a discourse that is not localised but is national in depth. That is not to say that there are no particularities. For example Mumbai is considered more commercially inclined whereas Delhi seems to harbour the more critical and intellectual aspect and Bangalore is still trying to position itself maybe as the place to visit for new directions.
India artists are well positioned. The artists, writers, curators and gallerist are interested in South-South cultural exchanges, with the Asia Pacific region but also with the Middle East and Africa. The way things look, for the foreseeable future the opportunities are limitless. I was warmly welcomed and received by everyone and there seems to be genuine interest to engage more actively with Africa. I encourage African artists, writers and curators to GO EXPLORE!!!!!