India Art Fair 2014 Explored By Manoj Nair and Tatiana de Stempel

They were all there at the India Art Fair, 2014 that was held between January 30 and February 2. Neha Kirpal, founder and director, India Art Fair is a proud person. She has enough reasons to be, because beyond the figures — 91 exhibitors, which includes Delhi Art Gallery with 330 works covering 400 square metres, 1000 artists from 60 countries and sales of more than Rs 20 crore and 96% of exhibitors reporting a sell out — it was about a platform to debate about what is good art and what is bad art. Does it have a place in the marketplace? If so, is it art at all?

“This year the India Art Fair focused on contemporary art by young artists from India and abroad. The art fair was all about education and access,” says Neha, She thinks it has been more democratic than ever before with the footfalls being dominated by people from every walk of life and every age group. It is no longer elitist; there were crowds of school children visiting the fair.

This, of course, is the place to be. With 12 new galleries from cities including Paris, Lisbon, Cologne, Barcelona, Madrid, Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Karachi, most of whom sold out completely.

Probably the single biggest buyer of the 2014 edition of India Art Fair was Kiran Nadar, founder and director of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. She was pleased as punch with not just the addition to her collection of art but those to her thoughts as well, courtesy “the world class speakers forum line up”.
The KNMA was one of a number of international museums present at the fair, including The Himalayas Art Museum in Shanghai and the Mark Rothko Museum in Latvia. In addition a number of major international museum delegations and representatives attend this years art fair.
 The first work that caught your attention as you walked in: M.I.S.S.I.N.G. by artist Leena Kejriwal, which reflects the growing gender gap in India, which has led to severe imbalances in parts of the country. Fuelled by sex-selective abortion, infanticide and the death of girls through neglect, this work forms part of a national debate about women’s rights triggered by sexual violence.
This was also a fair where some prominent galleries like The Guild, Gallery Maskara and Latitude 28 chose to just showcase solo projects. LN Tallur’s Path Finder (Booth P2), Subodh Gupta’s Aura (Booth P5), Sheba Chachi’s The Mermaid’s Mirror (Booth P4), Dayanita Singh’s File Room (Booth P6), Narendra Yadav’s That Original May Also Be a Reflection (Booth P8) stood out because they were statements beyond the marketplace.
“It was the only way to get in touch with the general audience and break free from the vulgarity of an ivory tower,” said the gallerist from Perve Galeria, Lisbon, Portugal who showed artist Joao Garcia Miguel’sWhat Interests Me About Heads Is This (Booth P9).

Chris Dercon, director of London’s Tate Modern was particularly appreciative of these individual projects and said that there are, finally, few works that one cannot buy at a fair and celebrated the work of artist Riyas Komu, A Collector’s Room (Booth P1), during one of the sessions at the Speakers Forum, where he was the interlocutor, as a case in point.

And he could not have been far away from the truth because what he was alluding to was best reflected in what was called a Triangular Encounter, an event hosted by Dubai’s 1X1 gallery, between photographer Nemai Ghosh, Benodebehari Mukherjee and Satyajit Ray. Both the artist and the filmmaker are no more. “My first protagonist in these intersecting narratives is Nemai Ghosh, whose works are the focus of this major exhibition of the Bengali photographer. These pictures make visible the actual process of making a film,” said Professor Partha Mitter of the ‘encounter’. The unique encounter, according to him, is also a narrative being told with empathy sans sentimentality, “of a painter who had lost his sight but was determined to overcome his physical handicap, realising his images in wax, paper and finally in an ambitious mural documented in the film.”
The fair was contemporary, well curated and well run. In fact the IAF was not culturally specific and it could have been at any art fair anywhere, I was speaking with Nuzhat Kazmi about this she said that it had taken Indians a long time to move away from work that was culturally specific.

Another work that addressed the scourge of gender inequality was Revati Sharma Singh’s Brocken Moments where she makes a collage of the colorful boxes that are used by girls to keep their trinkets and other jewellery. A trip to Delhi’s Janpath area would give a glimpse how teenage girls the throng he line of shops on the street to pick up these boxes, a source of immense joy, otherwise absent in their lives. She uses these boxes to convey the message of how Indians treat the girl child.

There was a predominance of mainly male artists at the fair apart from established artist like Nalini Malini, who is having five exhibitions at the same time. Prutal Dash follows in the line of Indian painting with controlled and mannered work with surrealistic elements.  Ranbir Kaleka also works in this style and had produced a digital print for the fair made up of layers of digital images.
Binoy Varghese makes a very stark departure from his usual line of work, which largely centred around depiction of innocence and exploitation. This time, he retains his trademark floral background but brings to the fore a piercing reminder of how the Indian mind-set is racist at the core. India has a history of colour preferences best reflected in the matrimonial advertisements. Prospective grooms looking for alliances would state their preference for ‘fair’ girls. The cosmetic industry is driven by fairness creams for both men and women. This had inspired movement by a popular Indian film star, Nandita Das, who is dark skinned, called Black Is Beautiful, the source for the title of these new works by Binoy, which he says is part of a series that he, is working on. The idea for the series first sowed the seeds in Binoy’s mind when he recalled Martin Luther King’s famous I have a Dream speech. The subject of Binoy’s work, a dark-skinned girl, is embedded in the Indian psyche and reared its ugly head once again when a popular politician recently made remarks about how Indian hospitals were not a pleasant place to be for the ill because they were looked after by nurses from south India who are swarthy. Binoy has picked up this theme at the right moment when India is sporting all pretensions of evolution from its dark ages.

A fair thus became a fair to remember for those who were there, neither to  buy nor sell, but to get closer to sense and sensibility. The unsighted found light. The unread stumbled upon the alphabet. The unheard got a voice. The language broke barriers. And East met West.
Words/Photos Manoj Nair and Tatiana de Stempel © Artlyst 2014

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