ROUNDING UP 2021
It’s been quite an eventful year for the visual arts in India, despite the challenge that Covid has brought for artists, curators and galleries alike. For the final issue of 2021, we at Art in India wanted to present a round-up of some of the events from the year that made us introspect on the medium and the opportunity it presents for further engaging with audiences. We also have an insightful article on an NFT project at ARUSHI gallery authored by Shreya Ajmani. Finally, we close the issue with an interview our curator at Art In India, Shyamolie Madhavji, had with the founder of Astanzi, Satyajit Dave. Hop right in!
- Ankita Ghosh
Art round-up of 2021
1. Bihar Museum Biennale – held in between 22nd to 28th March, ‘Bihar, India and the World: Connecting People, Connecting Cultures’ was India’s first museum biennale. The biennale was organized in collaboration with the Dept. of Arts, Culture and Youth Affairs, Government of Bihar and it highlighted the majestic art and architectural grandeur of this historic state of India. A two-day virtual tour, a series of talks and masterclasses by eminent speakers from around the world held digitally made the event a huge success, despite the limits posed by Covid-19. The biennale presented a vast collection from across 14 public and private museums, and the emphasis was on the “confluence of physicality of object with the virtuality of interaction”.
2. Delhi Contemporary Art Week – an independent initiative to bring together art institutions in order to promote the visual arts in the capital, Delhi Contemporary art Week this year was held in between 3rd to 10th April. With “art-zones” spread across the city, it saw public and private art institutions coming together to generate awareness and build focus on modern and contemporary art in New Delhi with exhibitions, talks, walkthroughs being organized throughout the entirety of the event.
3. Art for India – a print sale initiative that started at a crucial time when countless Indians were suffering under the second wave of Covid-19 in the country, Art for India saw the coming together of some of the most celebrated artists from India and the diaspora in order to raise urgent funds for India’s Covid-19 relief. With the main sales being held in between 2nd to 9th May, all proceeds from the sales went towards supporting Mission Oxygen India, an NGO that was actively involved in importing and distributing oxygen supplies at the hour of need. Through collective efforts, and with support on social media, Art for India was able to raise £76k for the organization, which launched an urgent operation to import oxygen concentrators and distribute them to hospitals across the nation.
4. Mehlli Gobhai: Epiphanies – held at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, the exhibition was co-curated by Ranjit Hoskote and Nancy Adajania and traced breakthroughs from the long and illustrious career of the abstractionist painter, Mehlli Gobhai (1931-2018). With works from different phases of the artist’s life on display, it included his work in varied media – paintings, drawings, graphic works, sculptures and notebooks, as well as his practice as an author of children’s books. From Gobhai’s little-known polychrome paintings of the mid-1970s, when he responded both to everyday life and to the Pahari miniatures through the use of high colour: mint green, sunflower yellow, vermillion, and cobalt blue, to the transition towards dark, brooding palettes of black, grey and umber during the late 1970s and 1980s, Epiphanies documents the journey of the artist’s remarkable life and work. The show also highlighted the artist’s remarkable life studies and figurative drawings that demonstrate his commitments to both abstraction and the human presence throughout his career.
5. Where the Birds Never Sing (2017-2020) – Soumya Sankar Bose’s interactive exhibition held at Experimenter, Kolkata brought out real-life stories from the Marichjhapi massacre in Bengal in this project. Bose intricately documents the forcible eviction in 1979, of Bengali lower-caste refugees from Marichjhapi Island in Sunderbans, West Bengal and the subsequent death of thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease. With no written records to fall back on, Bose relied on oral history as a tool for his in-depth research for the project, and he weaves an intricate mesh of fact and fiction through his photographs. He brings to light several perspectives of the same narrative, forming a cryptic framework of this problematic history that is at risk of slow erasure from collective memory. Watch the deep dive with the artist on this link:
6. Keeping Institutions Contemporary: Residencies and the Curatorial – Organized as a part of the launch of TAKE on Art’s Quarantine issue, the panel discussion on ‘Keeping Institutions Contemporary: Residencies and the Curatorial’, was held at Bikaner House, New Delhi on 30th September 2021. The event was supported by Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council and the Embassy of Switzerland and also saw the launch of art writer and the recipient of the Art Writers’ Award 2020, Blessy Augustine’s ‘Independent People’. The discussion highlighted the crucial role played by the art curator when it comes to exhibition-making and the part played by art residencies.
7. Experimenter Curators’ Hub – hosted in between 9th to 14th November 2021, for the 11th edition the Curators’ Hub was held digitally this year, in collaboration with ArtReview. The participating curators and collaborators at ECH 2021 were Elvira Dyangani Ose, Lily Hall, Mikala Tai, Marc Goldenfein, Osei Bonsu, Rattanmol Singh Johal, Emily Jacir, Aline Khoury, Stephanie Rosenthal, with the phenomenal Rana Ayyub as a closing speaker, and Natasha Ginwala moderating the sessions over the five days of the Hub.
8. Currently ongoing: DAG’s latest, titled ‘Primitivism and Modern Indian Art’, offers a look at what primitivism signifies in the context of modern Indian art. Featuring works from 16 artists, this is available for viewing at DAG, The Claridges, New Delhi and online until the 25th of January 2022. With a diverse range of works taken from different time points, the artworks taken together provide an overview of the language of primitivism in India.
This Indian Gallery is on a quest to conquer the NFT realm
By Shreya Ajmani, writer and international press coordinator for Shama Shorties
ARUSHI, an Indian-owned and led gallery in Los Angeles, recently gathered an all-female team for an NFT project named Shama Shorties. Arushi Kapoor, the Gallery Director of this 12,000 square foot space in Echo Park, Los Angeles, and locations in London and New Delhi, is an enterprising art collector with an exceptional knack for spotting lucrative business opportunities. She has partnered with Lindsay Dawn, a well-known artist whose collectors range from Kylie Jenner to LeBron James.
Shama Shorties is a blockchain-based collection of 5,555 unique NFTs with an aim to connect the physical and metaverse art worlds through exclusive access to select print releases, art events globally, and first dibs on collectibles and merchandise. While there is much to like about the project, the underlying purpose is more pressing.
A large part of the motivation in creating an NFT collection, like Shama Shorties, is continuing to change the narrative on how we see the female form. Lizzie Teichner, the Operations Manager, says, “With the inspiration of Shama Shorties coming from Lindsay Dawn's art, we strive to emphasize her underlying themes and showcase the female form while desexualizing the imagery.” When asked about her experience with the project thus far, she adds, “I appreciate the ongoing opportunity to work alongside the women on our team as we navigate everything from illustration conception and building our Shama Shorties community to designing a roadmap and utilities that provide benefits to our members.”
Savannah Sullivan, better known as Sliz, who is the illustrator for the project, says, "Taking direction from Lindsay Dawn, I transform her vision to reality - using elements that are in Lindsay’s paintings. Together, we are creating a realm in the metaverse that people can build a community within. It’s been a powerful experience working with all women and absorbing the knowledge of the NFT space and communities. We see a big future for these avatars and see other lives in video games, toys, even television or animation shorts.
Lindsay Dawn, the Creative Director, quotes, “Transitioning from the physical art world to a digital space wouldn’t have been possible without the women on this team. Savannah has done a phenomenal job at bringing the aspects of my paintings to life, in the form of an NFT, while still maintaining her own creative style. After working closely with Lizzie in my professional career, she has been a vital part of both the internal and external communications of this project. Without Arushi’s talented guidance this project wouldn’t have come to fruition.”
The women behind this project have come together, bringing with them parts of their unique life experiences that contribute to the overall vision of Shama Shorties. Arushi concludes by saying, "My experience working with the team has been great. We are always in communication with each other and always in collaboration. All of us, in our capacity, are learning - my job is about making sure our project is sold out and successful and having a roadmap ready!”
Shama Shorties will be available soon.
Follow @shamashorties on Twitter and Instagram for more!
A conversation with Satyajit Dave
An independent curator and art consultant, Satyajit Dave began his tryst with the fine arts as a Bachelors and Masters student at MSU Baroda, where he specialized in Art History and Aesthetics. Very clear that he wanted to get into the arts right from his school days, it was his university education that gave him early exposure to exhibition-making and curation. Dave also comes from a family that is culturally aware and has grown up looking at a lot of art, antiquities and objects of design around him in the family. Later, it was the Khoj Peers Residency, which put him in touch with a lot of other practitioners and gave him real-world experience in the industry. Having developed his curatorial practice over the years, Dave currently works towards greater accessibility in the arts with technology at his one-of-a-kind initiative – Astanzi. For this issue, our curator at Art in India, Shyamolie Madhavji, sat down with Satyajit Dave to discuss all things art. Here are some excerpts from their conversation.
Challenges as a Curator
This depends from gallery to gallery, where every project is a different challenge. I think one of the biggest challenges for curatorial practice in India is to be able to engage with the audience in an effective manner. At the same time, it is also how to expand your audience. We have very few people who actually walk into galleries. Museums, on the other hand, are quite different. I was very happy and delighted to see that Mumbai currently has a great museum-going audience. And kudos to the museums for that. Kudos to people like Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tasneem Zakaria Mehta to actually try and engage the audiences in a way where they eagerly look forward to going to museums.
But by and large, the gallery audience is less, i.e. the audience that goes out to see contemporary art. Contemporary art, itself, is quite complex and dense because a lot of work, nowadays, is also very research-oriented, where it’s the research that becomes the work. So people need to spend hours to go through every single document and text and only then can the engagement happen. These are the challenges that curators face in terms of the gallery space or in terms of the audience space. Personally, I think it’s the audience, it’s how do you engage more with the audience. For me, that’s the challenge, because it is also my area of interest. I’m more interested in talking to a lot of new people, getting them on board. To me it adds to the experience of viewing art, otherwise, it’s just the same 20 people or the same 200 people you end up seeing at galleries.
The journey of Astanzi
I come from a typical Gujarati business family. So it’s the inherent quality of growing up to become a businessman that’s expected. But I was very specific about getting into the arts right from the beginning. When I was in school, I used to go on YouTube and look forward to these curatorial walkthroughs or these art auction videos, and it was a very nerdy thing to do, but I loved it. Sotheby’s had a lot of these international walkthroughs or the auction videos or videos of their auctioneers or their sales consultants talking about their works of art. One guy I was extremely drawn to was Tobias Meyer, who’s retired now, but again he was considered to be one of the prolific auctioneers of the 21st century.
I was very keen to get into that kind of a space. And at the same time, that business side always kicks in, because you have grown up in that environment. Early on, for me, it was to look at how we can develop an ecosystem that has the ability to open up conversation about the arts. I wanted to engage with a larger audience, and I don’t just mean people who come see art, buy art or view art, but I also mean people who are working within the arts sector. That’s how Astanzi was envisioned or conceptualized and I started it when I was in college. After my second year, I officially launched the company. Initially it was just me organizing these small walkthroughs, or private viewings, and engaging with a small audience and it used to be these closed-door events. And one year into the initiative, I also started the website called astanzi.com. Astanzi started as an online gallery, but it was also an e-commerce portal. So one could come online, look at artworks, they could buy things online, so on and so forth. That is how it had started, and I started all of this in 2013, back when online was not even considered to be proper—it was considered to be a “bad” thing.
Initially we didn’t get a lot of traction because there was a lot of apprehension – interestingly not from the buyers perspective, or from the people who just wanted to view art, but the resistance was from within the arts community. A lot of artists, curators, weren’t very keen with the online model. But now luckily things are picking up. We are beginning a major design upgrade, which we are looking to launch soon. We’ve begun working with writers, who are working on some great articles and blogs. We’ve also gotten a bunch of very exciting curators onboard, young practitioners from diverse backgrounds. We have someone who’s an indologist, somebody who specializes in pre-modern Indian art, specifically 12th-18th century paintings. And somebody who’s working on materiality and feminist practices. So it’s a lot of fun and we have a diverse roster.
Recently we’ve also launched our learning program, so we’re engaging with a diverse range of people, to come teach online. This is the first course that we are launching, which is an online course. And then after that, we already have 7 courses which are planned out, which we’ll start launching soon. Our online workshops are basically our way of engaging with audiences and also educating our audiences in a certain way. We’re looking at how to educate our audiences in different formats. Along with that, we’ve also been launching into documentation and archiving, and digitizing collections.
Experience with the virtual medium
There is nothing that can take away from looking at a work in the flesh. It’s a whole different experience. It is almost spiritual, and that kind of experience is very difficult to replace. Having said so, online audiences, and the way online trends function, I think it’s a great way to engage with people. One of the first exhibitions that we did, the footfall for that exhibition on our website was 12,000 people. And out of those 12k people, about 8-9k people also spent a good 35-40 minutes on the website. You don’t get that kind of interaction or that level of footfall in a physical gallery. Even during non-covid times, it was difficult to get that kind of traction. It gives you an indication of where things are headed.
Of course, it’s a great way to get people on board. But one of the biggest challenges of an online medium is that in order to completely do justice to the way viewer navigation happens, you need the website or the web portal to be extremely tech-savvy. These “virtual spaces” often put up 3D walkthroughs of their space and there are images of artworks in there. It’s a great way to engage the audience on an initial level, but with these formats or 3D mockups, the trouble is the image quality. When one can’t see a really high-resolution photograph, people are put off eventually.
Remarkable art experience
Oh there are many! But one, in particular, was when I started my Masters thesis, which was on fakes and forges in Indian art. And it’s a very hush-hush topic. So I met with various researchers who’ve already worked on this, I met with a lot of people with the auction background. Interestingly I also got an opportunity to meet a forger. And that was a revelation – in terms of how a forger looks at that kind of work and that kind of process. So yeah I think that was one of the most remarkable experiences I have had. But other than that, my other very nice and sweet experience was when I moved to Bombay, because I moved to Bombay immediately after my bachelors and masters program. And interacting with people from the contemporary space, meeting artists at openings was one of the nicest experiences that I’ve had.
That’s all from the team at Art in India for 2021. We hope to bring forth discussions on all things art in the new year. Here’s hoping for a great start to the new year for all our readers and subscribers!