India Art Fair 2019: On the edge, provocative and at times even revolutionary

Now in its 11th edition, the India Art Fair has been consistently pushing the envelope and expanding on its spread of contemporary art offerings over the years
Tayeba Begum Lipi, The Colombian Boots
Tayeba Begum Lipi, The Colombian Boots

THE heightened sense of anticipation at the India Art Fair 2019 cuts like a knife through the clouds of winter smog hanging low over the NSIC Grounds of the capital. The shows of note at the festival are many, by a number of acclaimed artists from India and overseas, but a few names have everybody’s attention piqued like icicles in a snow storm.

The name on everybody’s mind seems to be of the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, whose selected works will be on show, hosted by Berlin-based gallery neugerriemschneider, who’re making their debut exhibit at the fair. You could expect glimpses of Weiwei’s works across sculpture, film, photography, and even music, while printed documentations of his mammoth, typically warehouse-sized installations would leave a lot to the imagination.

The India Art Fair, now in its 11th edition, led by Fair Director Jagdip Jagpal, with upto 75 leading galleries in attendance, has consistently expanded on its spread of contemporary art offerings over the years, at the same time, broadening the gamut of emotions at play on the grounds — from jaw-dropping, momentous awe to acute agony, and even angst, brandished in riotous colours — in reaction to some of the works on display.

Slowing down time
When it comes to the artist Tayeba Begum Lipi from Bangladesh, those sentiments can tend to go overboard — into highly strung, emotionally perilous territory. Tayeba, who has rapidly gained her place in the international spotlight over the last year, will present her first solo show at the festival, titled Vanity Fair, curated by Anushka Rajendran, and hosted by Shrine Empire.

Tayeba keeps up her ongoing preoccupations with critical takes on commodification, literally breathing new life into sculptural installations built with her signature and symbolic element of razor blades.

As a  startling commentary on changing cultural mores and social perceptions, Tayeba’s creations are likely to leave viewers in a mixed state of wide-eyed fascination and dreadful torment, if not squirming in outrage, and crawling out of their skin.

But that’s just what the artist expects, especially having set a precedent with her earlier creations such as of a baby’s cradle, a perambulator, a rocking chair, assorted handbags, stilettos and boots, and even women’s undergarments — all crafted painstakingly out of layers of glistening, knifelike razor blades. With Tayeba, the art at hand instantly turns edgy, supremely intense and thoroughly invigorating.

While Tayeba’s exhibition is on at the Shrine Empire Gallery in Defence Colony (until March 2, 2019), the gallery’s booth at the fair will host a bunch of artists including Ayesha Singh, Fariba S Alam, Khushbu Patel, Neerja Kothari, the duo of Omer Wasim & Saira Sheikh, Samanta Batra Mehta, Sangita Maity, Sonia Khurana and Zoya Siddiqui — each of them exploring the idea of ‘slowness’ in their works. 

The gallery, in a note about its display, keeps up its well-intentioned rhetoric. “How can we formulate a vocabulary of resistance that is aware of heterogeneous post-colonial time, polyphonic spaces and departures from the libidinal post-industrial patterns of consumption?” proposes the curatorial note. 

It goes on to explain that the thoughts that unite this collection of art are all in sync, in a concerted effort to slow things down. “Critiquing modernity would entail a critique of the vocabulary of speed,” says the note.

As conceived by Anushka (including Vanity Fair), this entire exhibition is looking “to refract chronological time to reveal the eternities it conceals — to slow down and immerse in liminal spaces, sensorial anomalies, and incommensurable stories”, adds the note. In essence, you’re urged to take your  time and linger over the many engrossing pieces on display.

The message from Shine Empire might well set the overall mood at the India Art Fair, almost breaking through the clutter with an emphasis on a relaxed, unhurried way of spending time. The impact of technology, in particular, becomes the central impulse in many of the artist’s concerns. The note elaborates: “‘Slow’ is a sensibility, always relational... ‘Slow’, is a sensorial engagement with the modern ethical and ecological problems offered by speed...” 

In parts, the exhibition turns poetic in purview, as the note offers: “‘Slow’ is a message in a bottle tossed into the open sea, subject to non-calibrated currents, the steep crescendo of hurricanes and the gravitational pull of the moon. It is attuned to the rhythms of nature, contra-modernities, and a flux of differential phenomena including compassion for the triumphs and detritus of modernity.”

Postcards from years ago
To be forewarned, the art speak will be most full-blown in many of the parallel series of talks and artist projects at the fair, even as the film screenings and live performances aim to push the envelop just a little further, making this a leading platform for modern and contemporary South Asian art. The noteworthy projects, meanwhile, are aplenty.

Consider Delhi-based artist Baaraan Ijlal’s sound installation Change Room, of recordings of people’s narratives and conversations about fear, anxiety and loneliness; artist and Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura’s video work, a part of an ongoing project titled The Coast, exploring a frighteningly fast-changing, post-truth world; and a “filmic diary of light” by Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya, titled We Step and Do Not Step Into the Same River, presented as a sort of meditation over “often overlooked poetics of the everyday”.

Architect Pinakin Patel offers a playful response to the idea of idol worship, where viewers are invited to paint a rock placed in the centre of the booth with turmeric and vermillion, as a part of the project, Food for Thought, Thought for Creativity, Creativity for Life. In The Layer, Avadh-born artist Neha Verma creates an installation out of papers delicately cut to look like carpets, in an exquisite showcase of craftsmanship.

Elsewhere, the assemblages turn chaotic, as in artist and environmental activist Ravi Agarwal’s mixed-media installation The Desert of the Anthropocene, which recreates an industrialised landscape with text, photographs, videos and objects.

Shanthamani Muddaiah from Bengaluru will be among the leading artists from South India at the fair, represented by Gallery Sumukha, showing her works of burnt bamboo and cane in Carbon Wave, to serve as a deeply introspective commentary on nature and sustainability, while Kerala-born artist Madhusudhanan touches upon film history, the colonial period and contemporary politics in his two-channel video work, Light House

The aspect of resistance shines through in a handful of works such as Shalini S Vichitra’s A Thousand White Flags, which imagines a Tibetan landscape covered with strings of Buddhist prayer flags — with reference to resistance against Chinese control over the region. Accompanied by visuals and sounds, the effect in result is an absorbing, immersive environment for visitors to experience.

For a touch of nationalistic pride, Delhi-based artist and photographer Manisha Gera Baswani presents a compilation of postcards, sharing stories of Indian and Pakistani artists whose families travelled across the border during the Partition in 1947. The postcards are displayed in wheat sacks, for visitors to look at and take home — adding a neat interactive takeaway element to the proceedings.

Shifting scenes and perceptions
Among other collections to look out for at the fair this year are selected works by US-based Indian artist Zarina Hashmi, hosted by Gallery Espace, primarily in intaglio, woodblock, lithography and silkscreen, addressing themes of home, displacement, borders, trauma and memory. 

The notion of time is central to the practice of Idris Khan as well, reprented by Galerie Isa, as he explores the interaction between the  past, present and future, referencing source material from literature, history, art, music and religion to produce works that span painting, sculpture, wall drawing and photomechanical reproduction. Rekha Rodwittya, known for her largely autobiographical paintings of women, will be the mainstay of the Sakshi Gallery display, while pioneering photographer Thomas Ruff will be on his first India visit, hosted by David Zwirner Gallery. 

There will be a fair share of historical works to take in as well, especially with Masterpieces of Indian Modern Art, a collection presented by DAG (formerly Delhi Art Gallery) to offer a bird’s-eye view of Indian modernism in a host of rare and iconic artworks.

“One of the factors that also governed the process of selection was the size of the works. Most of them are monumental, or large, and some would definitely be among the largest works created by these artists,” explains Ashish Anand, MD & CEO, DAG. Look out for a glass mural by Avinash Chandra, a townscape installation by SK Bakre, and a free-standing sculpture by Meera Mukherjee alongside selected works by SH Raza, MF Husain, FN Souza, Krishen Khanna, Hemen Mazumdar, Ram Kumar, Shanti Dave, J Swaminathan, Sohan Qadri, KH Ara, Prabhakar Barwe, GR Santosh, Manjit Bawa, Madhvi Parekh, Rabin Mondal and Paritosh Sen.

The highlight here is a rare Jamini Roy painting, of a meeting between Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi — a piece that has been widely written about, but never before seen in public. 

The Museum of Art & Photography, in turn, will take a multi-disciplinary approach in its own display, exploring a curatorial strategy that aims to break down the boundaries between photography and painting, and also to challenge the binaries between perceptions of ‘tribal’, ‘outsider’ and ‘contemporary’ art.

The display involves photographic works by Jyoti Bhatt, Gond-Pardhan paintings by Jangarh Singh Shyam and modernist paintings by J Swaminathan in a single space. Amit Kumar Jain, Head of Exhibitions at MAP explains, “The exhibition will encourage audiences understand how each of these practitioners are united by responding to a shared rural landscape, rather than separated through their given medium and style.” 

A notable entry at the fair is of Emami Art, which will present a booth curated by advisor and consultant Anupa Mehta, of works that place an emphasis on non-representational, abstract and minimalist styles — by SH Raza and Zarina Hashmi as well as Dashrath Patel and VS Gaitonde, alongside Himmat Shah, Ganesh Haloi, RM Palaniappan, Bose Krishnamachari, and the emerging artists Sharmistha Ray, Parul Thacker, Sachin Tekade and Surajit Biswas.

Do the write thing
Over and above the classic collections, the India Art Fair will serve to introduce and explore new forms in contemporary art.

Our pick to that effect is Astha Butail’s solo show, In the Absence of Writing, curated by Reha Sodhi and hosted as an India Art Fair collateral event by The Gujral Foundation at its experimental site, 24 Jor Bagh.

Represented by Bengaluru’s GALLERYSKE, the artist who lives and works in Gurgaon, spent a year on the move, researching memory and living traditions that are passed on through teachings and oral poetry, with a focus on Zoroastrian Avesta, the Jewish Oral Torah and Indian Vedic philosophy. 

In her work, Astha employs geometry, cultural systems and oral traditions to present her journey through abstracted hymns from the Rig Veda and varied mediums. The artist draws parallels between traditions, while playing with video, sound, sculpture and experiential installations that invite the viewer to an interactive exploration of cultural values, lived spaces and notions of time. 

“In ancient traditions, memory and knowledge were often transferred using the basis of mathematics and algorithms,” offers Reha in a curatorial note. “Astha’s practice responds to this by incorporating geometry to explore ways in which composite elements relate to a whole,” she explains. “In a fast-paced, technology-driven world, Astha reconnects us to worlds in which traditions and ideas are still shared slowly, through deeper inter-personal connections.” 

As art trends go — from forms of activism and protest to various stages of abstraction, collaboration and multi-disciplinary projects — the India Art Fair, with its extended programming that includes curated walks, as well as a special segment on Collecting Masterclasses, will certainly set the precedent for other art festivals this year, even as its influence is witnessed across new projects at Biennales from Fort Kochi to Venice. With the best of works from the extreme boundaries of contemporary art at hand, you’re invited to join in, and grab a spot at the edge of your seat.

India Art Fair 2019: Parallel events of note

Arvind Indigo Museum
Ahmedabad’s highly anticipated Arvind Indigo Museum promises to tell the story of indigo, a natural dye that holds a special place in India’s history. Its name — derived from the Greek indikon, meaning ‘from India’ — reveals a centuries-old tie. The first exhibition Alchemy will present works that experiment with indigo in innovative ways. A dedicated space is set to follow later this year, as a permanent home. At Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, Ahmedabad.

Thukral & Tagra will present their project Lullaments, exploring the idea of ‘play’ from a strategic and psychological perspective. The series considers meditative aspects of play, trying to illustrate Hindu mythology through the terminology of ping-pong. The idea of narrating mythology with a sport vocabulary challenges notions of cultural matter as pedantic knowledge. Until February 25. At STIR Gallery, Chattarpur. 

Arpita Singh Retrospective
This retrospective exhibition of Kolkata-born Arpita Singh presents the rare opportunity to view six decades of art practice by one of India’s most significant women artists, curated by Roobina Karode. Until June 30. At Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket. 

Deeper Within its Silence
Curated by Sumakshi Singh, this exhibition explores ephemeral ‘non-things’ — thought, sound, vibration, light, movement — in works by Alwar Balasubramaniam, Zarina Hashmi, Sheela Gowda, Vivan Sundaram, Manish Nai, Idris Khan and Mithu Sen. Until March 4. At Devi Art Foundation, Okhla. 

India Art Fair 2019 is on at the NSIC Grounds, New Delhi until February 3, 2019.

Related Stories

No stories found.