Luminously Between Eternities: Waswo X Waswo plays curator for the evolution of miniature art
Well-known artist Waswo X Waswo, the American photographer and writer based in Udaipur, Rajasthan dons the role of curator for his next major project — a group exhibition that celebrates ‘contemporary miniature traditions’ of art.
Titled Luminously Between Eternities, and tag-lined ‘The contemporary miniature as evolution’, the show features the works of 18 selected artists working in the contemporary miniature medium, while being juxtaposed with traditional, vintage miniatures from Waswo’s own collection.
For the show’s concept note, Waswo quotes Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, from the book My Name is Red: “Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities...” In an email interaction, Waswo explained his efforts to aid the evolution of age-old traditions, while embracing modern methods at the same time.
You present some rather strong ideas in the concept note: Of "tradition" not being static and "change" being the norm. Is this a general sentiment as a reaction to the times, and ongoing concerns over global affairs? Art, like every other field of culture, is constantly in a state of resurgence, and revival. How does this show fit into the idea of preserving, and upholding indigenous traditions for the future?
We are living in an age of rapid change on a global scale. We all feel a little overwhelmed by the speed of this change, but if we look back at history, change has of course been a constant, and the only thing different about our own times is the rapidity.
I would say our times are akin to the Industrial Revolution, when society suddenly experienced tremendous upheaval due to the invention of mechanics and production lines. The changes we are experiencing are due to the interconnectedness of our thoughts on a global scale after the creation of the Internet and the ambitions of globalists and populists alike.
In such times, old ways of communication and production risk becoming extinct. This is as true in the arts as it is in any other endeavor. The genre of contemporary art is often associated with slick processes at monumental scale, and artists who only conceptualise works but have no real involvement in the process of making.
I myself straddle a thin line between a contemporary way of working and a traditional way of working. So as a curator, I have tried in this exhibition to explore the slow, patient, skill of the hand that is coordinated to sharp eyes, but also the way notions of the "the contemporary" have fused with, and sometimes morphed, this process.
We're interested particularly in the infusion of modern elements into these works - such as of the cell phone or other objects of new-age technology. Is this an idea that the artists warmed up to, and accepted readily? Did you have to convince any of them that such works do not in any way remove the purist aspects of miniature art?
As a curator, I approached this exhibition determined not to influence individual artists in the ways they are exploring their creative pathways. I made a list of artists that I wished to highlight in this show, and then asked them what they were working on, or what they currently had available.
I think a curator's role should be to discover what artists are exploring, and then figure out how to select and present that in a cohesive manner. Many curators ask artists to work according to themes, but for me, I would never wish to distract an artist from their own explorations. So what you see in Luminously Between Eternities is a selection of work in a miniature-influenced style that is being produced today.
Tell us about how you met the 18 artists, whose works will be shown at this exhibition. Do you see yourself as a mentor and guide for these artists, and how do you hope to promote their work, even after the show?
No, no, I am certainly not anyone's mentor and guide! Some of these artists had been creating what is now known as 'contemporary miniature art' long before I came on the scene. There are four artists from Udaipur in this exhibition: Lalit Sharma, Yugal Sharma, Chhotu Lal and Rajaram Sharma.
All of them were working in a contemporary miniature style well before I came along, and even though they all live in the same city as me, I rarely see them. They are well -known in miniature painting circles, as is Mahaveer Swami who lives in Bikaner. Mahaveer exhibits his work all around the world. He's in numerous important collections. Yugal Sharma was recently featured in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
So I am hardly a mentor, much less a guide, but I do take great honour in presenting these artists to a wider public that may have never encountered them. There are Indian artist in this exhibition and a few foreign ones as well, such as Olivia Fraser, who is the wife of noted author William Dalrymple, and Alexander Gorlizki, who works between Jaipur and New York. There are quite a few newer and younger artist represented too. It is a great mixture of established and emerging talent.
Your personal interest in miniature art, as you've said before, goes back a few decades. While for many of these artists, their interests actually go back a few generations. How do you hope to rekindle interest in miniature art among the younger generation - perhaps to make them see how interesting and engrossing such work is, and how they need to accord some amount of encouragement, and even respect, to traditional art forms that we have now come to take granted, even when it is an invaluable part of our history, and culture.
That is a good question. Many younger artists wish to take traditional miniature style as a springboard from which they can then leap into quite far flung innovations without learning the traditional craft.
It is extremely sad actually that the karkhana (miniaturist workshop) tradition of guru and chela has almost totally disappeared. The youth no longer have the patience, and the market is difficult, especially considered the high skill levels and amounts of time that go into traditional miniature paintings.
Only two decades ago, a young miniaturist would be told to just sketch with pencil for one year's time, and then for another year he would just grind pigments before he was even allowed to pick up a brush. How is a learning process like that going to compete with quicker contemporary methods and a voracious market that demands something new and exciting each month?
I don't think any one person can change this situation. It is a complex social and economic issue. Sadly, what mostly keeps the old art tradition alive is the tourist trade, but that has also had the corrosive effect of diluting the sensitivity, materials, and quality.
How would you describe the "contemporary miniaturist" as different from traditional miniaturists? How have things changed over the years, and has technology helped in improving the artist's methods and techniques?
I think one thing people need to understand about this exhibition is that they will not be seeing what they might expect in a show about miniature art. Works will range from vintage miniatures in the Mewar and Marwar schools, to works that interpret "miniature" in a very different way. There will be a selection of miniature paintings from my own collection. These are not for sale, but are meant to juxtapose the vintage with the contemporary.
The contemporary might be Varunika Saraf's exquisite series Low Tide, which examines with watercolour the tiny shells and pieces of coral she has found along the beach. Saraf's suite might seem more like diagrams from a naturalist's notebook, but what her paintings have in common with the tradition is her intricate and exquisite brushwork, and the way she grinds her own pigments, painstakingly, in the traditional manner.
We couldn't help but notice the presence of a handful of women artists here - many of them from India, and some of them from overseas. Has miniature art, since the age of royal patronage, traditionally been a realm of male artists? Please give us your views about how the male-dominated aspect of commissioned art has changed over the years, and how you hope to make a difference specifically in that aspect, by aiding and nurturing the talents of women artists.
There are quite a few women artist in the exhibition: Gopa Trivedi, Meenakshi Sengupta, Anindita Bhattacharya and more. The notion that miniature art is a male preserve has been broken down for some years now. Contemporary miniature painting itself was first popularised by two UK sisters, now known most often as just The Singh Sisters. So in this movement women have been there from the beginning, and they address their issues in their own manner.
We haven't seen you perform the role of a curator too often, not as much as we've known you as an immensely popular artist. Was it fun putting together this show? What manner of concerns did you have to address, putting together this show - concerns that might be of a very different nature from that of making and creating art?
I curated my first real exhibition a few years back in Penang, Malaysia. As an artist I was hesitant to make that leap, even though I had been invited by a person with strong curatorial background. As an artist I was reluctant to wear the hat. But certain curator friends of mine reminded me that in fact I had always been a curator, many times putting together my own exhibitions without any help. They urged me with reminders that not only had I often curated my own work, but that I had the necessary critical, visual, literary and organisational skills. So I made the leap, and the show in Penang was a success.
This is now the second time that I've curated a major exhibition. It has been hard, but the experience is also immensely rewarding. I haven't approached this as a propagandist for one cause or another or one style of art or another. I have approached my job as in, "Look at this. See what is going on? See the links with tradition? Please think about what you see, and not only take pride in Indian tradition, but India's contemporary scene as well."
Luminously Between Eternities opens on November 30, with a symposium on December 1. At Gallery Ark, Vadodara.