A gallery of imagination and intuition

Clichés aside, art imitates life. The sixth edition of the Delhi Contemporary Art Week (DCAW) presented by six galleries, encapsulates the concerns of our times
Shailesh BR's 'Topiary II'. (Photo | Express)
Shailesh BR's 'Topiary II'. (Photo | Express)

Clichés aside, art imitates life. The sixth edition of the Delhi Contemporary Art Week (DCAW) presented by six galleries, encapsulates the concerns of our times. Themes of identity, migration, ecological crisis and political conflict escape being clichés through the angularities of vision and varied mediums of both the participants and their gallerists. More than 90 artists—the largest representation yet at DCAW––invoked and translated their experiences and perceptions to tell stories of both personal and shared histories. Their works express optimism and resilience, giving life something to imitate from art. 

Vadehra Art Gallery: Collectors’ Choice

One of the capital city’s premium galleries, Vadehra has used mediums as the message. There is Atul Dodiya’s crayon-like oil canvas and Jagannath Panda’s mixed media art on plywood. Sachin George Sebastian’s two hand-cut paper collages resemble black-and-white chrysanthemums. Two of the most striking pieces are by American-Pakistani artist Zaam Arif. His oil-on-linen works of a man—shown both from the front and the back—which explore a binary existential question, have a derivative touch. They also bring to mind self-portraits of a young Jogen Chowdhury—the same subdued and dark palette, anointing brooding figures.

“There’s a significant change in the collector demographic. Hence, we show works in different mediums and price ranges to appeal to a diverse audience,” says director Roshini Vadehra. Delhi-based Shailesh BR, who draws inspiration from the collage art of the late Shantiniketan master Benode Behari Mukherjee, has two projects on display, one of which is inspired by French painter Henri Matisse’s The Red Room. His collection of 40 watercolours and gouache pieces can be called compelling because of their sophisticated simplicity. Done during his art residency in Vienna this year, they possess the vulnerable feeling of rediscovered innocence: an illustrated colour book for children at first glance.

“They appear simple and straightforward because drawing for me is like maintaining a diary. It’s putting down a blueprint of the final outcome, especially of the kinetic sculptures I work on. Think of traditional Indian manuscripts where the image is accompanied by text. Also, the Ganjifa paintings of Mysuru have deeply influenced my practice,” says the artist, who has been showing at the DCAW since its inception.

Shrine Empire: Memory Capsule

Gallerist Anahita Taneja may not have had a theme in mind for Shrine Empire’s show, but the lingering streak of nostalgia and personal history through the works is undeniable. Take, for instance, Samanta Batra Mehta’s Memory Box series. The New York-based artist takes vintage photographs of strangers, maps of places––real and imagined––and puts them in glass jars. She then arranges the jars in old wooden boxes to recreate an apothecary’s table. “I invite the viewer to examine the relationship between experience and internal states of dreams, desire, fears and fantasies,” explains Batra, talking about the alchemy of the conscious and the subconscious.

Shruti Mahajan’s Salvage series harks back to a bygone time. She repurposes correspondence, receipts and other documents from her family archives to fashion new envelopes. “It is interesting to see how these documents become useless after a person moves away or dies. Cutting them up is an act of erasure, but I am also reframing them. They are basically collage forms where the past and present are juxtaposed; where I see time as circular,” says the Hyderabad-based artist. Taneja’s main objective is to use the exhibition as a forum for fresh voices; new arrivals are Arun Dev and Resting Museum (artist duo of Priyanka D’Souza and Shreyasi Pathak). “A lot of visitors are interested in younger artists. They not only want to see their works, they also want to buy them,” Taneja says, adding that the exhibits are priced between Rs 50,000 and Rs 3 lakh.

Gallery Espace: Weaves of Resilience   

Textiles tie together the exhibits showcased by Gallery Espace like a ‘common thread’. Says veteran gallerist Renu Modi: “We wanted a specially curated show rather than just an exhibition of the works of our artists. We realised that many of them used textiles. In this edition, we focus on their processes, techniques and materials. It’s important to note that the artists don’t use it just as a medium, but as a tool.” An example is Harendra Kushwaha’s Parched Terrain series, which comprises intricately woven paper sculptures that look like pieces of jute sacks and tell tales of the labourers of his village in the Terai foothills of Nepal.

At the outset, the work is a minimalist triumph, but a closer look reveals the exceptional detailing that went into its making. The same goes for It Will Heal by Mekhala Bahl. She has pasted a piece of black-and-white patterned Khadi fabric on an uneven wooden board to form engraved marks that resemble cuts and wounds. The resilience, both of the artistic effort and the medium, is self-explanatory. The Delhi-based Bahl says, “The journey of a wound, physical or mental, interests me. The title refers to the different stages of healing.” For her, the piece evokes reassurance. “Although the idea of wounds stems from personal stories of pain, an aerial view makes it resemble a cityscape, making the hope more universal,” she says.  A wound with a view is more like it.

Exhibit 320: Homage to Home

Sri Lankan artist Priyantha Udagedara is a master of illusion. The two gigantic circular canvases awash in gold dominate two different floors of the venue. While they are gorgeously arrayed with tropical vegetation and a rich, colourful landscape typical of the island, a closer inspection shows a different picture, one distraught with civil wars and violence. Here, flowers are entwined by barbed wire. “The artist talks about Sri Lanka and how it looks picture-perfect on the outside, while it throbs with the tension within. ‘Paying homage’ is Delhi-based artist Sumakshi Singh’s statement too this time,” explains gallery director Rasika Kajaria.

Singh’s thread sculptures look ethereal; floating installations which represent the filament memories of her grandparents’ home––the only place that offered her a sense of home and security. Guwahati-based Wahida Ahmed, who debuted at the DCAW this year is also paying tribute to a cause rather than personal memory. Her works tell stories of migrants using political imagery and draws the displaced into the artistic conversation.

Coming from a weaving village in Assam where she noticed the jacquard—a weaving technique comprising a chain of punch cards that automates patterning—she wondered what would happen to the discarded dots used in the jacquard plates. “I’ve tried weaving a narrative about the missing and the ignored dots as a metaphor for the immigrants arriving in Assam from Bangladesh. Or, of that matter any migrants; like the ones who find themselves at the mercy of a river during floods and are displaced. They vanish in the socio-political fabric,” mourns Ahmed, for whom salvaged dots, like dregs in a tea cup, slowly start revealing patterns.

Blueprint.12: Whose Land is it, Anyway?  

It was 2010 and Delhi was undergoing renovation ahead of the Commonwealth Games. It was also the year that artist Nidhi Khurana started driving a car. She often got lost on the way to her art residency. “I realised I couldn’t follow directions, and that caused anxiety. Since then, I have been drawing maps and sort of curing myself,” says the artist, who embarked on a cartographic endeavour to map cities and skies over a decade ago. 

A collection of her maps of cities—Delhi, Paris, Venice, Bhuj, Prague and Basel—drawn over the last two years were exhibited by the Blueprint.12 gallery. The maps have no text, and parts of it are embellished with silver leaf that oxidises over time. “I use the silver as a visual tool to bring the viewer’s attention to certain places,” she says. Khurana’s work fit in with the aesthetics of gallerists Ridhi Bhalla and Mandiraa Lamba, who wish to explore the “interplay between the changing landscapes and human identity”.

“It started off with us wanting to show the works of Shashank Peshawaria and Avantika Bawa. We realised that architecture and the sense of belonging was emerging as a theme. Once we had a clear vision, we sought out artists who fit,” says Bhalla. Thirty-year-old Peshawaria’s photographs from the series, Fields Aflutter, comprise images of concrete structures across farmlands in rural Punjab, painted with Canadian and American flags. “These are painted on the buildings by people whose kids are settled abroad. So, Shashank talks of the cultural flux in Punjab, and migration changing the economic landscape of the state,” Bhalla explains.  

Latitude 28: Statement in Every Stroke

If there is one underlying theme in Latitude 28’s collection, it is a strong statement, irrespective of the size. While Sudipta Das interrogates the realities of climate change and human migration through her miniature paper sculptures, Ketaki Sarpotdar explores the dialogues between her day-to-day experiences and perspectives through her imposing oil canvas. A work that stands out is Pakistani artist Khadim Ali’s bright red tapestry, whose design has its roots in the crafts of the Hazara tribe in Afghanistan. 

A commentary of conflict in south, southwest, and central Asia, it is explosive with air raids and military images. “I worked to make this a platform where artists could easily express their innermost anxieties. Over the years, the DCAW has grown into a space where variety merges with societal and political concerns,” says director Bhavna Kakar. There is the pretty stuff too, away from all the angst and anger; Gopa Trivedi has fused miniaturist traditions with new media to produce a series of paintings of birds against a gold background.

Pune-based Yogesh Ramkrishna, who works with multiple mediums, treats socio-political concerns with a pinch of satire by creating toy-like figures that depict human evolution. So you have a dog’s head emerging from the back of a man who is sitting, bending forward. And, you have a man sitting with his eyes shut waiting for the chaos of the world to settle down. “I now deal with the post-truth situation, where truth is not considered the most important thing. We are not in control of our lives, since so many socio-political aspects affect us. My characters are post-truth avatars of people trapped in such situations,” says Ramkrishna, who is exhibiting at the DCAW for the third time in a row.

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