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Whose art is it anyway?

More and more foreign artists are showcasing their works in Indian galleries. But when will India become a great place to sell international art? Gargi Gupta tells more...

art and culture Updated: Jan 10, 2009 22:34 IST
Gargi Gupta

A lot goes in the name of art these days. At the Galerie Mirchandani+Steinrucke in Mumbai, Eva and Franco Mattes are showing large digital prints of characters from Second Life, the virtual reality online game. It’s very attractive to look at — all bright colours and boys and girls in seductive poses — but viewers in Mumbai may well ask, what makes these art?

For most of them this is their first exposure to ‘net art’, the genre of which Eva and Franco are perhaps the most (in) famous practitioners and which involves using — often subverting — the net to highlight issues of identity, role playing, authenticity, and so on.

Until even a few years ago, it was only public agencies — the National Gallery of Modern Art or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in India, for example, or foreign embassies — that brought in such cutting-edge shows to India, under the rubric of cultural diplomacy. But now, private galleries are leading the charge.

In Mumbai, Galerie Mirchandani +Steinrucke has been showing foreign artists regularly ever since it opened around three years ago, Kiki Smith, the feminist artist from the US, being one of its most prominent imports. “My mother lived in New York for a long time and I have lived Berlin and New York for more than 10 years. So when we opened the gallery, we wanted to bring in a wider perspective,” explains Ranjana Steinrucke.

Abhay Maskara of Gallery Maskara, which opened in March last year, has, similarly, a “global and multidisciplinary approach to art”. He wants to make international art that’s relevant and engaging “accessible”, he says, “since you can’t expect everyone to travel out”. The gallery focuses almost entirely on foreign artists, Brazilian graffiti artist Nina Pandolfo and Canadian kinetic sculpture artist Max Streicher among them. Maskara, a collector, curator and critic before he turned galleryist, says he has an arrangement with Galeria Leme in São Paulo, and also keeps an eye out for interesting “visual expressions that are relevant and critically engaging” at Biennales, Triennales and galleries in places he’s visiting.

There’s more. In Delhi, the ongoing show at Gallery Espace includes Catherine Mosley, a woodcut artist, and Maxine Henryson, a photographer, both from the US. Earlier, it showed Lahore-based Ali Kazim. There’s of course been a steady trickle of Pakistani artists at Indian galleries — Rashid Rana, Jamal Naqsh, Hamra Abbas, Nadia Shaukat, etc.

At its annual GenNext exhibition in October last year, Kolkata’s Aakriti Art Gallery had 11 foreign artists participating. “It is an open exhibition and we had advertised on our website. To our surprise, 40 artists from abroad applied,” says Vikram Bachchawat, director.

Clearly then, India is now on the radar of international artists. “India has been in the news lately, and for artists who are on the lookout to expand their repertoire, the door has opened, both professionally and personally,” says Maskara. To their credit, the artists are treating their shows in India with as much seriousness as they would shows elsewhere, coming up with works especially for it. ‘Putti’, which Max Streicher showed at Gallery Maskara, was an absolutely new work.” And it’s not just the artists, but a few collectors who are also following them. For Norbert Bisky’s show at Mirchandani+Steinrucke in December, his collectors, Sabine and Reinhart Schlegel flew in from Germany.

But the point is, are Indian buyers enthused enough to buy? After all, these are commercial galleries and it costs far more — “anywhere from four- to ten-times what a show with an Indian artist costs” Maskara estimates — to host an artist from overseas. The exchange rates, of course, rule out all but the most deep-pocketed of Indian buyers, but then contemporary Indian artists too have prices running into tens of lakhs. Of course, name matters and the Kiki Smith show was a sellout, reports Steinrucke (prices from Rs 50,000 to Rs 22 lakh), with artists, writers, collectors, even journalists who’d heard of her rushing in to buy.

An Indian theme, as with photographers like Tim Hall and Christopher Taylor, also helps Indian buyers connect, says Shalini Gupta of Tasveer, which showed both artists last year. But for the rest, “it’ll take time”, says Renu Modi of Gallery Espace echoing the others.

More important, Maskara points out, what we need is “responsible critical writing” and “interest from collectors” to take the trend to the next level. “Or soon India will have the reputation of being a great place to show, but a terrible place to sell.”