India’s big splash at the Venice Biennale 2019

Cane armour by Shakuntala Kulkarni  

The wreck of the fishing boat that sank off Libya’s coast in 2015, killing hundreds of migrants, is now in Venice. It is part of Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel’s project for the 58th Biennale di Venezia, which opens today. Elsewhere, Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn’s Building Bridges, a sculpture of six arching hands over a Venetian waterway in Arsenal’s former shipyard, is attracting eyeballs. Amidst all the artwork, you will also spot a smoky screen on which are scrawled Mahatma Gandhi’s words and signature, in Jitish Kallat’s installation Covering Letter.

2019 is looking good for the Indian art scene. Not only is there an India Pavilion (the second in the Venice Biennale’s 124-year history), but artists Gauri Gill, Shilpa Gupta and Soham Gupta are part of the main exhibition curated by Ralph Rugoff — with the overarching theme ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’. (It explores the influx of fake news and alternative facts in the current political climate.)


Getting global attention

India’s participation comes as welcome relief, given that its presence in the global art scene is seen as a ‘late arrival’. In Venice, our track record has been a series of sporadic appearances: in 2011, Ranjit Hoskote curated a national pavilion, under the aegis of Jawahar Sircar and Ashok Vajpeyi; in 2013 Dayanita Singh’s photographs were displayed as part of the German pavilion; and in 2015, Shilpa Gupta and Lahore-based artist Rashid Rana brought India and Pakistan together at the Palazzo Benzon on the Grand Canal, in My East is Your West (a project conceived by Feroze Gujral of The Gujral Foundation, Italian art historian Martina Mazzotta, and Indian independent curator Natasha Ginwala).

What’s so special about Venice?
  • The first and oldest Biennale in the world (started in 1895), Venice has always been the place to be seen at for ‘critical acclaim’ — despite coming under a fair bit of criticism for its Eurocentric views (in the past, curators have picked mostly European and American artists). This year, the central exhibit features 17 US-born artists, with China and France coming in second with six artists each. Tied for third, with three artists apiece, are Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and the UK.

Putting India on the international art map has been an uphill task, but the efforts of several Indian and diaspora curators, galleries, museums and auction houses are bearing fruit. “It is an exciting time for India, which is being represented at international museums like the MET Bauer, documenta 14 and now the Venice Biennale,” observes Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of the South Asian Art section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which recently showed a retrospective of late artist Nasreen Mohamedi. But why has it taken us such a long time? Renu Modi, of Delhi’s Gallery Espace, believes there are a number of reasons. “The international community wasn’t aware of the Indian artist community. Earlier there weren’t enough international shows, and [our] galleries hardly participated. There was also an overall lack of government interest in projecting our artists,” she says, adding that “with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale [KMB] on the international map of events, the pace of Indian art will be much faster globally.”

Incidentally, the KMB Foundation announced their curator’s name — Singapore-based artist and writer of Indian-origin, Shubigi Rao — for the 2020 edition at the Istituto Europeo di Design, Palazzo Franchetti, on May 9, using the excitement of the Venice Biennale and heightening the India presence. “This ensures that the connection is more than just one way,” says art historian Lina Vincent, who has just curated an exhibition titled Macrocosm in Turkey. “The Foundation has been working towards international endorsement [to use the term carefully] for the last three years,” she says.


A Gandhian outing

The India Pavilion — with financial backing from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and support of the National Gallery of Modern Art — features eight modern and contemporary artists. Curated by Roobina Karode of KNMA, Our Time for a Future Caring reflects upon Gandhi’s values of satyagraha (non-violence), equality and unity to make a statement about India’s return to these experiments with truth. Karode has selected works including Atul Dodiya’s curio cabinets titled Broken Branches, GR Iranna’s Naavu (Together) and Ashim Purkayastha’s stamps.

But some critics wonder if the Gandhian trope isn’t dated. On condition of anonymity, a contemporary artist shares that while “it is wonderful that India is being represented at the Venice Biennale, why take such a safe and tested path by invoking Gandhi and making ‘all the right noises?’ It casts us as a secular nation when indeed the reality is quite different.” However, Karode responds emphatically, stating that she didn’t conceive the exhibition as a literal representation of the Mahatma in a documentary-like format. “I was more inclined to look at aspects of his practice. He keeps returning to public conscience in periods of crisis or despair; he is the subject of contemporary reflection. [There is] also the idea of craft, dignity of labour and emphasis on self-reliance,” she says.

At this point one must ask, is it the job of art and artists to reflect only the current state of the country or should they project a vision that is critical of the times? We would favour the latter, and Venice is a good starting point.

- Sharan Apparao

“The Indian Pavilion is a government initiative, and given the volatile times we are living in, the curation could not be as (hard-hitting as) it should have been. Being an Indian, one understands the nuances. However, the non-Indian collector may miss the subtleties. I think the story here is Soham Gupta, who is superb and the biggest surprise. No one knows him or has heard of him, but he is part of the main show. His work is powerful and presents the really dark side of life in Kolkata/India.”

- Akshay Chudasama

“Venice is the pinnacle of the international art scene and the fact that India did not have a pavilion in the last three biennales was a commentary on the sad state of affairs. Hats off to Kiran Nadar, Tarana Sawhney and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs for ensuring India is back.”

- Sunita Choraria

“It’s a proud moment that India finally has its own pavilion in Venice Biennale! It’s truly a moment of reckoning for the Indian contemporary art world to be present on a world stage of this repute. And the roster of our top contemporary artists: Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, amongst others, that are representing us, is amazing. For Shilpa’s work to be included in the Arsenale also is praise worthy! Kudos to Kiran Nadar for supporting such an essential cause; it emphasises her undying and generous support for the contemporary art of India.”

- Saloni Doshi

“India is a historically rich country in terms of its art and culture for centuries. Even it’s modern and contemporary art scene is active with collectors from all over the world buying Indian art. So having a presence at the Venice Biennale is not only important but also crucial to maintain its position on the world stage and one should not lose sight of that.”

With inputs from Team Weekend and Gayatri Rangachari Shah

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 2:07:16 AM |

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