“Tribal art" is one of those terms that riles art theorists. They speak of the inherent bias which sets it apart from conventional art, considering the modifiers “tribal" or “folk" unhelpful. Yet no other term has captured public consciousness so well when it comes to describing the distinctive artistic traditions of indigenous peoples across the world.

Skirting the academic wrangling over terminology, two Delhi-based contemporary galleries, Exhibit320 and BluePrint12, have jointly launched Tribal Art Forms, a platform that will exhibit tribal art in India and abroad and act as a conduit between artists and the public. A brainchild of Rasika Kajaria (of Exhibit320), Mandira Lamba and Ridhi Bhalla (of BluePrint12), the platform will go live in February (at Tribalartforms.com), to coincide with the India Art Fair.

As a precursor to the launch, the ongoing exhibition Given Power—From Tradition To Contemporary, running till Sunday at Exhibit320, brings together works by many artists that have joined the platform: Bhil artist Bhuri Bai; Kalam Patua, who revived the art of Kalighat painting; Ladoo Bai from Madhya Pradesh; Mayank Shyam and Japani Shyam, children of the much feted artist of Gond origin, Jangarh Singh Shyam, whose trajectory from obscurity to global success, ending in a tragic suicide, is well charted. It sparked heated discussions about the exploitation of indigenous artists by larger parties for commercial ends.

“Our mission is to create a platform for tribal artists to present their work and their perspectives," said Lamba, at the exhibition launch. The works on display are wide-ranging, from Ladoo Bai’s explosions of colour to the subdued tones of Mayank Shyam.

‘Untitled’ by Mayank Shyam.
‘Untitled’ by Mayank Shyam.

Using Kantha embroidery motifs from Bengal, Ladoo Bai creates a world that resembles an arcadian idyll, where humans dance among animals in harmony. The mystical charm of the repetitive dot patterns works like a visual mantra. Mayank Shyam’s canvas, in contrast, is restrained and sombre. In a Kafkaesque work, he fuses a humanoid figure with an insect, resulting in an unsettlingly creepy (and somewhat crawly) imagery.

Averse to presenting a fossilized version of “tribal arts", the platform aims to show it as a “living tradition" that is in dialogue with contemporary practices. While the folk arts were traditionally intertwined with religion, mythology and ritualistic practices of indigenous people, their move from the village walls to the white cube of a gallery or people’s homes requires a sympathetic filter of research and curation that Tribal Art Forms can provide.

If the platform could enable meaningful discussions, the term “tribal art" could perhaps be reclaimed. Many aesthetic terms were initially used pejoratively, to mock passing fads and fancies. “Gothic" was first used by its critics to describe barbaric or unrefined arts; “baroque", to describe kitsch or the excessively ornamental. Both terms have been salvaged.

Avenues like Tribal Art Forms, with an informed approach in curation, fostering relationships between indigenous artists and the public, could help redefine the term for our times and perhaps, someday, even render “tribal" altogether superfluous.

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