Art | Room with a view
Art residencies are offering contemporary artists a lifeline away from the demands and pressures of galleries, auctions and the market
Getting to Khoj, if you will excuse the pun, can feel like a quest of sorts. But once you reach there, in south Delhi’s grungy Khirki village, there is plenty to discover.
From global legends like Subodh Gupta to lesser-known ones like Leone Contini, many artists have graced these premises with often outstandingly original work. If one of Gupta’s works at Khoj was a performance by three professional eaters from Bihar (Spit Eaters, 2012), Contini, who lives in a village in northern Italy, created a hybrid mamosa by crossing the Tibetan momo with the Indian samosa and its African counterpart—the last influenced by the immigrant African population in Khirki village, with whom he made friends during his stay at one of the residencies run by Khoj.
Khoj may still be the most coveted residency in the country, but several others are fast catching up. Space 118 and What About Art? (WAA) in Mumbai, Jaaga and 1 Shanthi Road in Bangalore are just a few contenders. The proliferation of art residencies is providing a lifeline to contemporary artists who don’t have enough patrons or presence in the market.
Every residency is guided by a vision that is distinctly its own. It may be fully funded or paid for by the participants, it may last from weeks to months, and it usually sends out open calls for applications, which are assessed by a selection panel.
Usually curated around a theme (food, gaming, environment, gender, and so on), Khoj residences try to grow the local scene. “We provide artists with a safe space to fail,” says Sood.
Fashion designer Kallol Datta, who participated in the art and fashion residency last year, agrees. “When you undertake a fully funded residency to work on a project at Khoj (unlike others), you feel extremely secure to create work which might end up being just a work in progress,” he says. “There has been a shift in my work across disciplines since the Khoj residency. My attempt at storytelling through fabric, installation and words has become more focused, and the social commentary is now more pronounced.”
Periferry in Guwahati is just as flexible. A residency on a boat docked on the banks of the Brahmaputra, it hosts projects that have begun there and continued in other parts of the world. Owned by a group called the Desire Machine Collective, Periferry encourages works that need collaboration with the local environment. In 2010, for instance, Belgian artist Christina Stadlbauer showed Body Water there, an exhibition described by Periferry as “a wrap-up of investigations in kitchens, gardens, gamuchas (Assamese towels), buses and paths of Assam”.
Curator and writer Ranjit Hoskote says the concept of the artists’ residency began to evolve after the 1990s, alongside the biennial and collaborative spaces which serve as alternative or supplementary production systems (as opposed to galleries, museums and public commissions) for artists. Apart from being “down time” or repose, such programmes facilitate the forging of fresh connections and help start conversations among practitioners across disciplines.
In India, residencies are naturally more appealing to artists because infrastructure is scant. Sales of contemporary art are weak compared to most other countries, even those in West Asia, despite a vibrant tradition of art education. As a result, residencies become an invaluable resource for artists.
Take Prathap Modi, 31. A residency junkie of sorts, he’s completed the PEERS residency at Khoj, open only to emerging artists and fresh graduates, and has been to a few in Europe. His current stop is Space 118 in Mumbai’s Mazgaon.
Modi takes two days to settle into the quiet of a residency—“to get around its ecosystem,” as he puts it. He has been roaming around Mazgaon, an urban refuge a short drive away from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and the city’s art district, spread over Kala Ghoda and Colaba in the south. A printmaker, Modi studied in Visakhapatnam and Vadodara, but hasn’t had a chance to live and work in Mumbai—until now.
“My only condition is that the residents should not be fly-by-night operators who use the space to just stay here and travel around, but artists with a serious project in mind.” Doshi scrutinizes all the proposals, which keep growing each year, and meets the artists before inviting them.
Serendipity is often inspired by the setting. And as far as location is concerned, few residencies can beat the stately charm of the Sanskriti Foundation in Anandgram, off the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road in New Delhi.
“That banyan tree there,” says Sanskriti Kendra coordinator Ravinder Dutt, pointing to it, “was planted by musician Kumar Gandharva, some 25 years ago.” Regal but reserved, it is a testimony to the growth of Sanskriti and embodies its serene ambience. From being just a stretch of arid land, with nothing but straggling bushes, to the finely landscaped grounds it now boasts of, Sanskriti has come a long way.
Sanskriti happens to be one of the rare places in New Delhi with full-fledged facilities for ceramic and enamel workshops, fitted with sophisticated kilns and run by trainers who come in to teach pottery and jewellery design. Every morning, there are yoga classes and meditation assemblies. Special wellness sessions are organized for children.
“We have eight sets of studios and facilities to host as many as 25 artists at any time,” says Dutt. Usually residents come between September and April. A paid residency ($55, or around Rs.3,300, plus taxes, a day for food and lodging), Sanskriti hosts artists and writers for anything between 20 days to a few months, depending on their resources and, in some cases, the duration of the visa. The foundation also facilitates interaction between incoming artists and local artisans, as it did for British artist Andrew Burton, who worked with the bithoora makers of nearby Ghitorni village. Bithooras are fuel stores made from thousands of hand-sized, cow-dung cakes.
Curator Eve Lemesle started the WAA in 2011 to fill what she feels is a production gap between artists and the market. The firm is supported by the Council of Arts and Letters and the ministry of internal relations of Quebec, Canada, apart from The Bandra Base, a Mumbai-based performance and cultural hub, among other institutions and individual patrons. Lemesle, who ran another residency in the city before this—the Last Ship—says the residency is an organic progression for her company, which manages public art projects, helps artists with a network of fabricators for large-scale installations, and lends its expertise to galleries.
When we visit, local mixed-media artist Ratna Gupta and New York-based Venezuelan sound and media artist Ernesto Klar are at work. Of the two adjoining flats, both two-roomed structures with a fairly large kitchen that also doubles as the verandah, one has been completely taken over by 35-year-old Gupta’s resin and fibreglass casts of her own body. Hands, torsos, knees are strewn about, remnants of Gupta’s work that dates back to 2005, when the artist began addressing issues of body image and anorexia.
“I would wrap myself in plaster, and make a resin and later fibreglass mould of my body. This enabled me to see myself not in two-dimensional or in a limited way,” says Gupta. The results were beautiful sculptures that looked fragile and layered. The studio is also filled with her new work—tapestries made with latex dropped over the bark of the tree.
Starlyn D’Souza, a 25-year-old graphic designer who lives in Bandra, the city’s hipster destination, is assisting Gupta and simultaneously using the studio as his laboratory: He collects organic detritus along Mumbai’s coastline, such as crab skeletons, shells, coir, fish scales and dried-up sea urchins. Using these dead and decayed objects he pieces together new forms—memorializing fragments of the city in art.
Co-founded in 2009 by Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath graduate Archana Prasad and tech evangelist Freeman Murray, Jaaga’s growth so far has been organic, almost need-based, rather than planned. Rather like the revolutionary, “Lego-like” pallet-rack architecture that has variously defined its successive spaces (and currently shelters the Kanakapura outpost), Jaaga, which began as an artists’ collective, has now evolved into three verticals: Study, Startup and DNA. They focus, respectively, on helping software developers, incubating new tech companies, and creating an interdisciplinary platform that segues into art, design, research and community-building and, in the process, embraces the best of cutting-edge Bangalore.
“Freeman and I thought it would be amazing to have plants growing around the (pallet-rack) structure instead of hard walls. So we made a cold call to New York-based artist-turned-green activist Eve Sibley, and she was very enthusiastic about the idea,” says Prasad. “Almost at the same time, (the non-profit) Goethe-Institut told us about German artist Matthias Einhoff, whose works dealt with wastelands. It fitted perfectly with what we were doing. So, from never considering a residency programme, suddenly we were hosting two artists.”
Prasad and Murray rented an apartment from their own funds and hosted Sibley for 11 months—“because her project was huge, involving the hydroponic greening of the entire front façade, which eventually became part of a curated show on water crisis in Berlin,” says Prasad. Einhoff was there for three-and-a-half months, and instituted the Award for Everyday Achievement, a “performance” that had residents of three localities nominating neighbours for making their community better.
Since then, Jaaga has hosted many residents. They come in twice a year, usually for two-four months. Owing to funding issues, the artists tend to be foreigners—thanks to the alliances with Goethe-Institut and Swissnex, a network of science and technology innovation hubs—and engage with the cultural spaces that interest Prasad, who usually spearheads the projects. Most recently, Jaaga has tied up with the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US. Two designers and an architect, all graduate students, are currently in residence, working on the Digital Hampi Crafts Project, a collaboration with the Union government’s department of science and technology.
At 1 Shanthi Road, the other coveted arts address in Bangalore, the energy is no less edgy. The rather unorthodox design of the place—inspired by Suresh Jayaram, former Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath principal and legal heir to the original structure, and realized by architect Meeta Jain—is as much the result of out of the box thinking as it is a catalyst for just those kinds of thoughts.
On the day of our visit, three walls in the gallery-like space at 1 Shanthi Road are taken up by a giant collage. Bright, wild lines wend their way merrily across the royal blue-brushstroked background, spilling on to the floor, skipping a corner, reminiscent of children at play. On opposite walls, rectangles of paper line up like unruly soldiers, each of them bursting with colour, a golden-yellow pineapple here, a smoking cigarette there—everyday Indian images of insignificance elevated by the eye of the pop artist.
Those eyes belong to New Zealand-based vinyl artist Benjamin Buchanan, 40, currently at 1 Shanthi Road under the aegis of the Asia-New Zealand Foundation. As we sit talking under the deepening twilight of a summer evening, with shrill car horns and homeward-bound bird calls breaking into the description of his engagement with the ordinariness of urban life, it is impossible not to appreciate the significance of the residency programme. In a life far removed from Wellington, distant, too, from Beijing, where he went on a three-month residency late last year, Buchanan’s art has discovered a new vocabulary; his love for colour has acquired a heightened sheen.
They all thrive in the easygoing atmosphere of 1 Shanthi Road, which came up 10 years ago, after Jayaram decided that his family house would be the ideal hierarchy-free, non-judgemental space for artistic creativity and peer learning. “The biggest challenge we face is to keep it going,” he says. “Besides the perennial quest for funds, an art residency is also personality driven, though I am lucky to have artists and friends who chip in when I’m away. But if these spaces die, there is no space for free speech.”
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Other major art residencies in the country
The Borivali-based alternative artist space Cona announced a “process-based” residency in collaboration with the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation and Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal Gallery in July 2013. Titled “Passing Through”, the two-month residency culminates in a week-long exhibition at Chatterjee & Lal. Artists under 35 years of age, who are not Mumbai residents are eligible.
Kanoria Centre for Arts, Ahmedabad
One of the oldest artist residencies in the country, it was set up in 1984 in a green quarter of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University. It has studio spaces and an art gallery, and attracts a large number of tourists. It accepts applications from students as well as professional artists.
Uttarayan Art Foundation, Vadodara
Vadodara-based businessman Rakesh Agrawal, an avid collector, founded the Uttarayan Art Foundation in 2012 on 50 acres along the banks of Mohi river, on the outskirts of Vadodara. Artists are invited to practise different forms of art. More than 150 artists have already worked here.
Pepper House, Kochi
Kriti Gallery, Varanasi
About 2km from the riverbank in Mahmoorganj, one of the greenest areas of Varanasi, is Kriti Gallery, which, apart from showing the work of artists like Dayanita Singh, runs a residency for artists across disciplines. In its eighth year, there are five studios, with living quarters, that can host two residents. Depending on the size of the rooms, the rent ranges from Rs.55,000-72,000 per month. “We do not allow plastic on the premises, have water harvesting, use solar energy and eco-friendly gadgets,” says Navneet Raman, the founder. Whenever possible, Raman facilitates interaction with local artists and teachers.
Pro Helvetia, Delhi and Switzerland
Since 2007, Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, has been running artists’ residencies in Switzerland and India. The idea is to have Swiss artists come to the country to work, and to host Indian artists in Switzerland. “It is an opportunity to create something new in a new environment,” says Chandrika Grover Ralleigh, head of Pro Helvetia, New Delhi. A fully funded residency, Pro Helvetia has three-four large rooms in Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi to host its Swiss participants.
It has collaborated with Bar-1 in Bangalore. Indian artists and writers like Gauri Gill and Sarnath Banerjee, were chosen by it to work in Switzerland.
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