Sharan Apparao: Escaping the easel
Why are we only obsessed with big names in the art world? It may be time to look for newer strokes
As an art collector, curator and shopaholic for the last 30 years, my eyes are always on the ground like a treasure hunter who is also looking for art’s tectonic plates to shift. I can see two parallel trends evolving these days. One is new media and the other the changing visual in a much more intellectually charged form compared to the old easel painting.
With everything within easy reach, the experiential is becoming important even in art. This has given rise to performance art, installations, and all the different mediums being accepted even when there is a marked absence of an actual physical object. The young generation of art aficionados is able to relate very easily to these aspects even if the real support and platform for these experiential art forms comes from institutions. That’s the kind of art we need to put the spotlight on, instead of fussing over just the old masters.
In the 1980s, when I launched Apparao Galleries in Chennai, looking for radical work was not the thing to do at all. So working with M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, Jehangir Sabavala, Anjolie Ela Menon, Sakti Burman, Laxma Goud and other well-known artists was delightful, normative as well as artistically correct. But as a treasure hunter, I realized it was equally delightful to have discovered and worked with spiritualist Sohan Qadri, abstract artist Manish Nai or Smriti Dixit, who uses textiles for her paintings—long before many had known their work.
Today, in the context of new media, highlighting offbeat and lesser-known talent is a parallel path. Against the backdrop of this new milieu, I find the work of sculptor Shilpa Gupta, installation artist and photographer Sheba Chhachhi, painter Ranbir Singh Kaleka, the performance art-architecture-textual collation of the Raqs Media Collective and the multimedia works by Sudarshan Shetty particularly worthy. Collectively, they represent the face of India’s new media in art.
Besides, it is no longer enough to take back just a memory from an art exhibition. People often want a photograph, a print, a drawing or a DVD to make the experience relatable, recallable. This is what some artists like Nikhil Chopra, who creates live performance art, Sonia Khurana, the visual artist, or Pushpamala N., also a photo and visual artist, do. They create tangible takeaways.
Easel painting and classical sculpture have moved beyond studio craft when it comes to thinking visuals. Subodh Gupta has poignantly shown the world that even household utensils—if positioned correctly and presented in the right curatorial language—have a place in renowned contemporary art institutions. Gupta is a well-known name but, to push my point, I would bring up the south India-based Alwar Balasubramaniam, whose installation art, printmaking, sculpting and painting have created waves. Or interactive and conceptual artist L.N. Tallur, or even sculptor Valsan Kolleri, who has been engaged with transitional materials for many years. Each of these artists has bodies of work we should be more conversant with when it comes to art by Indians.
For all the well-known artists who are now familiar names, there are several others with the right ideas who remain undiscovered simply because they have not exposed the right ideas to the right audiences. Or perhaps because collectors and buyers are used to lusting after display-worthy names.
So where does one discover new gems? And how can they be recognized as the future of art? In art colleges? Certainly not, as it is difficult to say who will stay in the race in the long run. But often enough, curators and galleries that have the track record of showing new work with confidence—rather than following the herd—and senior artists themselves are the best sources to tap for advice on new art and artists.
Some artists whose work I saw recently, and that made my heart sing, are painter Mainaz Bano, who has an irreverent sense of humour; Nandita Kumar, a sculptor and multimedia artist whose large bottles have a world inside them; Sujoy Das, who has created a sound installation of wonderful, whispering storytelling walls; Paula Sengupta, who has a narrative sculptural installation of doll museums; and Sanjeeva Rao, whose watercolours are spectacular. I was in tears while looking at the recent work of Bhopal-based Yusuf, who goes by one name. His paintings are silent, serene and strong in their lyricism.
Yusuf is an example of a dedicated artist, plodding along despite the commercial odds. He believes in his work, is not aggressive or pushy and, as a result, gets forgotten by many. Like the late Nasreen Mohammadi, who is now sought after by every serious collector and museum, Yusuf too will have his day, and soon.
If you are really keen to discover and buy new art, look for ideas that have the ability to speak to the viewer. Art must engage and invade your mind space. It must make you think. The communication between a work of art and the viewer, the appeal of its visual language, denotes it success. The ability to pre-empt and gauge the pulse of an artistic audience makes an artist a star.
It’s a myth that you must know the history of art or of the artist. All you have to do is be open-minded and respond honestly to the work. Don’t worry if you miss the point, that’s an indication that it is not working for you. If you want to build a collection and locate artists, try to read what they are saying through their work.
For instance, Sengupta, who exhibited her series of doll-museum sculptures in Kolkata, New Delhi and Chennai, evokes the displacement of Tibetans and their loss of cultural heritage. She created vitrines that had the images and texts of a story scripted on a surface which enclosed a miniature Tibetan costume.
In terms of evocative resistance, one cannot find a better persuader than a historic figure. Shelly Jyoti, an artist I met recently, was attempting to capture the spirit of revival using Ajrakh, a 4,000-year-old textile tradition of block printing with natural dyes, in the same way that Gandhiji used the salt satyagraha to call for a non-violent protest against the unfair salt tax.
In contemporary art, you have to identify with the spirit of the piece even if it is an old or borrowed idea. Like that clichéd saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”, so also in the art world—using one’s own nose to sense what curators later label as a trend is a gratifying process. A personal equation, a personal point of view, a personal conversation, in search of an art treasure, is a “swadharma” (one’s own duty) that one has to follow. Opening up such a dialogue between a work of art and oneself itself is luxury.
The writer is the founder and director of Apparao Galleries.
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