Chowdhary at her studio.
Chowdhary at her studio.

At Art Basel Hong Kong, women show they can paint

  • With an abundance of women artists, Indian representation at Art Basel Hong Kong this year could be a lesson for the global art market’s gender woes
  • Six Indian galleries were at the fair: Gallery Chemould, Jhaveri Contemporary,Tarq, Vadehra Art Gallery, Gallery Espace and Experimenter

What would Helen Gorrill say about Indian representation at Art Basel Hong Kong?

Gorrill, a British art historian, is the author of the much-anticipated book Women Can’t Paint: Gender, The Glass Ceiling And Values In Contemporary Art, a title no doubt inspired by the German painter Georg Baselitz’ infamous statement. In The Guardian last year, she noted that the Tate appears to have a 30% cap on its collection of female artists, which “perpetuates the dominance of male artists in the collections".

Things were starkly different at Art Basel Hong Kong’s seventh edition last month (29-31 March), which, as Asia’s biggest contemporary art fair, can be seen as a valuable indicator of art market trends.

Six Indian galleries were at the fair: Gallery Chemould, Jhaveri Contemporary and Tarq from Mumbai; Vadehra Art Gallery and Gallery Espace from Delhi; and Experimenter from Kolkata. Three of these led with stalls dedicated to a woman artist. In the most rarefied section of the fair, “Insights", Gallery Espace presented a solo show on Zarina. The 82-year-old Aligarh-born artist, known professionally by her first name only, is now based in New York. Her work is influenced by her transnationality, dealing with ideas of home, borders, migration, and exile. In 2013, the Guggenheim held a massive retrospective of her work. And more recently in March, the Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai put the spotlight on her for their opening show. “A lot of collectors had seen her work in Ishara just a few weeks ago and were pleased to see her here… we made a good choice," says Renu Modi, the gallery’s founder and director.

Dodiya’s ‘Ignition’ (2018).
Dodiya’s ‘Ignition’ (2018).

The “Discoveries" section, which focuses on solo shows by emerging artists, featured the London-based ceramicist Lubna Chowdhary by Jhaveri Contemporary. Chowdhary’s Certain Times, with pieces priced between £8000-11,000 (around 7.25-9.95 lakh), is inspired by “the architectural diversity of a sprawling Asian metropolis". Chowdhary works with clay and aims to create a utopian vision that celebrates “cross-cultural confluence through the building, composing, and ordering of objects". On view were tableaux of shaped tiles and sculptural objects resembling an urban skyline, with overlapping pieces creating depth and dimension.

Mumbai’s Tarq gallery (which fair director Adeline Ooi calls the “baby of the scene") is worth a special mention for managing to find a spot in the tightly edited, subsidized “Discoveries" section. Tarq’s director Hena Kapadia went with 38-year-old artist Savia Mahajan’s Resurgō, a project that builds on her exploration of life, death and rebirth. On view were a suite of pen and ink drawings on paper made with out-of-use Indian currency and fossilized sparklers and books (they were fired in a kiln and she wouldn’t tell me what books they were!) priced affordably between $1,000-2,000 (around 70,000 to $1.4 lakh).

In “Galleries", the main section of the show featuring 196 of the world’s leading galleries, Vadehra presented a mixed offering leading definitively with a painting by Anju Dodiya. In Dodiya’s Ignition (2018), a charcoal and watercolour painting on fabric, the huddled protagonist chews pages of a possibly banished book, hinting at a potentially radical space that she seeks to enter. It is a provocative work, marked by the anxiety and paranoia prevalent in Dodiya’s paintings. Approximately priced at $42,000, gallery director Roshini Vadehra shared that it had already sold during the vernissage, a day before the fair’s public days. “It’s bringing in a lot of people," she said, adding, “In terms of curating, we keep in mind what someone walking in with no context will like to see... Atul Bhalla, Anju Dodiya, Shilpa Gupta we tend to bring every year." Across the hall, another painting by Dodiya sparked and flamed despite its small size. Heartbeat (2019) at Gallery Chemould explored a close connection between two subjects, who appear to be listening in to the same heartbeat.

Chowdhary’s ‘Certain Times XV’ (2019).
Chowdhary’s ‘Certain Times XV’ (2019).

The works by South Asian women artists at the fair were all urgent and political, responding to pressing issues from identity to communal tension to security and border conflict. At the Vadehra booth, for instance, Shilpa Gupta had a new work, 100 Hand Drawn Maps Of India (2019), which featured numerous representations of the Indian map, drawn from memory by 100 Indian adults. The variety of forms produced threw into question how political borders are created, imagined and learnt. And over at Chemould, Reena Kallat pursued similar questions with Leaking Lines (2019), where she conflates factual landscapes and territorial lines with electric wire fencing. One of the standouts at Experimenter’s group show was Pakistani artist Bani Abidi’s Intercommunication Devices (2008), her drawings of security boxes installed in houses in Karachi indicating the added layers of protection that class and privilege affords.

When asked about a pervading feminist theme, Amrita Jhaveri, co-director of Jhaveri Contemporary, denied a conscious effort on their part to show more female artists. “It’s always about the art... We loved Lubna’s work and although she was trained as an artist, she found it difficult to carve out a space for the type of ceramics she was interested in making," she says, adding, “As for mature female artists, the fact that many struggled for market acceptance but continued to practise meant that they had large bodies of work at modest prices, something that a younger gallery like ours could develop."

Rather than talking down the cause of representation, Jhaveri’s statement can be seen in a positive light. Everyone from Gorrill to the Guerrilla Girls has warned against the dangers of tokenism. So the fact that the Dodiya work has pride of place because it “brings in a lot of people" is ultimately a bigger victory. And, all these six galleries (one of them is led by a couple) have women on top.

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