Instagram post by artist Dayanita Singh
Instagram post by artist Dayanita Singh

Indian art’s decade on Instagram

In the 10 years since the photo-sharing app was launched, artists across the world, including India, have adopted the medium to amplify their work and philosophy

On 16 July 2010, at 1.26pm, a 24-year-old American entrepreneur called Mike Krieger made history. He posted the first photograph on Instagram, currently the world’s most popular image-sharing app, which he co-created. That act, so ubiquitous now and thoughtlessly executed every second of the day in all corners of the globe (Instagram reportedly has over one billion active users each month), has revolutionized the way we look at our lives, engage with people, and participate in a culture in which anyone with a smartphone can fashion themselves as a photographer—if not an influencer.

In the sphere of the visual arts, inhabited by career artists, the impact of the medium has been no less pervasive. Every museum and gallery worth its salt, however big or small, has a presence on Instagram now. Individual artists open up their studios, tell all about their working methods, record the progress of their projects on the platform for millions to witness, often in real time. Many, like Christoph Niemann, who is famous for designing many iconic covers for The New Yorker magazine, even run a shop on Instagram to sell prints. The sanctity of the white cube of the gallery seems to be turning redundant as users flock to the one-click open-sesame format of Instagram.

Priyanka Raja, co-founder of the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, acknowledges the boon of access that Instagram has brought into the world of Indian art. “The medium can augment the reach of artists immensely and act as a truly democratic platform," she says. From taking viewers on virtual studio visits to showing them the different stages of mounting a show, Instagram can take a wide demographic behind the scenes of the art world. “Members of the press, collectors, viewers and visitors to the city have reached out to us after seeing a post on our Instagram feed," she adds.

Instagram post by artist Nalini Malani.
Instagram post by artist Nalini Malani.

Dear diary

The question of access aside, Instagram can open up an eclectic playing field for artists across generations. Mumbai-based Nalini Malani, one of India’s most inventive contemporary artists, is a deft user of the platform, where she posts animated GIF videos every few days. Edgy and quirky, with a trace of sarcasm, these vignettes capture the pulls and pushes of the present; they grow out of the interstices of politics, society, the fractured states of our minds and bodies.

Instagram, Malani says, “has extended my idea of putting my artworks/animation notebooks in the agora—out in the public space." She adds: “I have made animations and drawings in motion continuously since 1969. People in India understand the language of montage. They connect with motion pictures. And for me it is essential to connect the artist, the art and the viewer. It is only then that art ‘wakes up’."

Instagram post by artist Mithu Sen,
Instagram post by artist Mithu Sen,

On 16 July 2010, at 1.26pm, a 24-year-old American entrepreneur called Mike Krieger made history. He posted the first photograph on Instagram, currently the world’s most popular image-sharing app, which he co-created. That act, so ubiquitous now and thoughtlessly executed every second of the day in all corners of the globe (Instagram reportedly has over one billion active users each month), has revolutionized the way we look at our lives, engage with people, and participate in a culture in which anyone with a smartphone can fashion themselves as a photographer—if not an influencer.

In the sphere of the visual arts, inhabited by career artists, the impact of the medium has been no less pervasive. Every museum and gallery worth its salt, however big or small, has a presence on Instagram now. Individual artists open up their studios, tell all about their working methods, record the progress of their projects on the platform for millions to witness, often in real time. Many, like Christoph Niemann, who is famous for designing many iconic covers for TheNew Yorker magazine, even run a shop on Instagram to sell prints. The sanctity of the white cube of the gallery seems to be turning redundant as users flock to the one-click open-sesame format of Instagram.

Priyanka Raja, co-founder of the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, acknowledges the boon of access that Instagram has brought into the world of Indian art. “The medium can augment the reach of artists immensely and act as a truly democratic platform," she says. From taking viewers on virtual studio visits to showing them the different stages of mounting a show, Instagram can take a wide demographic behind the scenes of the art world. “Members of the press, collectors, viewers and visitors to the city have reached out to us after seeing a post on our Instagram feed," she adds.

Dear diary

The question of access aside, Instagram can open up an eclectic playing field for artists across generations. Mumbai-based Nalini Malani, one of India’s most inventive contemporary artists, is a deft user of the platform, where she posts animated GIF videos every few days. Edgy and quirky, with a trace of sarcasm, these vignettes capture the pulls and pushes of the present; they grow out of the interstices of politics, society, the fractured states of our minds and bodies.

Instagram, Malani says, “has extended my idea of putting my artworks/animation notebooks in the agora—out in the public space." She adds: “I have made animations and drawings in motion continuously since 1969. People in India understand the language of montage. They connect with motion pictures. And for me it is essential to connect the artist, the art and the viewer. It is only then that art ‘wakes up’."

A serendipitous connection forged with viewers acts as a hook for Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen too. Instagram, for her, is an ephemeral space that affords instant resonance and momentary joy. Painter, performance artist and maker of reactionary conceptual art, Sen started using social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, with a specific agenda: to defeat the Artificial Intelligence-generated results on search engines for her work.

“I wanted to change the colour palette that comes up when anyone searches for my work online," she says. A cursory check throws up a preponderance of her paintings executed in shades of pink and red in delicate washes and translucent tones. Sen’s work, however, is much darker now, and has grown more complex than these luminescent drawings suggest.

“I wanted to create a parallel visual identity using Instagram," the artist says, explaining her twofold existence on the platform. As @mithusen26seriouslyofficial, she posts her familiar, more traditional, work: paintings, self-portraits and photographs of the sculptural objects she makes. This handle has just over 1,700 followers. But it is through her other avatar, as @mithusen26, that Sen channels a far less formal aspect of her personality, beamed to over 7,000 users that follow this account.

A poet who has published several collections in Bengali, Sen harvests her poetic sensibility to create word collages for Instagram as part of what she labels the #UnPoetry series. The predominant texture of these images is grey and grainy.

While some of these posts act as entries in a visual diary, there are others that respond to the mood of the moment. In a series of three images posted on 20 December, for instance, we read the following lines: “a falsified past leaving home to go back home/ Ps: darkness ahead a death Foretold/ Of million poisons Ps: mixed with crushed diamonds and pearls." As the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) have grown, Sen has reacted to the momentum in several subtle tangential posts.

Only connect

Sen says she has heard from complete strangers on Instagram, in distant corners of the world, with whom her words have echoed. This mode of communication, for her, opens up the possibility of a counter-capitalist discourse on art without getting bogged down by market economics.

The appeal of connecting with an audience beyond the few hundred visitors who are likely to step inside galleries and museums, which often feel like elitist bubbles, is inescapably attractive. For photographer and book-maker Dayanita Singh, Instagram is the platform where she can announce her shows and work, though she doesn’t necessarily put much of the latter out there.

For her show at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York last year, she created an Instagram catalogue composed of images and a video she posted on the platform. She is currently working towards publishing it. “I like the idea of the speed. I made this online catalogue just before the show opened," Singh says. “Someone could actually have printed it out during the show and everyone could have gone home with it."

While some may associate social media with transience and quick gratification, Singh delights in its instantaneity. “What I love about Instagram is the instant publication—the dissemination of exhibition as it opens, the book as it is first unwrapped," she says. “If it were not for the singularity of image that the format demands, it would be photography’s greatest ally. After all, the image is only one part of photography, the other part is dissemination."

Singh’s discomfort with the limits of Instagram is shared by others. “It’s not a great medium for photography, ironic as it may sound," she says. The format, Singh feels, has a one-point focus, with not enough room for complexity. In a 2015 essay on photography and Instagram, published in The New York Times, writer Teju Cole outlined the consequences of these restrictions in an eloquent sentence: “Instagram users value spectacular individual images and reward them with the coin of the realm: likes."

While getting likes isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the overwhelming focus on this single goal to the exclusion of all else can take a toll on the emotional well-being of users. In a recent interview, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, spoke about the platform’s plan to “depressurize the app". One of the ways in which he hopes to improve user experience is by hiding the number of likes on posts.

In the internet marketplace, though, likes are not merely suppliers of an adrenalin boost. These are also means to monetize individual brands, conduct business and capitalize on entrepreneurial potential. While bringing famous and emerging names to the public eye, Instagram has opened up a space for struggling and aspiring artists to show their work, have them admired by millions, and even purchased by some. No longer do they have to wait for a gallery to represent them to get their art out in the world.

“It’s wonderful that Instagram has allowed artists to reach out to viewers and sell their work because there are not enough galleries to do this job for all the artists working at the moment," says Raja. The curatorial, pastoral, legal and logistical roles of the gallery would never lose their relevance. But the online marketplace of Instagram may, in the near future, become the stepping stone towards achieving eventual fame and glory.

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