India’s art world suffered and prospered during the pandemic

LONDON – Amrita Jhaveri gently jokes that she was saved by a Bollywood star. When actress Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, a client of Ms Jhaveri’s art gallery, approached her in the summer of 2020 to ask if she would like to use Ms Kapoor Ahuja’s London office as some sort of space for exhibition, Ms. Jhaveri was intrigued.

“She said, ‘I have this space, you can use the walls as you want”, “said Ms Jhaveri, who is based in London but who, like Ms Kapoor Ahuja, was frequently returning to India (she and her sister owns Jhaveri Contemporary, in Mumbai).

The three-story office, recently featured on the cover of Architectural Digest India, is now adorned with works by artists represented by the gallery, which will have a booth at Frieze London this week and participate in “Unworlding”, an exhibition curated under at the fair.

It functions as a private showroom where Ms Jhaveri can display works for clients – one recent afternoon she hung Lubna Chowdhary pieces for a collector – and she used it as an exhibition space.

In July, works by Karachi-based painter Fiza Khatri, currently in New Haven, Connecticut, preparing for a master’s degree at Yale, were featured in both the gallery’s online showrooms and in the London space. “I asked him to ship everything here,” Ms. Jhaveri said. “I brought in people from all over, including Conservatives. “

This is just one way things have changed for Ms Jhaveri and her gallery since the start of the pandemic, and the refrain is similar for other Indian gallery owners, curators, artists and museum directors.

The pandemic – which hit India hard with internal migration crises both after the lockdown was imposed in March 2020 and in April this year, when the Delta variant swept across the country – forced the art scene to rethinking and recalibrating everything, from gallery openings to fairs to the way artists create their works.

A new generation of collectors has emerged and sales of modern and contemporary Indian art have broken auction records over the past 18 months.

The pandemic has also made clear in the Indian art world, as elsewhere, how important the digital space has become.

“I think people needed to be a bit more enterprising in the way they interact with audiences,” said Rob Dean, Mumbai-based British art consultant and co-founder of Indian auction house Pundole’s. “So whether you are a private institution, a contemporary art gallery or an auction house, we had to keep the dialogue open. “

Before the pandemic hit India, the annual Indian Art Fair was held in Delhi. “We were at an all time high,” said its director, Jaya Asokan, adding that the fair had had one of its best years. But a few weeks later, everything stopped.

“You could say that we were all in the same storm but we were not in the same boat,” said artist Jitish Kallat, whose “Integer Study” project, created under confinement, will be presented to Frieze by the Still Life gallery. “Some were on a cruise ship while others were hanging onto a raft.” He added that even though his works were not directly influenced by the pandemic, “at the same time, without this moment, maybe these works would not have appeared.”

Some artists have also directly addressed the subject of Covid. Sudhir Patwardhan, for example, created a number of powerful paintings of migrants leaving urban centers.

Many artists, unable to work in studios where they often produced large pieces, were forced to adapt. “We have seen many smaller works come to life,” said Aparajita Jain, co-director of Nature Morte.

“Artists began to play with different mediums: with smaller canvases, papier-mâché, sculpture, photography. There were no art fairs, there was no glamor, and we were reduced to the most important part of the art world, the act of making art.

Galleries, of course, were also trying to figure out how to stay afloat and relevant. When it became clear that the pandemic was going to last much longer than expected, gallery owners and curators began working on collaborative programming.

Online exhibitions like In Touch, in April 2020, included a number of galleries from India (and Dubai), while On Site, a mini in-person art fair of four of India’s largest galleries, was held at Bikaner House in New Delhi in March 2021..

“Contemporary galleries really came together in solidarity, launching many collaborative initiatives and group exhibitions, and that was something new for us,” Ms. Asokan said. “It wasn’t just the galleries, but with the artists themselves to help the next generation.”

And collectors were certainly ready to buy art. The Mumbai Gallery Weekend in January 2021, for example, was a big success. “I don’t think we’ve ever had an exhibition like this,” Ms. Jhaveri said, adding that the works her gallery was showing had been sold within the week. “It wasn’t just our experience; all of our colleagues had the same thing. There was just an enthusiasm for going out and shopping.

Additionally, new collectors entered the market for the first time during containment. Roshini Vadehra of the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, said they were “people who never thought about serious collecting but now had the time and the bandwidth”. Being stuck inside, she said, “they felt the need to modernize their homes.”

These new collectors discovered galleries and artists in part through online connections, with many galleries updating their websites, offering digital exhibits, and opening online viewing rooms.

Galleries have set up video calls between collectors and artists, and virtual tours of artist studios have also become commonplace. “Everyone has improved their game on how it works in the virtual space,” said Ms. Vadehra, who added that her gallery has opened an online store with lower prices for things like edition prints. limited, allowing access to a new audience.

In addition, Vadehra will have a stand at Frieze and another at Frieze Masters showcasing the works of Indian painter A. Ramachandran.

The Bangalore Museum of Art and Photography was unable to open its physical doors in December 2020 after the lockdown halted construction. Instead, he staged a successful digital opening the same month.

Abhishek Poddar, the museum’s founder, said the changes, which postponed physical opening indefinitely, forced him to reconsider the role of at least one staff member. “I used to joke that my CTO had his room in the basement, and now he has the corner office, because nothing happens without him. “

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About Margaret L. Portillo

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