BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Courage and Convictions

The first India Art Summit prompted timely debates about artistic freedom on the subcontinent

BY Robert Storr in Opinion | 01 NOV 08

Ram Rahman, M.F. Husain Painting a Horse, Delhi, 1994. Courtesy: the artist.

What a difference a day makes! Or a month! Back in September, when I was in Russia for the vernissage of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s ‘homecoming’ show in Moscow – former capital of communism – the market was ubiquitous and seemingly almighty. Dealers and collectors were out in force, and midway through a dinner for the artist couple, oligarchs jumped from their tables, mobile phones in hand, to vie for Damien Hirsts at auction in London while New York banks tumbled. Meanwhile Sotheby’s, Hirst’s chosen vendor, hosted the sparsely attended conference, where critics and scholars tried to get a word in edgeways on the meaning of the Kabakovs’ work, even as the context in which it had originally been conceived was in the throes of radical mutation or, more accurately, counter-revolution.

This asymmetrical misalliance of auctioneers, gallerists and grand acquisitors with side-bar clusters of serious but seriously outnumbered commentators has become a common feature of the ‘globalized’ art world. For decades prior to such swarmings – art fairs and biennials provide the usual occasions – the voices of lonely local advocates for art in Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and other overlooked regions, in conjunction with the scattered voices of internationally minded ‘mainstream’ observers, echoed through magazines and academic confabs without the amplifying but also distorting chorus of art barkers. For the past 20 years the rolling thunder of new markets opening has been heard around the world, and before they drown out discussion of everything except prices, commercial interests frequently sponsor non-commercial symposia where members of these very different art worlds briefly, awkwardly, rub shoulders.

Thus in late August, as clouds of more ominous storms ahead began to gather, New Delhi became the site of the India Art Summit 2008 (read, India’s first art fair). The impetus behind it was the boom that Indian contemporary art has been experiencing: witness the numerous exhibitions outside the subcontinent devoted to current production and the concerted buying of newly wealthy Indians both at home and in the far-flung diaspora connecting the former Commonwealth countries with Africa, the Arab world and the Americas. Thus the press packet for the Summit, and several symposium speakers, noted that: ‘The total auction market size of Indian art has grown from a mere $5 million in 2003 to nearly $150 million this year.’

Top prices have gone to painters Tyeb Mehta and the late F.N. Souza, whose works reached $1.58 million and $1.36 million respectively, while Subodh Gupta has weighed in for sculptors at over the $1 million mark. But art history isn’t written by hammering men. Notwithstanding their importance, these three salesroom favourites are just part of the fabric of modern Indian art. Meanwhile, the Summit was similarly skewed towards more or less traditional painting and away from innovative thinking or making. Nowhere did one see major works by such established but still provocative figures as the late Bhupen Khakhar, the very active Nalini Malani and Atul Dodiya, the young and restless Tejal Shah or Raqs Media Collective, or the politically fearless filmmaker Amar Kanwar, although Vivan Sundaram and Riyas Komu were present, along with a handful of video artists and photographers. Of cutting-edge galleries, New Delhi’s Nature Morte was the leading light, while many equally adventurous Mumbai-based dealers sat out the inaugural, leaving it to participants in the symposium to fill in the intellectual and aesthetic gaps.

The most notable absence of all was a multimedia artist who is arguably India’s best-known and inarguably its most controversial modern master, the 92-year-old M.F. Husain. The reasons he was unrepresented at the Summit were twofold – plus a wrinkle. First, Husain, a Muslim, faced charges for offending Hindus by his erotic representations of their gods, although anyone familiar with Hindu iconography will find it hard to reconcile such puritanism with ancient traditions. Second, for the past several years Husain has lived in exile, afraid that a conviction would effectively mean a life sentence, while also fearful that retaliatory violence by Hindu nationalists might strike him, as it has one of his galleries. The wrinkle was that, fearing the same violence, the Summit’s organizers asked dealers to leave him out of their displays.

This official capitulation to extremist threats provoked a furore and a counter-exhibition of Husain’s work in central New Delhi, organized by the activist Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. Unexpected causes have unexpected consequences: as a partial result of Husain’s embarrassing omission from the Art Summit, or so it seems, the Indian government has since dropped the main case against him – but as yet has offered no protection. And so a business-minded event inadvertently precipitated substantial debate about artistic freedom and communal antagonisms. What India still lacks is an art-minded event. In the past, efforts have been made to mount an Indian biennial; the limited strengths and obvious weaknesses of the Summit argue strongly that such an exhibition is possible now – and urgently needed.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.