Critic’s Guide to New Delhi: As India Art Fair Returns, the Best Shows in Town

From oral histories mapping obscure traditions to VR films that transport you to a surreal world: here are the exhibitions not to miss

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Critic's Guides | 30 JAN 19

Sunil Padwal, An inanimate animal on the move – 2017, and portrait of time – 1922, 2019, charcoal, digital prints on paper, found document. 2.5 x 3.4 m. Courtesy: Sunil Padwal and GALLERYSKE; photograph: Randhir Singh 

Sunil Padwal: Lining an Archive


18 January – 22 February

Sunil Padwal lives and works in Mumbai – a sea-flung city comprising seven islands. It is also a city that hangs in layers: layers that Padwal imitates with a dense display of found objects, drawings, photographs, collages, postcards, picture-frames and books, all of which often cluster on a single plane. He also sets up clean tableaux: in The recurring story of fish and crows (2018), for instance, picture frames are placed together on a shelf, joined by small toys and figurines. Sometimes objects are treated preciously, as though they are objects of antiquity. However, Padwal’s chosen antiquities are old perfume bottles or torn up postcards, the romantic remnants of our messy, urban lives.

In Lining an Archive II (2018) Padwal fills an old library cataloguing system­ – a clunky metal chest with small, tightly packed drawers – with digital prints on archival paper and drawings made in ink and crow quill, or with isograph pens. Pulling open a drawer, you might chance upon a photograph of a skyline or a city street. Padwal’s view of the city is unflinching: it’s congested, dense with traffic, and the sky shines through only in patches. He uses the readymade just as he found it – as a serendipitous offering from an unexpected place.

Tayeba Begum Lipi, My Boots, 2018, Stainless steel, 29 x 23 x 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Shrine Empire, New Delhi

Tayeba Begum Lipi: Vanity Fair

Shrine Empire

28 January – 1 March

Tayeba Begum Lipi’s sculptures cut through the light: they are made of fine razor blades, as thin as paper. Lipi knits the blades together to make tank tops and thigh-high boots, handbags with buckled straps and monokinis with delicately frilled skirts. The blades are surprisingly buoyant and appear as light as air. They gleam when illuminated, twinkling as you walk by.

The sculptures’ formal compositions are exquisite yet their symbolism is gut-wrenching. Lipi’s sculptures are a pointed critique of the brutality of labour systems: refashioning mass-produced objects, such as textiles and shoes, she remind us of the conditions under which such goods are mass-produced in her home country of Bangladesh. The gallery walls are painted a shocking lipstick-pink, an added gesture towards femininity, and domestic objects are coated by the veneer of a metallic violence.

Shiela Makhijani, What do you think, 2017, oil on canvas 1.5 cm x 1.7 m. Courtesy: the artist and Talwar Gallery, New York/New Delhi

Sheila Makhijani: This That and the Other

Talwar Gallery

29 January – 18 May

In the installation All Over the Place (1994), Sheila Makhijani strews the room with handmade ceramics in candy bright colours: playful and innocent, they look as if they were taken from a child’s toy box. In vividly toned drawings and paintings, Makhijani’s lines appear wild and fluctuating, like a tangle of elastic bands.

The works here are disobedient, both in their composition and in their display. Makhijani articulates her geometric visions with a visual language that is markedly her own, while her titles reveal an underlying figural narrative that has been purposefully abstracted through form, though not entirely erased. The clues are in the attitude they take on – titles such as What were you thinking? (2007) and Don’t Move Me? (2009) are bossy, filled with a hot kind of hesitation.

Ronni Ahmmed, Seventh Mukkam, 2018, still from VR film. Courtesy: the arist and Korean Cultural Centre India


Korean Cultural Centre India

7 December 2018 – 22 February 2019

This group show of Bangladeshi artists, curated by Tanzim Wahab and Hadrien Diaz, borrows from Édouard Glissant’s 2006 text, Une Nouvelle Région du Monde to set up its premise, where borders tend to ‘flee off’ and are made up of ‘in-betweens’. Glissant, the Martiniquais theorist, poet, playright and novelist, is critical of Eurocentric histories, and the manner by which the borders’ of nation states have been defined by them. This especially holds true for the subcontinent: although entirely defined by its political borders, each is in reality still porous and imaginary. Bangladesh, for instance, is a country situated on a delta plain and at the meeting point of three large rivers. Here, land itself is porous, permeated by water and inherently ephemeral. A series of photographic landscapes by Md. Shamsul Arifin blur the material difference between sand, water and rock, where, as the curatorial note explains, ‘the “something else” of nature is quietly acknowledged’.

In Ronni Ahmed’s virtual reality video, this ‘something else’ is turned into a somewhere else: a portal entered via a holy shrine. The work is titled Seventh Mukkam (2018), a play on the Arabic word for the tombs of saints, where a place of worship is marked by a shrine. Ahmed transports us to one such holy utopia that is surreal and filled with electric colours. Figures in painted yellow robes dance in a landscape dotted with pink flamingoes and purple trees. Also on display, for the first time in this format, are contact sheets of Shahidul Alam’s photojournalism from 1990–97. His images capture streets erupting in protest or drowned by floodwater. Artist Namjun Nahar Keya carries this theme forward by taking the remnants of old Dhaka neighbourhoods – small details from old mansions and colonial warehouses – and decorating them with gold leaf and pigment.

Astha Butail, At Yazd, Taft district, Iran, building the tent in the desert, 2017, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and The Gujral Foundation, New Delhi

Astha Butail: In the Absence of Writing

The Gujral Foundation, 24 Jhor Baug

2 February – 28 April

In her use of abstraction, Astha Butail indicates how the rhythms of chanting have a fundamental relationship to the rhythms of the textile handloom. Her work is finely crafted and minimal, and her sculptures or installations are tenderly constructed from muslin and wood. She is preoccupied by oral histories: curious as to how they travel and what traces they leave behind. This is a subject matter well-suited to abstraction, where we are not given heady inferences of ancient narratives, but a formal geometry of rhythms, pattern and repetition.

A year ago, Butail was awarded the BMW Art Journey Award, a prize enabling artists to travel to make new work. She thus journeyed to the north Indian city Benares and the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, as well as small towns in Israel and Iran. The aim of her trip was to trace the oral traditions that overlap Zoroastrian histories with Vedic ones, among others. She took along a muslin tent and intermittently set it up as a space for people to chant and memorize prayers and scriptures. She erected the tent in vacant flatlands, such as the riverbanks of the Jordan – where the wind animates the textile into waves and patterns of its own. The show comprises work made during and as a result of these travels, collating videos and cabinets that bring together sculpture, photography and installation.

Sahil Naik, Ground Zero, wooden structure, metal, fiberglass, buff board, corrugated sheets, wires, tiles, plaster of Paris and other miscellaneous materials, 1.2  x 1 x 0.6 m. Courtesy: the artist and Khoj Artist’s Association, New Delhi 

‘This Must Be True’

Khoj Artist’s Association

28 January – 28 February

In 2017, Khoj International Artist’s Association, along with artist Zuleikha Chaudhari, staged a performance entitled ‘Landscape as Evidence: Artist as Witness’ in New Delhi. Its premise was simple, but highly experimental: in trying to find an alternative way to address the inherent ambiguities of the law, it placed artists in the witness stand to present testimony. It was an attempt to introduce affect into the courtroom and create room for uncertainty and subjectivity within legal frameworks. In a similar vein, this group show brings together works by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Bani Abidi, SUPERFLEX, Sahil Naik, Ala Younis and others to investigate what the curatorial note describes as an inquiry into ‘the delight, revulsion, anxiety, and conviction in our practices of mass witnessing’.

This ‘mass witnessing’, the note indicates, is the result of us being ‘implicated in the twin acts of spectatorship and participation’ under big data, AI algorithms and in the age of post-truth. The show includes works that take on the realities of incarceration, suspicion and surveillance. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Saydnaya (The Missing 19db) (2011–ongoing) takes us to the Syrian prison Sayndaya and presents collected sounds of a language of whispers that is particular to the communication between prisoners in Sayndaya, while Memorial to Lost Words (2016) by Bani Abidi reminds us of the 70,000 South Asian men who died in WWI as ‘British’ soldiers.

Moonis Ahman, The Birds are Coming Archive, 2017, digital painting, print on duraclear, web archive, light box, QR code. Courtesy: the artist

‘Critical Constellations’

Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA)

31 January – 9 February

‘Critical Constellations’ collects the works of grantees of the Foundation for India Contemporary Art (FICA). Sohrab Hura presents all 12 acts of The Lost Head & The Bird (2016–ongoing), a breathless, breakneck series of images and found WhatsApp footage set to a splitting soundtrack by Hannes d’Hoine and Sjoerd Bruil. In his own photographs, Hura bleaches out moments of both intimacy and violence with a brilliant flash, and the film mimics his motion as he works – zeroing in and out of scenes with vigor and pace. In Kashmiri artist Moonis Ahmad’s The Birds Are Coming Archive (2017), light boxes show a fictional archive of ‘birds accused of espionage by various nations’, a comment on the surveillance of citizens in his home state. Each bird arrives from a fictional place, attempting to intrude on a region that is given neither name nor location. FICA has, over the years, maintained a sharp focus on creating reading rooms, and spaces for conversation about and around books. Renuka Rajiv’s Monument Mausoleum (2018) layers up patterns, zines, and figurative narratives that expose the sculptural qualities of books. There is also a show within the show: curator Meenakshi Thirukode’s Infrastructures of the Otherwise (2018) juxtaposes three hyper-localized curatorial projects from India, Hong Kong and Turkey, which show us the potential of self-organizing and community collaboration.

Main image: Astha Butail, (3+1) Cabinets, 2017–2018. Courtesy: the artist

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.