Wallpaper: On Reena Kallat’s ZegnArt installation at Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Photo: mine. Don't nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr's filters.
Photo: mine. Don’t nick without giving credit, even if most of the credit goes to iPhone and Flickr’s filters.

In the May issue of Wallpaper*, there’s a piece I’d written a while back about artist Reena Kallat and the installation that she’s put up at Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

This public art piece is actually commissioned by ZegnArt, which is the fashion brand Ermenegildo Zegna’s cultural activity arm. When I met Reena to talk about the work, she was in frantic mode. The installation was going to be rigged up on the facade of the museum in a couple of days, would they need cranes, what are the measurements, should we have noodles for lunch… the questions were endless. Somehow, in the midst of all that, Reena and I spent a few hours talking about work and art and life. To put the whole transcript here would mean a seriously massive post, so here are selected excerpts. I’ll put up the article once I’ve scanned it.

On Public, an international public art programme sponsored by ZegnArt.

ZEGNA’S PUBLIC will begin with working with one artist in India, one project in Turkey and one in Brazil. In each country, what they want to do is to help realise a work. It’s like an award instituted for each place. … What Zegna plans to do is partner with a local institution everywhere and in this case, they chose to work with Bhau Daji Lad Museum because of the contemporary art program. We don’t have another institution that’s doing an interesting program like this. But it’s also a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest.

The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the BDL, and that sort has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names. I was interested at how else one could extend this, into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city, in what manner street names define the identity of the city, do street names mean anything to people, and so on.

On public art

I always find [public] art can be a real imposition. It’s used by all kinds of public and doesn’t really announce itself or asks for any consensual, it just comes and sits there. …

It’s also such a rare opportunity to work in public space [in India]. I’ve done larger pieces at say, the Kennedy Centre [the piece she made was a massive fallen pillar out of some 30,000 rubber stamps]. But these are opportunities that don’t come often being here [in India] and I think part of the artist’s thing is to be able to imagine, to think of this large canvas field which is difficult because you can’t be floating in a dream world when you know you can’t realise them. That’s what this project just allowed me to do.

On the piece she created for Public, which is a massive spider web made of huge rubber stamps.

This web is attached to the facade of Bhau Daji Lad Museum. If you go up to the rubber stamps dangling at eye level in the lower parts of the building, you’ll see there are street names written in English and Hindi. They’re all streets whose names have been changed because the original names were considered too colonial.

One was also looking at the city and its relationship to the museum and making a place in the city and how that relationship has changed. … The building itself is just so beautiful that I couldn’t think of anything else that would look like another decorative element on it.

The rubber stamp allows me to combine text and image and physicality. It has all the metaphorical underpinnings of being a bureaucratic apparatus, the idea of the meaninglessness of the bureaucratic which a lot of the names are, in that they have no real relationship to the city. Either they’re geographic or commemorative.

There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of those colonial statues in their backyard, many of whose names the street names were based on. Those are there, you have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded. So the whole vision of the city and what it meant comes together with the installation. And of course, the motif of the rubber stamp has other connotations. You know the web contains a sense of time, of space unused.

On art school and a sense of fraternity with other artists

We survived [JJ School of Art] because of our peers. The first couple of years, there’s the academic training. You learn something about figure study, face study, object drawing and so on. Because there’s a certain discipline, it’s not just about being handed over some wonderful secrets but the rigour of doing this every day, of trying to approach it in your own way every day. Not having an example to follow meant that you had to chart your own ways of doing it. Some of it helped, to the extent you weren’t swayed totally. But we were starved for visiting faculty, for practicing artists.

We had a military colonel who was good to me because I was a first class first student every year. I was very good about submitting all my assignments in time, doing all my work, doing it with sincerity. So they didn’t stop me from doing more than what was expected. There were others went against the grain, because they didn’t think they should suffer in this environment, including Jitish [Kallat]. We had clashes because of this. That’s how we met. We came from different views. I certainly saw his frustration at being in this environment that’s completely deadening and insular. So he did provocative things. He’d put up these posters, like one that said “I’m a potato because I have eyes.”

Today, all my contemporaries form this large campus. I am talking to them, responding to them, they inspire me. They could be in Delhi, Calcutta, wherever they are. The Indian art scene has really strengthened because of the interaction of artists being so strong and robust. I feel very connected to my contemporaries. Coming from artists I hugely admire, whether it was Nalini [Malani], Vivan [Sundaram], to Nilima [Sheikh] and Ghulam [Mohammad Sheikh], all of these stalwarts. Then Bhupen [Khakhar], Gieve [Patel] and coming down to Anita [Dube]; all the younger people, Sheela [Gowda], Bharti [Kher], Subodh [Gupta], everybody who’s in it. It’s not that you think of yourself as working in isolation. There’s no way that a creative moment is in isolation from everything else. It’s a byproduct of everything else.

On being ‘a mid-career artist’, which is was one of the qualifying criteria for ZegnArt’s Public

When I was being photographed, I was thinking of all my greys. Then I thought, “It’ll look more appropriate, I’m a mid-career artist.” Of course, I’ve been around about 15 years, more actually. If I have to think about my first public viewing, that was in 1994. I was in art school but we showed at NCPA. It was from work that was made at an artists’ workshop that Nalini Malani and Bhupen Khakhar were doing. It’ll be 20 years since then.

This idea of the young artist, even Atul [Dodiya] will be called a young artist and today he’s in his mid-50s, so he’s no longer that young. Or alternatively, someone will say “Oh those masters!” It’s ridiculous. You can’t be called a master. I have such an aversion to the ‘masters’ idea.

I find that you have much less pressure because you’re in a position to choose. It’s not that you’re doing it under compulsion of earning your bread and butter. You’re past that stage. I don’t see what you’re gaining when you lose your reputation.

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Profile: Rana Begum

This article originally came out in Wallpaper*. Be warned: it’s long.

Colour Scheme

Love this photo that Wallpaper* shot of Rana.

Artist Rana Begum’s father migrated to England in 1985 from an obscure village in Bangladesh because he wanted his family to have a better life, one unmarked by hardship. When he now sees his daughter doing hard labour to make a living, it bewilders him. “To this day, he says: ‘Why are you doing this? This is not what women do. Using machines and working with metal, cutting wood and stuff, this is not what girls do’,” chuckles Begum. “He’s like, ‘Look at you, you’re so exhausted and you look so tired. It’s not good for you.’ And I have to tell him that actually it is good for me, it makes me happy. My parents are puzzled really that I can have a career and make money and make a living from this and survive.” By ‘this’, Begum means art. Begum belongs to a new recent of British Asians that have resisted the parental push toward conventional professions with steady and considerable salaries.

A little less than a generation before Begum, British-Asian musician and composer Nitin Sawhney completed an accountancy degree despite the fact that his musical talents had been obvious since childhood. Begum, on the other hand, has a BA (Hons) and MFA in painting, from the Chelsea College of Art and Design and the Slade School of Fine Art respectively. She never considered studying anything else. “I realised that art was something I was really good at. Everything else, I was really crap at.”

Begum’s decision to become an artist seems particularly unconventional when you keep in mind that she grew up in a Muslim household. Iconography is anathema to Islam and this has, over centuries, developed into a rigid mistrust of figurative art in particular. Begum was very aware of this while growing up. “Through my GCSEs and A levels, I really did like representational art and I couldn’t understand abstract art at all,” said Begum. “I was a figurative artist to start off with and everything I did, I used to hide it under the bed because I couldn’t show it to them [her parents].” She found her connection with abstract art in the mid-1990s, while studying for a foundation course in art and design. She realised then that the figure didn’t actually interest her; colour, form and lines did.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when she met her partner, sculptor Nathaniel Rackowe, that Begum developed her distinctive artistic language. Rackowe and Begum were both students in Slade School of Fine Art where Begum specialised in painting. The two met through a part-time job. “I’d always been fascinated by sculpture but I think I was also afraid of it,” said Begum. “Seeing how Nathaniel works and makes his work gave me more and more confidence to push my work and take that leap.” Today, Begum’s art is an intriguing hybrid of painting, sculpture and installations. Made up of bold lines and solid shapes, her works are minimalist and striking for her use of geometry and colour.

Curiously, there is a subtle synergy between Begum’s distinctive visual language and certain basic principles of religious Islamic art. The emphatic geometry of her style, with the attention to straight lines and precise angles, shares a connection with fundamental components of the beautiful and elaborate decorations seen in mosques. Drawn with meticulous accuracy, the geometric elements of religious Islamic art represent perfection and purity. The repetition of these shapes and lines creates patterns that could theoretically be expanded endlessly. This is because they express the idea of the one god being infinite and the earthly world being part of a larger, divine universe.

The infinite and the sublime are concepts that are strongly present in Begum’s work and even though she approaches them from a decidedly secular perspective, Begum readily counts traditional Islamic art as a major influence. One of her most memorable experiences was visiting the Cathedral-Mosque in Cordoba in 2007 and seeing its famous arches. “It was so beautiful and just so amazing in the way the simple form and shape can be repeated to create a space like that,” recalled Begum. “I was there and I was like, this is what I want my work to feel like.” In stark contrast to this strongly Islamic tradition are the other influences that Begum lists: the work of modern artists like Sol LeWitt, sculptor Donald Judd and painter Agnes Martin. The impact of these artists’ use of grids and solid colours and their manipulation of materials is obvious in Begum’s work.

Her immediate inspiration, however, is the city. In Begum’s art are intriguing representations of urban sights. Architectural planes, safety jackets of construction workers, road markings, the geometry of signage – such are the visual images that Begum abstracts to create her work. An awkward clash of colours glimpsed in signs or the unexpectedly elegant alignment of shapes in everyday objects like fences or barricades is stripped down to its basics to reveal a pristine abstract.

Begum’s favoured materials include paper and extruded aluminium. She’s also used coloured adhesive tapes in the past. “I’ve always been fascinated by how much you can push a material, in terms of perfecting it to its best quality and getting something unexpected, something sublime out of it,”says Begum. In Begum’s hands, paper appears more dense and solid while aluminium loses its metallic quality and seems malleable enough for origami.

Frequently, her starting point is something she spots while walking down a London street. Through her sculptural pieces, Begum tries to recreate what she’s seen in a way that lets the viewer see it from different angles. Her works tend to adapt to the space in which they’re displayed, revealing new layers and aspects. In many of her works, there are revelations for the viewer. See it from one angle, and it looks like a flat, monochrome block. Shift a little, and colours, shadows and dimensions emerge. It’s like watching a piece shed its skin to reveal an entirely new creation. “When I realised that the viewer doesn’t have to be in one position to view the work, it was a really exciting moment for me,” said Begum. “It meant that it’s not going to allow the viewer to get bored with the work. It meant that the viewer can actually discover something new every time they walk around the work.” Begum experienced that sense of discovery herself when she saw one of her works in a client’s house, bathed in natural light. Since her studio has no natural light, Begum was transfixed by the sight of her creation becoming something new with every shift of sunlight.

Apart from urban, architectural geometry, Begum’s other great fascination is colour. She describes her practice as “an investigative process”, researching the interplay of form, angle and colour. For instance, the series of works she produced in 2009 for Third Line Gallery in Dubai explored the relationship between black and other colours. The credit for this theme goes to her son, Jibril, who was then a few months old. “I was doing loads of paper studies and each time I’d make these, I’d show them to Jibril and he would react to each one,” says Begum. “His reaction to black and bright orange and green was really quite different from the rest.” Intrigued by this, Begum began working on a series that explored contrast. Instead of absorbing the brightness of other colours, black actually served to add to their vibrancy.

Her next set of works, shown at London’s Bischoff/Weiss Gallery last year, seem diametrically opposite with the extensive use of white. In reality, the germ of this series lay in the black-themed show. “What I hadn’t realised with the black pieces [until they were displayed in the gallery] was how much of the colour is reflected on to the white wall,” said Begum. “I wanted to investigate that a bit more. I realised I was getting more of an interaction with the other colours with the white.” For her debut show in India this month, at Amrita Jhaveri’s eponymous gallery in Mumbai, Begum will show paper studies, which are the starting points for a number of her works, as well as a selection of both black and white-themed pieces. “It sounds like a mishmash but I’m hoping it will flow,” said Begum. “Ultimately, it’s about experiencing the work because what I want people to see is that this is how I see the world.”

On Indian Collectors

This article was published in the June issue of Wallpaper*.

The Great Pretender

Standing outside Gallery Maskara, in the belly of Mumbai’s art district in Colaba, you’d never guess you’re standing in front of one of Indian art’s most avant-garde galleries. Since 2007, the gallery has had inflatable babies, dust sculptures and other odd objects that can only belong in an art exhibition. One of the most memorable shows at the gallery was Shine Shivan’s debut solo in 2009. Titled “Sperm Weaver”, it made Gallery Maskara’s previous exhibitions look tame. His gender-bending works looked at sexuality with a dark mischief and brutal frankness that is rare in Indian contemporary art. One installation was titled “Used Dicks” and was made of empty nests of weaver birds and Shivan’s mother’s hair. “Psycho Phallus” was a site-specific installation comprising two enormous, 11-foot towers made of grass, wood and cow dung patties. It created quite a buzz, literally. Along with viewers, the cow dung attracted a swarm of files. But “Sperm Weaver” established Shivan as one of the most promising young artists in India today. His work used elements that were intrinsically Indian, like the cow dung patties that can be seen all over rural India, but Shivan’s concerns and practice were not limited by his nationality. Of course the question that hovered in most visitors’ minds was, who would buy something like “Psycho Phallus”?

Exhibiting unsaleable shows has been a cross frequently borne by most Indian galleries of repute. The artists who receive critical acclaim are rarely the ones who are popular among Indian buyers, much to the frustration of gallerists. While bland landscapes and paintings of doe-eyed women, Buddhas and Ganeshas have a steady market, only a few collectors are willing to put their money into the innovative contemporary art that respected galleries showcase. “India-based commercial galleries, especially those based in Mumbai, are the driving force for the Indian contemporary scene,” said Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Mumbai gallery Chatterjee & Lal with his wife, Tara Lal. “It is they that represent the tastemakers as of the present moment,” he said. “We await a new generation of collectors to emerge.”

In comparison to the art markets of America and Europe, the subcontinent is a minuscule cog in the global machine of art. The habit of buying art is a new one in India and most contemporary art galleries complain that those who buy art are mostly speculators, not collectors. Rather than judging a work for its aesthetic value, the question that is regularly asked is whether the financial value will appreciate. “The market is still very conservative and fixated on painting,” said Peter Nagy, who came to India as an American tourist in the early nineties and became so fascinated with the country that he returned to stay and opened the gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi in 1997. Today Nature Morte is one of the leading contemporary art galleries in India, with a branch in Berlin and a tie-up with Bose Pacia in New York. Nagy’s list of artists include superstars like Subodh Gupta, Anita Dube and Raqs Media Collective; all of them known for making the kind of avant-garde art that few would consider suitable for the wall space above the living room sofa.

“If you take someone like Subodh Gupta, Indian collectors are more likely to pay the amounts that his works are worth for a painting,” said Nagy. “But Subodh is primarily a sculptor and the international market is interested in his sculptural work.”

While many Indian contemporary art galleries are heavily dependent upon foreign collectors and institutional buyers, there is a select set of Indian collectors who are more interested in the present than the past. Hotelier and co-founder of the Devi Art Foundation, Anupam Poddar, for example, is one of the most revered collectors of Indian art precisely because of his collection has a strong emphasis upon the contemporary. The Poddar collection was begun in the 1980s by his mother, Lekha. Lekha Poddar put together a noteworthy collection of Indian art, mostly paintings, from the early twentieth century. It was Anupam Poddar who broadened the scope when he began buying unconventional works in the 1990s when the current luminaries of Indian contemporary art, like Subodh Gupta and Anita Dube, were young upstarts.

“My love for Indian contemporary art developed through my deep friendships with artists who were making courageous works at that time when I started collecting,” said Poddar. “But it is also about a desire to possess those objects, images, moving images that affect you at a gut level, and how they grow on you over time at living spaces.” His collection today includes every Indian contemporary artist of note and has some of the most bizarre pieces that have been shown in India, including Sudarshan Shetty’s large-scale sculpture titled “Love”, which shows a metallic dinosaur skeleton simulating sex with sports car. The Devi Art Foundation, which opened in 2008 in a suburb of Delhi, is the first attempt at a private museum for contemporary art in India. It shows exhibitions curated out of the growing Poddar collection.

For Rajshree Pathy, an entrepreneur who bought her first painting at the age of 17 (it was by M.F. Husain and set her back by Rs. 17, 000, which is peanuts compared to what any Husain painting is valued at today), the works of contemporary Indian artists resonate in a way that art from other time periods and countries cannot. “I only collect Indian contemporary,” she said. “I visit most international museums and the major art fairs during the year, but I’ve decided to focus on what we have here. I collect any medium — painting, sculpture, installations and more recently, digital art. Whatever is strong, edgy and perhaps controversial. Contemporary art is nothing but a visual expression of the issues that confront society today, so it’s a bit ugly, a bit macabre, and not so pleasant!”

Pathy’s complete commitment to Indian contemporary art is rare. Most collectors have chosen to include art from other time periods or countries in their collections. “When you collect across a wide range, you filter better and you’re creating a dialogue between the various artists that is interesting,” said businessman Anurag Khanna, who lives in a small town in Gujarat and has over the past nine years amassed an impressive collection of contemporary art, with an emphasis on video. Khanna is not interested in artists born before 1960 and while he has a few paintings in his collection, he doesn’t care much for the conventional canvas. “Paintings around our house to me are like clothes in a cupboard,” he said. “They’re there and it’s all around you. You stop noticing them and you don’t really stand in front of the work and think about it. Video art requires you to make an effort. Putting on the dvd, the darkened room, it all pushes you to watch it and think.”

Like most collectors in India, Khanna travels within the country and internationally to keep abreast of what is happening in the art world. This wider perspective has led to him turning increasingly to buying works by foreign artists. He feels video in particular is handled ineptly by South Asian artists whereas the same medium in the hands of international artists like Keren Cytter and Jane and Louise Wilson can give a viewer goosebumps. “Indian contemporary art is not exciting right now,” he said bluntly. “I find it expensive and Indian artists are not pushing boundaries and prices are still absurd. To me, if I have Rs. 40 lakhs, there’s enough I can do with it internationally. I don’t have to spend it on Indian art that isn’t of that high a standard.”

Khanna’s sentiment is echoed by Poddar, who is widely regarded as one who is ahead of the curve so far as the Indian art market is concerned. When asked if contemporary Indian art excited him as much as it used to earlier, Poddar replied, “Not always!” He said he was now looking at art from “regions like Central Asia and Iran, which are more exciting for me at the moment.” His criteria for art that he considers worth buying is demanding : “I respond to those works which are original, honest and more importantly courageous. There is no one particular medium that I exclusively collect, but I am drawn towards those works that challenge mediatic conventions.”

Given his waning interest in Indian contemporary art, this would suggest he isn’t seeing these qualities in the works of most upcoming artists. While there are Indian artists that he is “curiously following”, Poddar doesn’t feel that Indian contemporary art has developed a distinctive character. “Although Indian artists have been trying to play out Indianness through culturally specific content, it is too early to say if Indian contemporary art has a distinct character,” he said. “For example, Pakistani contemporary art is deriving a lot from the miniature painting traditions and even while abandoning that mode of representation towards more inter-media works, their practice is still animated by rigorous traditional training. That kind of a national identity is lacking in Indian contemporary art.”

The question of whether Indian art has a national identity is one that irks most gallerists. “Indian contemporary art is marked by its very diversity,” said Chatterjee. “Unlike the Chinese contemporary art scene, India has never really been afflicted by identikit artists.” As far as Peter Nagy is concerned, the question is irrelevant. “I don’t know why there is a demand that Indian art have a distinctive character,” he said. “Do we do this with American art or French art? I think it’s a bit of a disservice.”

Whether or not Indian contemporary art is distinctive becomes relevant with galleries and artists from the subcontinent stepping on to the international stage. Artists like Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Shilpa Gupta (no relation of Subodh) with their innovative practices have got foreign galleries representing them (Hauser & Wirth, Haunch of Venison and Yvon Lambert respectively) and this has helped generate more international interest in art from the subcontinent. Over the past five years, an increasing number of Indian galleries are participating in art fairs. They’ve showcased the talent in their stables alongside the best galleries of Western Europe and America at Basel, Hong Kong, Dubai and elsewhere. There’s been greater access to foreign buyers, both private and institutional. Also, the participating Indian galleries have been able to rub shoulders with their brethren in other parts of the world.

“As a gallerist what I enjoy most [about art fairs] is that I get to meet gallerists from all over and they are all at work,” said Sunitha Kumar Emmart, who runs GallerySKE in Bengaluru. “One gets to meet people from all over the world — collectors, curators, museum directors, artists, and many more.

It is also a space where one can initiate collaborative projects with other galleries.” The world of art fairs has removed what gallerist Prateek Raja, who runs Experimenter in Kolkata, describes as a sense of “geographical alienation”. The question is, can Indian contemporary artists hold their own and stand out next to their peers from other countries or are they remarkable only within the South Asian niche?

The gallerists are confident their artists can. The diversity in Indian art practices today is its greatest strength, they argue. “The most exciting thing about Indian contemporary art is its ability to capture this mega-nation’s multiplicity and to do this through mediums that are challenging and at the same time representatives of the times,” said Raja. Galleries like Chatterjee & Lal, Experimenter, Gallery SKE, Project 88, Photoink and Gallery Maskara should know. Over the last few years, they have been consistently showcasing new talent whose works have not succumbed to predictable tropes and have received critical acclaim. Some of their artists have won over even doubting collectors like Poddar and Khanna. When asked which upcoming Indian artists had interested Poddar in recent times, he gave the following names: Sakshi Gupta, Shreyas Karle, Baptist Coelho, Minam Apang, Kiran Subbiah and Susanto Mandal. Khanna’s list had many of the same names, as well as Pakistani artist Bani Abidi and Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen. All these artists were discovered and are represented by the galleries listed above.

“The missing link in India are the legitimising institutions,” said Nagy, “Abroad, all big institutions, such as Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have a small gallery that focuses upon experimental contemporary art. They play the role of validating and legitimising a selection of the contemporary artists. That, in turn, makes the collectors more confident about this type of work. We have nothing like that in India.”

It has fallen upon galleries and collectors to fill the space created by the absence of museums, and they have. Today Poddar doesn’t simply collect for himself but for Devi Art Foundation. Collector Kiran Nadar opened up her personal collection to the public in 2010 when she set up the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in a Delhi suburban mall. The galleries that have been championing contemporary art continue to do so, even as they struggle to find a happy balance between earning enough from the business of art to keep nurturing art practices that have a limited market within the country.

Despite the absence of infrastructure and frustrations, there’s a determined confidence the country’s gallerists that Indian contemporary art isn’t a bubble but rather a nascent scene. “There wasn’t a market for Richard Serra in the New York and London of the 1970s,” Nagy pointed out. “He didn’t have a market till the ‘80s and ‘90s so why complain about India and its market today?”