Camden Kala legacy

2017's Camden Kala curatorial contributor visit to India

Last year, 2017, I initiated the Camden Kala programme and introduced the programme manager to several artists and galleries in India to coincide with the British Council initiative, the UK:India Year of Culture. Mumbai-based artist Vishwa Shroff spent 3 months in residency at Swiss Cottage Gallery. An artist I have worked with before, Vishwa became my Mumbai host for the Artist International Development Fund grant.

Vishwa offered to introduce me to several artists and cultural organisations in Mumbai and to see where the collaborations and exchanges could continue, with a hope to offer UK artists a return visit to these partner cities.

MUMBAI, INDIA

A whirlwind week in April 2018 in Mumbai, I spent 24/7 with UK artist Tash Kahn and Mumbai host artist, Vishwa Shroff. This week was incredibly inspirational, with ideas popping up around every corner. As Hans Ulrich Obrist says: “Conversations…are obviously archival, but they are also a form of creating fertile soil for future projects.”[1] These conversations in India were definitely just that, with several new projects and opportunities being developed as a result of this short time in India, discussed later in this essay.

Whilst in Mumbai I visited Chemould Contemporary Art Gallery, Project 88, Mumbai Art Room, Chaterjee & Lal, Shaki, TARQ, The Guild and WAA Studios. Either through these gallery visits, studio visits or through a salon day at Shroff’s home I interviewed fourteen artists/curators/creatives.

I am fortunate that this was my fourth trip to Mumbai, however, this was a first with an agenda to meet and record conversations about exchange and people’s practices, specifically focusing in on place and space. I have invited my travel partner, artist Tash Kahn, host, artist Vishwa Shroff, and TARQ gallery director, Hena Kapadia to write an essay responding to these themes and to evolve some of the topics we talked about together, namely how site specificity and walking can influence their practice, and the importance of experiencing, and being seen in, an international context.

Whilst in Mumbai I was very interested in the linear quality of research within several of the artists practice, dividing conversations had into three topics: politics/mythologies, architecture/place, and collecting/anthropology.

Politics/Mythology

Shakuntala Kulkarni’s exhibition, Julus and Other Stories had an ambition to bring people together, like poetry and theatre, with a mix of objects/bits of costume displayed via traditional museum tropes, large drawings and film. Using a traditional craft output, woven jewellery/armour/costumes, set alongside delicate drawings in small and large scale of the female figure and a film of female warriors wearing the armour, this exhibition was an examination of the links between political marches and cultural processions and gatherings. It was an exhibition about blurring the lines between beauty and function, with Shakuntala Kulkarni exclaiming in response to a question about her ‘masculine’ appearance in her film work Julus and the marching within it as a male action, “I have the freedom to march how I want. I am neither male nor female”.

I first encountered Subrat Kumar Behera’s work at 2014’s Kochi Biennale. It was a room of drawings/watercolour paintings that read like a comic strip round the gallery wall, and it was a pleasure to meet the artist this visit and have him talk through his latest work, Hell of a paradise, a take on the heaven/hell divide as imagined by Subrat. This piece of work is “purposefully not political, rather proverbial and mythological”. Subrat takes traditional and non-traditional stories and mixes them together with his own, a collection of memories from various resources including films, encounters, family stories, story books and so on. Although the artist says this work is not political, it definitely leans towards a political commentary, with ‘God’ being a round table of people who represent parts of a ‘godly power’, these people including Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Stephen Hawking, Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler: “Indian Gods are both creators and destroyers, it’s important that the ‘God’ in this painting represents both.” Subrat is an interesting character who holds onto many stories and tales in his mind, and then brings them straight to the canvas, manipulating them to create new narratives and updated mythologies.

Tash, Subrat and Vishwa at The Guild, Alibaug
Tash, Subrat and Vishwa at The Guild, Alibaug

Vijay Shekon succinctly described himself as a “site specific and process-inspired artist”. Having lived, worked and studied in New York for several years he returned back to Mumbai in 2009 to a city he did and didn’t recognise. Since then his work, a mix of drawings and performances, looking at the political and social influences upon every day life in Mumbai. “I ripped up or burnt all of my New York work, I didn’t bring it back with me, I felt like I needed a new start”, and so he began to re-examine Mumbai with a slight outsider eye working on a drawing a day upon his return, “it was a great way to get back into the city, I only managed 62 days but it really helped get back into the rhythm of the city and my role as an artist in Bombay”. His work ranges from performances that look at the very political subject matter of Mumbai residents right to water (and that fact that not everyone in Mumbai can access water), through to beautiful paintings on paper of everyday life in his neighbourhood, whilst always looking at his place and role within his local community.

Architecture/Place

Sameer Kulavoor gave me a private tour of his third solo exhibition at TARQ, A Man of the Crowd. This exhibition was a series of paintings and sculptures that reflected on everyday life in Mumbai, focusing on snippets of life he had seen, all brought together to form abstract scenes in a non-descript metropolis focusing on the people and their actions. His chosen viewpoint is one of an observer, looking down upon a concrete square filled with people from all walks of life, not involved in each other’s routine, rather alone in their actions, and brought together in this imagined place. Sameer said, “the people are old memories from all over the world, but the place is always a Bombay”. He went on, “I am used to watching constant change in Bombay, especially politically and in public spaces. These people [in my paintings] are always moving, changing spaces, and I watch them, purposefully, so I can observe how they change a place or what changes they have upon it. I want to notice”.

Sameer and Vishwa at TARQ
Sameer and Vishwa at TARQ

A chance encounter with artist Amshu Chukki on a boat ride to Alibaug allowed an insight into his approach, which very much mimicked the conversations between Tash, Vishwa and myself during my visit, “you can walk the same route everyday and you will always spot something new”. Amshu’s work looks at the complex way Mumbai is constructed, “Bombay isn’t defined areas, they all link together, a city ever moving into one another”. This is something several of the artists I met commented on, the fact that Mumbai is always shifting shape, purpose, and how that impacts upon the people who live, visit and work there. Amshu works mostly site responsively, something I am very interested in, and we discussed the question, what happens to site specific works after it leaves the site? And has the original site changed as a result?

Ceramicist Sukhdev Rathod writes down every idea he has, lists and lists of them, with works only coming to fruition when an opportunity links to a specific idea and place. His most recent work is a beautiful set of ceramic circles, each imprinted with a different rock of where he spends most of his evenings: “We can’t get wifi in the house, so most nights we walk to the beach, sit on these rocks and check our emails using the nearby café’s wifi.” This site-specific work reflects Sukhdev’s instant surroundings, something that links with his list making, often ideas being fleeting for the moments he finds himself in. He is a natural collector, translating moods or moments into creative project ideas.

I have worked with Pratap Morey before on Cornered Stories, an ongoing online project I am working on with my host Vishwa. This meeting with Pratap, however, was the first time I got to visit his studio in North Bombay and see his new work that is directly inspired by his involvement in Cornered Stories. “I moved from Bombay to Baroda and back to Bombay, and with each move I got to look at the cities in different ways. I liked dissecting buildings and developments, I started creating portraits of places through abstractly putting myself within them using just parts of my body.” His view of the city is like ‘Tetris,’ his drawings, digital and 3D collages represent the moving building blocks of a city, layer upon layer of buildings moved to sit within each other, and within available spaces. Pratap’s practice is slow and steady, but also furious at times, mimicking the city and how it gets constructed, which is also seen in a series of ‘glitch’ works – how buildings get quickly fixed and repaired which creates a glitch to the original building, something he began to notice whilst in residency in Korea where this did not happen.

Pratap in his studio, Mumbai
Pratap in his studio, Mumbai

Teja Gavanka is an artist with a very linear practice with one piece of work inspiring the next, her line drawings, sculptural manipulation of spaces and interventions are all part of a bigger vision, to look at “mind spaces and inside spaces while working with line and the plane of real spaces”. Teja’s work was wonderful, smart, and subtle, she specifically noted that some of her public realm work should go ‘unnoticed’ however loves when the exchange between a building and her intervention is acknowledge, but she doesn’t reply on that for the pieces to work. Teja is one of several artists we met who look at space and the city in such a unique way that I left looking at Bombay in a different way, “Bombay is a vertical city, it encourages you to look up”.

My final studio visit of the whole trip was with my host, Vishwa Shroff. I have worked with, commissioned, curated and been inspired by Vishwa since I hosted her for a residency at TROVE in 2012. Rather than host the studio visit my travelling partner, artist Tash Kahn, led the conversation and it was amazing to re-look through new eyes many of Vishwa’s latest works. Tash was specifically drawn to Vishwa’s window works, which have popped up in several projects. Having spent several years in Tokyo, Japan, Vishwa noticed how windows were used as additional storage spaces rather than as things to open/let light in. So whilst walking round Tokyo she noted what the various objects were that the windows housed from laundry to kitchen utensils, and this is where her imagination started, “who lives there? What are they doing? What do these objects tell me about them?” and from there she created a wonderful project, Postulating Premises, with her husband and collaborator Katsushi Goto, which let her delve into this questions and imagine the answers. Vishwa’s practice is drawing based and inspired by the places she sees, passes through or lives within.

Collecting/Anthropology

In my host Vishwa’s home was an incredible paper relief of a deconstructed bird. The detail and anthropological nature reminded me of the Natural History Museum, and the drawers of bird specimens. Later when I met the artist, Nisha Sikander, I was amazed to learn she gets her inspiration from her Grandfather who is a famous naturalist, and her cousin, ‘The Birdman of India’, Salim Ali, a famous ornithologist. Nisha says, “I grew up in a tropical environment with lots of naturalists, I subconsciously was attracted to birds and insects I think, there were always books and research lying around, and I often had to be quiet as a child to not scare away the birds. We would sit for hours and just listen for them”. She currently only creates these paper reliefs out of birds and moths local to her home, those she grew up with. Her technique is beautifully delicate layers and layers of paper cut to closely resemble feathers/wings combined to become whole animals, directly inspired from taxidermy and museum collections. Her whole animals are now being deconstructed to show elements of each animal, and now she also shows the negative paper sheets, each layer of deconstruction making the viewer more aware of the delicate process these works go through, “I don’t want the works to lose their awe of making, I want audiences to know the work behind them”.

Graphic designer, Kruti Saraiya, is an incredible sketchbook keeper and translator of words and places, “I started making sketch books as I wasn’t confident in my drawing skills at first, and the books were private spaces for collages and ways to keep an alternative diary of my holidays”. It was such a pleasure to be able to leaf through her many sketchbooks, and see her ongoing postcard exchange project with Vishwa. This personal practice of Kruti’s, and her love of words, “their roots, especially of foreign languages, I will always design words in a way that helps me understand them and then learn them as a result”, has made its way into her professional practice. When designing the logo for the BDL Museum in Mumbai she made sure she considered, “how do you introduce a museum to people who don’t access culture? The logo needs to speak to these people and those familiar with the museum, so I elevated the coat of arms to be the primary image with the English text being the secondary part”. As a result, her work now looks at interesting entry points to language, “it’s not about learning in a textbook way, I want to create gateways through what you’re interested in”, and always through her unique style and approach, and always originating from a sketchbook drawing.

Kruti and Vishwa’s postcard exchanges, Mumbai
Kruti and Vishwa’s postcard exchanges, Mumbai

TARQ is a 4-year-old commercial gallery in Mumbai that is already breaking the mould. Director, Hena Kapadia, has grown TARQ organically and works from the premise that “parties aren't important, socialising is”. And this ethos is seen in the artists she works with and how the gallery is a welcoming space for conversation and experimentation, and not just a place to be seen. Having studied Art World Practice at Christies, Hena says that she actually learnt how to run a successful and innovative gallery though doing, “I wanted to shake up the art scene in Bombay, it felt dead, I wanted to switch the light on”, and that she did. Returning recently, when I met with her, from a sold out show at Art Basel Hong Kong she is taking the world by storm and definitely shaking things up, with traditional Indian collectors wanting to buy traditional Indian artists, she is teaching old and new buyers new ways of looking and investing, “oil on canvas is no longer valuable, I am re-educating buyers that it’s not all oil and sculpture, it’s watercolour, photography, paper, collage. It’s moving on, they have to, too.”

Shivaji Gaekwad is a specialist working for Sotheby’s India and allowed us a great insight into the Indian collecting scene, and how there are three types of collector, the private collectors, the ‘taste maker’ collectors and the speculators. “There are only six people or less in India who collect Western art”, Shivaji told us, while comparing the pre and post 2009 crash art worlds, “but collectors want to invest in Indian artists who have a Western reputation for exhibitions”. The Sotheby’s art world is a very different one to TARQ, with Sotheby’s being about long standing buyers and auctions rather than the personal touch of TARQ, but Sotheby’s is not without its edge, with Shivaji telling us about an auction a few years ago of fake Indian artworks, “the scene is littered with fake art works, it’s Sotheby’s job to only sell artworks but also to authenticate”. He also told us, in line with Hena, that post the 2009 crash buyers stay with the artists they know, new galleries, such as TARQ, have to create new/their own buyers as the old circle does not adapt to change.

A visit to WAA Residency and Studio space allowed an insight into the North Bombay art scene, which is very different to the South Bombay set where I was staying. WAA’s administrator, Rashi, took us for a tour of the various studio and residency spaces, allowing us a chance meeting with curator Gitanjali Dang who has an office in the complex, and the studios of Gayatsi Kodikal and Ratna Gupta. WAA is open to all proposals and they were hosting their first musician on our visit, “it’s important WAA doesn’t just host artists, we proactively want to host curators, musicians and people developing creative projects”. The project space there is always active, with film nights and pop-up weekend long exhibitions, the highlight of the year, we were informed, is the January Open Studios, this is the moment the local community really comes together and people travel to WAA to see what’s going on. “We don’t curate our selected residents, but we do think more about what the studios might be doing in January for the Open Studio’s event, we want people to be bringing in something different and exciting, and usually try to work with international people at this point, too.”

[1] Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2014, p. 57