Faiz Art Prize, 2011

Scratching the Surface: Talking About Contemporary South Asian Art in Toronto

Srimoyee Mitra and Ambereen Siddiqui

Art for Art’s Sake: Exploring Contemporary South Asian Art in May ‘09 was organized at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.

Friends of South Asia (FSA) and the Friends of the Institute of Contemporary Culture (FICC) jointly hosted this seminar. The panelists that provided diverse, and sometimes complimentary perspectives on contemporary South Asian Art were Deepali Dewan, Haema Sivanesan and Adil Ali Khan. 

The keynote speaker for the evening was Navjot Altaf, an eminient artist from India who is best known to Toronto audiences for her sculpture Blue Lady in the collection of the ROM. 

Deepali Dewan Curator of South Asian Art and Culture at the ROM presented a brief survey of Indian Art, marking its different histories and reference points from modern art in the West. She distilled the history of modern Indian art into three important “moments”: Revivalism and the Bengal School, when artists such as Abanindranath Tagore infused the burgeoning themes of nationalism and the freedom struggle to develop a new iconography, with paintings such as Mother India. Later, artists like FN Souza, M.F. Hussain and Syed Haider Raza formed the Progressive Artists, which emerged in Mumbai during the time of independence and developed a distinct style by combining Expressionist and Impressionist painting styles with the Indian aesthetic in popular culture and folk paintings. Finally Dewan concluded with a list of contemporary artists from India, focusing primarily on artists such as Atul Dodiya, whose Gandhi painting series started a trend of photo-realism that became a tool for them to understand their local environment. 

Picking up from where Dewan left off, Executive Director of South Asian Visual Art Centre, Hamea Sivanesan expanded the range and caliber of art practices in South Asia today by focusing on three diverse projects by three artists living in different places and working in different mediums: Sharmila Samant is a Mumbai-based artist, whose work explores the effects of globalization and commerce on the contemporary society in India. In 2008, her work was selected for the Sydney Biennial, for which she produced Against the Grain, an installation of over a thousand-foot tall cobras made out of rice and bamboo and installed over layers of cotton. In Devguniya, Orissa, after the harvest, women and children make little objects out of the grains that are left behind. Samant worked with them to produce these snakes to comment on the spate of farmer suicides in India due to the proliferation of genetically modified seeds that force the farmers to keep incurring debts. She drew parallels between the poisonous venom of the cobra and genetically modified seeds that use a lot of pesticide and in turn poison the ground water. Moving from the uneven economic development of India to war-torn Sri Lanka, The One Year Drawing Project was the next artist project that Sivanesan discussed. Initiated and curated by Sri Lankan-British curator Sharmini Pereira, this project brought together four of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists Muhanned Cader, Thamotharampillai Shanaathanan, Chandraguptha Thenuwara and Jagath Weerasinghe to collaborate for a period of 29 months to develop a collection of drawing through a mail-art project. Each artist would produce a work, mail it to the next artist in the sequence and produce a new drawing in response to the one received by mail. This project, which lasted for a year-and-a-half, attempted to communicate through drawing in the face of all other modes of communication having failed. Brendan Fernandes was the next artist featured by Sivanesan. Fernandes’ performance Foe examined the complexities of communicating in different languages. Living in the diaspora, Fernandes was born in Kenya of Indian parents. In Foe, Fernandes re-learns how to speak with Indian and Kenyan accents in English. His physical discomfort in performing the accents and his inability to be understood reveals the painful experiences of colonization. 

Born in 1949, shortly after Partition and Independence, Navjot Altaf is one of the leading artists in India whose career has spanned four decades. Working in a number of mediums, including sculpture, video and installations, Altaf’s projects have often facilitated audiences in social interactions. For example, Between Memory and History, included in Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis at the Tate Modern, Britain, viewers were invited to engage with messages written out on paper ribbons tied to a wire mesh structure. The messages dealt with eye-witness accounts from the communal riots in Mumbai in 1992. Since then Altaf has continued to produce a large and varied body of work that dissects and challenges the perceptions of communities in contemporary India.

Her sculptural piece, Blue Lady, at the ROM has been considered to be one of the most important works in their collection of Contemporary South Asian Art. Speaking of early influences on her work, Altaf spoke of Marxist and Feminist theories having informed her art practice. The Blue Lady was inspired by her experiences in an Adivasi community in Bastar, where she has a studio. The work illustrates ways in which religion uses superstition to preserve social hierarchies. In this case, a woman was declared a witch in Bastar and was humiliated and abused in public. Altaf’s Blue Lady sits on a stool facing sideways, with a fist and an open palm held out on either side. Her thumbs are inverted to signify the markings of a woman who has been demonized. According to Altaf, the clenched fist symbolizes the holding of knowledge, while the open palm shows her willingness to share. Altaf does not portray the Blue Lady as a victim, rather a metaphor for the tensions and assumptions between urban and rural, modern and traditional, and caste and class divisions that exist in contemporary society. 

The contemporary South Asian art market has been on the radar of collectors and museums all over the world. The addition of the Blue Lady to the ROM’s collection attests to that. Toronto based collector, founder and owner of the South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA) Ali Adil Khan based his presentation on the commercial value of contemporary South Asian art and the relatively high prices that some contemporary South Asian artists have been able to command in the past few years. Of course, the art market has not been unaffected by the economic downturn and art auction houses have seen a 50 percent correction in recent months. Regardless, South Asian art has made its mark on the world stage, generating unprecedented excitement and interest. This resonated in Khan’s talk, which also noted artists local to Toronto, including Reeta Sayed, Panchal Mansaram, Tazeen Qayyum, and Noni Kaur. 

Art for Art's Sake: Exploring Contemporary South Asian Art was successful in introducing the Toronto audience to the wide range of artistic practices from South Asia. The event emphasized the need for a deeper and more critical dialogue on contemporary art from South Asia which is often eclipsed by enthusiastic discussions of record-breaking sales in the art market. The need to critique, educate and build an infrastructure to support the arts in South Asia and the Diaspora was also felt.

It was widely felt that the definition of South Asia needs to be more inclusive and expanded to more countries in the region to build a healthy discourse on contemporary art and engage in cross-cultural dialogues that recognize the complexities and interconnectedness between the diverse cultures of South Asia and its Diasporas.