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What now for India’s contemporary art scene?

A no-show at this year’s Venice Biennale has prompted questions about the country’s cultural ambitions

The Indian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale included Gigi Scaria's video installation Elevator from the Subcontinent, 2011

After a carefully curated national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, India did not return to participate in this year’s 55th edition. One widely accepted reason has been that the poet and cultural advocate Ashok Vajpeyi, who was one of the driving forces behind the 2011 pavilion, came to the end of his tenure as chairman of Lalit Kala Akedemi (the National Academy of Fine Art) in December that year. Meanwhile, India’s Ministry of Culture is in paralysis until the next general election in May 2014. However, these reasons only go so far.

India has had a patchy official presence at the biennial. Before 2011, the country hadn't shown since 1982, but has appeared eight times since (and including) 1954. Those involved in its cultural scene are concerned that India’s government today, despite a rhetoric that promotes “soft power”, fails to recognise contemporary art as one of its key cultural strengths. Ranjit Hoskote, the curator of the 2011 Indian pavilion, says that participation in the biennial is extremely relevant, not only for India but also for the Indian art scene, saying that the country “should be prepared to present a pavilion that acts as an argument... a bracingly self-critical move rather than a merely self-congratulatory one."

In a open letter, written in June, the Indian artist Bharti Kher wrote that it “bothers me as the news from [the] Venice Biennale filters in: pavilions from Angola (population 19.6 million, civil wars 1975 to 2002), Azerbaijan (9.2 million), Tuvalu (population 9,847)… yes smaller than Lajpat Nagar [a Delhi suburb]!... We didn’t bother to make it happen.”

Comparisons are also being made between India and this year’s first-time exhibitor Indonesia, Asia’s third most populous country after China and India. Both India and Indonesia are stable developing democracies with liberal economic policies—and are similarly plagued with apathy towards their cultural core. So how did Indonesia manage to debut this year?

Securing a mix of public and private investment was key. Restu Kusumaningrum, the co-founder of the Bali Purnati Center for the Arts and the producer of the Indonesian pavilion, rigorously campaigned for support and persuaded the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy to pay the rent at the Arsenale. She also secured private funding from businesses including the hedge fund Prince Street Capital (where her husband is a managing partner), Bank Mandiri, the largest national bank, the state-owned oil company Pertamina, and from the Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek, who covered the cost of shipping works from Indonesia to Venice). While none of the artists’ dealers wanted to get involved (unlike the arguably excessive support that comes from galleries elsewhere), she found support from the country’s Art Galleries Association.

While India’s government may lack the impetus to support its cultural ambitions, could the private sector take up the mantle? Lekha Poddar, a collector and the co-founder of India’s Devi Art Foundation, is cautious. “Before we think of going on to global platforms, we need to get our house in order in India. To have a dialogue on public/private partnerships, we first have to strengthen our [art] academia, curatorships, critical writing, cataloguing, display and so forth. How are we going to sustain the top of the pyramid when there is no base? This is exactly what happened to the Indian contemporary art market. There was a collector base in India, but we tried to capture the attention of international collectors first. Then the market collapsed and now there is no collector base either in India or abroad.”

Indeed, India’s non-participation at Venice is symptomatic of a larger problem. Not only is there negligible external patronage for contemporary art, the artist Mithu Sen, who lives in New Delhi, says that India’s artist community is fragmented, with most working in isolation. She says: “We should form an artist’s forum that brings a considerable number of people from the art world together. I think that a consolidated body of artists, curators and galleries would allow Indian artists to have a better say in participating in national and international events.”

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