The 12th edition of the India Art Fair opened amid ongoing protests against the government’s recently introduced Citizenship Amendment Bill. The Bill, which is seen to discriminate against Muslims, has sparked widespread protest across the country. Since mid-December, Shaheen Bhag, a street in a Muslim district of Delhi, has been the site of an extraordinary protest by Muslim women, many with children. Camped out in the street, the protest is female-only and as such has not been subject to the violent suppression that has been seen elsewhere.
Getting around Indian cities has never been easy, but the protest has rendered the traffic in south Delhi even more hellish as drivers stoically skirt the closed off streets in a cacophony of honking horns. The day after I left the city, an artwork made live at the fair and referencing the protest in Shaheen Bhag was shut down by the police.
The Art Fair was bigger, more ambitious and glossier than when I last visited two years ago. (See The Art Newspaper 31.1.20 for a detailed report on the fair) On that occasion I was also struck by the quality of the ‘collateral’ events across the city, and that remains true this year.
The Kiran Nadar Museum was founded a decade ago and is the city’s first non-profit museum space for showing modern and contemporary Indian art. The initiative of a private collector passionate about the contemporary, the exhibition programme has been consistently strong and fulfils an important role in the city.
Two years ago, during the India Art Fair, they hosted an authoritative retrospective by septuagenarian artist Vivan Sundaram; this year they opened a breathtaking group show featuring a roll call of established female artists working with abstraction. Scripting Time: memory: ecology builds on the museum’s championing of abstraction, as exemplified by mounting the first ever retrospective of the work of the great modernist artist Nasreen Mohamedi.
The exhibition includes exquisitely minimal monochrome works by Zarina, an Indian born Muslim artist, now in her 80s, who has lived and worked in New York for many decades, having studied printmaking in Paris and Tokyo. Her work references the sacred geometries of Islamic art as well as the architectures of the many places she has lived.
The sculptural work of Sumakshi Singh also references architectures. Using spectrally pale thread she recreates features of her grandparents’ house in New Delhi, constructed after they migrated from Pakistan to India after Partition. The fragility of the constructions and their delicate shadows on the walls are powerfully evocative of the fragility of the idea of home.
Mrinalini Mukherjee and Jayashree Chakravarty feature in the section titled Abstracting Nature. Here Mukherjee’s darkly textural hemp weavings conjure up homunculi from the natural world. Her densely worked watercolour on paper drawings sit alongside Chakravarty’s immersive hanging structure made of dried leaves, flowers and roots that reference the progressive loss of natural habitat, particularly in her native Bengal.
Peter Nagy’s Nature Morte Gallery in Delhi has been the cornerstone of contemporary art in the city since the mid-1990s. In January he was a major presence at the art fair, as well as mounting a show of gallery artists at the beautiful Bikaner House in the centre of Lutyens’ New Delhi. Also at Bikaner House, Nature Morte are showing large scale new works by Jitish Kallat, who was one of the stand-out contributors to India’s pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale.
At the gallery’s main space on Neeti Bhag, you can see Dhruvi Acharya’s extraordinary installation After the Fall. The work was made a year and a half after the sudden death of the artist’s husband in an accident and was first shown in 2016 in Mumbai.
The installation recreates the marital bedroom, with dressing table, bookshelves, desk and bed all rendered as soft sculptures in raw cotton. The floor is a quilted mat, the walls papered with hundreds of ink drawings. First impressions are of the inversions of logic in dream states: the familiar rendered strange. The intensely biographical drawings offer a direct channel into the memory of the experience of grief, with images of the artist apparently talking to her reflection in a mirror, or lying in a bed painfully empty on one side. The installation has something of a shrine to it, also something of the padded cell that seems appropriate to the unhinged sensation of intense loss.
Downstairs is a series of new paintings, large scale and intensely coloured in contrast. They deal frankly with the realities of the artist’s life, her gradual ageing, her memories of the places she lived in New York, Virginia, California and Mumbai. Femina, 2019 evokes woman as a productive and reproductive entity – mother and artist, powerful and articulate, literally embodying identity.
The quality of the exhibitions now regularly on show around the city during the art fair should be putting Delhi on everyone’s calendar in coming years.
Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, No. 145, DLF South Court Mall Saket, Saket District Centre, Delhi 110017, India. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10.30-18.30. Exhibition continues until 30 June 2020. www.knma.in
Nature Morte, A-1, Block A, Neeti Bagh, New Delhi, Delhi 110049, India. Open Monday-Saturday 10.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 8 February 2020. www.naturemorte.com