Exhibitions Fairs Market India

Indian artists talk politics

Works on view in Delhi address gender, identity and class issues

Nalini Malani, Mother India, 2005, is on view at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi

“I always tell people: ‘If you are not interested in politics, politics is certainly interested in you’,” says Nalini Malani, the Mumbai and Amsterdam-based artist whose work on show in Delhi addresses women’s rights. Malani opened two exhibitions there last week, and had work in the city’s India Art Fair, which closed on 2 February. “You Can’t Keep Acid in a Paper Bag”, Malani’s first retrospective in India, opened at the private Kiran Nadar Museum of Art on 30 January (until 30 November).

Mother India, 2005, is a five-channel video that tackles the appropriation of women’s bodies as objects. The work refers to two key points in Indian history: the partition of India from Pakistan in 1947 and the Gujarat riots of 2002, which involved the brutal rape of Muslim women. The video is just as relevant today: Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the leader of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is poised to win India’s general election in May. Modi had been accused of condoning violence during the 2002 riots, but the courts cleared his name at the end of last year.

Politics also dominates the second exhibition at the Kiran Nadar museum—a group show called “Is it what you think?” (until 30 September). Violence against women is the subject of Amar Kanwar’s video installation, The Lightning Testimonies, 2007, which is a montage of Indian women taking about abduction and sexual assault during the partition to anti-rape protests in Manipur in 2004.

Women’s rights were also much in evidence at the India Art Fair. Large black steel figures by the Calcutta artist Leena Kejriwal loomed over visitors at the fair’s opening on 30 January. The sculptures, installed outside the main entrance, have been commissioned by the Mumbai-based collector Sangita Jindal as part of a nationwide public art project to raise awareness about the millions of missing women in India.

Inside the fair, the Parisian Galerie Lelong dedicated its entire booth to works by Malani—prices ranged from €1,000 for a print (edition of 16) to €200,000 for a dark and gloomy painting referring to the import of powdered milk from Chernobyl in the 1980s, which resulted in genetic damage to Indian children. Last year, in response to the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi, the gallery hosted an all-women booth, which was co-organised by Malani and included works by Nancy Spero, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Ana Mendieta.

Elsewhere at the fair, ideas of national identity, class and caste featured heavily—not just concerning India. At the Dubai-based 1x1 Art Gallery, a 2006 photographic work by the Dubai artist Mohammed Kazem of his neighbour’s washing line (priced at $35,000) pondered how clothes can represent nationality; the United Arab Emirates has one of the largest migrant populations in the world. Meanwhile, a 2014 series of banknotes from different countries, embroidered by the Beirut and Dubai-based Cristiana de Marchi with the word “GOD” in gold lettering ($1,000 each), questioned ideas of value.

At Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road, Tushar Joag’s installation of robots made from lamps and light fixtures criticised George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Shireen Ghandy, the director of the gallery, pinpoints the 1992-93 Mumbai riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque as a turning point in contemporary Indian art. “That was the moment it wasn’t enough to say it on canvas or draw it,” she says. “Artists turned to installation.”

Rubber stamps, so frequently used by bureaucrats in India, appeared in several works. Reena Saini Kallat’s Untitled Cobweb (knobs and crossings), 2012, priced at nine lakhs (€10,800), on show at Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery, is made from stamps bearing the names of people who have been denied visas across the world. “It’s about perceptions of people based on class, caste and gender,” Kallat says. As part of her solo performance project, behind a screen in a quiet corner of the fair, Dayanita Singh stamped her limited edition books with phrases such as “beloved bureaucrat” and “the archivist”.

“India is in a state of flux politically, socially and economically and artists are responding to that,” says Neha Kirpal, who founded the fair in 2008. “But it is also evident that artists are developing a global language. We are no longer defined by an Indian-ness.”

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