I manage the Life section of Forbes India, as well as edit articles for the rest of the magazine.
South Asia: A geography that has experienced seven wars, and severe internal and external insurgencies in the 70 years since the end of colonial rule; that is home to two of the eight nuclear powers in the world; that has long-standing, bitter border disputes and unresolved issues of political identities.
South Asia: A geography that is home to more than a quarter of the world’s population; that has the world’s most diverse set of languages, dialects and religions, and yet has a history as intertwined as its mythologies, food, music and cinema.
You cannot possibly look at one set of data, and not look at the other.
And a fine example of this other, this ‘soft’ set of data, is playing out close to 6,000 km away at the ongoing 56th Venice Biennale this year. For the first time, India and Pakistan have a joint exhibition—My East is Your West—at the biennale, where India last had a presence in 2011 and Pakistan in 1956.
The exhibition is an achievement because of several factors, but it is also symbolic of several more. And the most glaring perhaps is the fact that the joint Indo-Pak presence is termed an ‘exhibition’—an official collateral event—and not a ‘national pavilion’ like entries from other countries; for, a national pavilion would mean governmental representation and support, something that is absent from this exercise. The government—not just of India, but of other South Asian nations too—is perhaps most prominent by its marginal presence in the region’s art scene. And filling in the role has been a clutch of private art foundations, galleries, curators and artists who are enabling cross-border collaborations, movement and promotion of artists and artworks.
“The understanding that private art foundations and philanthropists have of the region is a more holistic one,” says Mortimer Chatterjee, co-founder of the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai. “The anomaly lies in the minds of the governments. There is no anomaly in the minds of the people. Rashid [Rana] is as much a part of the history of the Indian contemporary art scene as he is of the Pakistani scene.”
In the absence of much funding from the government, private enterprises, both commercial and otherwise, play a perceptible role in the growth, promotion and mobility of art, points out Rashid Rana. “In many respects, the art market can be more democratic because it doesn’t conceive value in a nationalistic sense. Commercial galleries participating and putting up diverse presentations at events such as the India Art Fair and the Dhaka Art Summit are testament to this,” says the Lahore-based artist, who works with photography, sculpture and digital print-making.
If the Gujral Foundation in India has made India’s and Pakistan’s presence at the Venice Biennale possible (along with supporting various other art events since 2008), the Samdani Foundation in Bangladesh has been behind the Dhaka Art Summit. The third edition of the summit is scheduled for next February, and is the cause of much excitement and anticipation within the art fraternity.
The Samdani Foundation, founded in 2011 by collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, has been instrumental in bringing global attention to South Asia—curators who have worked on past editions of the summit include Aurélien Lemonier from Paris, Daniel Baumann from Zurich and Katya García-Antón from Norway—as well as creating a distinct identity for Bangladesh within the region. “The summit exists as a platform because there is no place in the world to go to see work from South Asia under one roof,” says Diana Campbell Betancourt, artistic director of the summit. “Also, people don’t know what South Asia is; we get emails asking us about China and Thailand, and countries that aren’t really involved. We have works from every country in the region except from Bhutan. And we are working on it.”
Betancourt, however, adds that the summit has been helped immensely by the government’s support through the availability of the venue—the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy. “The fact that this is a government venue makes people more comfortable about the event and attending it,” she says. “But because it is a government venue, we cannot nail anything on the walls. So we have to build rooms within the venue. We basically build for 45 days for a four-day show.” Another indication of art managing to thaw inter-governmental relations is that, for the first time, the Pakistan High Commission is lending artwork to the Dhaka Art Summit. “This is an exception in an environment where there has historially been governmental animosity,” says Betancourt.
Apart from organising the summit, the Samdani Foundation is opening an art centre in Sylhet in 2018, which will be a free and publicly accessible space of contemporary and modern art. It is also working with the Charukola Institute at the University of Dhaka to organise art workshops, and has ideated and implemented a weeklong art workshop with Goa-based performance artist Nikhil Chopra.
Unlike the Gujral and Samdani foundations, which channel private wealth towards the support and promotion of the arts, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB)—India’s homegrown international exhibition of contemporary art—is promoted by the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), a non-profit charitable trust that was founded by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu in 2010. While KMB 2014—the second edition of the event—concluded this March, preparations for the next edition are underway, with artist Sudarshan Shetty being appointed its artistic director and curator in July.
“‘Bloodlines’ was truly collaborative because it was a joint work, both artists worked on the same piece together, as opposed to having separate works [as is the case with Gupta’s and Rana’s work at Venice]” says Jhaveri.
Around the same time, Gupta met Pakistani artist Huma Mulji at an international workshop in Delhi. “It was in 1999, when I met Huma,” says Gupta. “We were the same age. And the Kargil War was on television at that time, but we were two girls laughing and talking all day. And we understood each other’s jokes.”
Unlike ‘Bloodlines’, their project Aar Paar reached out across the border to understand the neighbour and their present predicaments instead of remembering the traumatic past. “It was a low-budget project that we funded out of our own pockets, and it ran for six years,” Gupta recalls. “We were looking at reaching out to an audience outside the gallery spaces. We had five artists from India, and five from Pakistan and we sent our artworks across—A4 size objects—and put them up on the streets, or local shops.”
In the second year of the project, there were 10 artists from each country who emailed each other their artworks over slow, dial-up internet connections. A thousand printouts were taken of each work and plastered all over the streets, or distributed as handouts; some were turned into table-mats at Samovar (a café at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery), or put up as street-side exhibitions. “Within the artist community and the media, there was a positive response to the project,” says Gupta. “But specific responses that reached me were about agitation. For instance, the artwork by Quddus Mirza [from Pakistan] had a gun in it and was very provocative. People are okay with an image that has a purpose. But they get uncomfortable with an image that apparently has no purpose.”
The project also gave Gupta her first brush with government authorities. “The cops landed up at my place, asking what it was all about. My father had to go the police station,” she recalls with a laugh. Parcels of artworks from Pakistan were opened up by the postal authorities. “There were red rubber stamps saying that the parcels were opened for scrutiny,” she adds.
“The biggest challenge of promoting cross-border art is that of logistics. There are government restrictions, artworks get stopped by the customs department,” says Chatterjee, in the context of hosting works by artists from other South Asian countries. “Art foundations like the Gujral Foundation are able to take the collaborative event outside the subcontinent and this just makes it logistically far easier.” Chatterjee’s gallery has hosted works by Rana.
Dinesh Vazirani, founder of Saffronart auction house, is in agreement with Chatterjee about the difficulties posed by logistical requirements. “It is so difficult to get artworks out of Pakistan into India, or out of Bangladesh into India,” he says. “Even procuring visas for their own shows becomes difficult for artists.” Saffronart organised an auction of Pakistani and Bangladeshi artists a few years ago, but that, of course, was online.