India Art Fair 2014 - Consolidation Mode

More modest in ambition, the latest edition of India Art Fair had more works harking back to the artists' roots

By: Suman Tarafdar

Posted on: March 20, 2014
More modest in ambition, the latest edition of India Art Fair had more works harking back to artists’ roots
That contemporary Indian art is in search of its idiom becomes clearer each passing year. India Art Fair (IAF), easily the largest event of its kind in India, has become the default gauge for assessing confidence in the Indian art mart. Its initial years, which coincided with the collapse of economic boom in the global economies, were nevertheless upbeat as it took time for the slowdown to impact India. Indian art, however, was a different story, as prices of art works, especially contemporary art, dramatically fell. So IAF in its past editions has seen gallerists encourage artists to create more ‘affordable art’, or ‘statement pieces’ or even installations. Well, this year, it was the turn of photographs to take centrestage.
The art fair, held again at Delhi’s NSIC grounds, came at the end of a year which evidently felt the impact of the larger slowdown. This edition, there were 30 international and 47 domestic galleries, which had displayed their collections in 91 booths over 20,000 sq ft space – hardly any change in participation numbers since the previous year. Interestingly, Neha Kirpal, founder of the fair, and now co-owner, said the fair had moved on from just its founding vision:” IAF now means different things to different people. Our responsibility is to listen in.” She also says the fair will play the role of the market builder for the next few years.
Agrees Shireen Gandhy of Gallery Chemould, not an early advocate of the fair, saying, “This annual event has created ripples in the Indian art market”. “From buyers and collectors, the whole community is small, but evolving,” said Sandy Angus, chairman, Montgomery Worldwide, a global events company and co-owner of the fair (he also co-owns the Hong Kong Art Fair). “India has many potential collectors, and this fair can help bring any on-board,” he says. “This fair will expand the collector base in India, when very young, rich Indians have collected other pieces of success, will look at art.” He feels the fair is punching above its weight, and the potential might take a while to get realised.

Redoing the walls
Even at first glance, mega statement pieces out as more two dimensional works were on display. Targeted firmly at a younger audience, the prices of photographic art were much lower, often starting from a few thousand rupees. While a top end work from a modern master could cost nothing less than 50 lakh (approx $80,200), a Raghu Rai (one of India’s most celebrated photographers) photo would be available at about a tenth of that price, and be just as stunning for the buyer.
Many a contemporary star shone brightly at the fair. Subodh Gupta, who also has shows in Delhi National Gallery of Modern Art going on simultaneously, revealed new works here.
The interesting aspect about international participation, often a gauge for maturity of art markets, is that it has been inconsistent at best. While some galleries have returned, many have cited poor sales and extremely difficult procedures, not to speak of high costs involved in getting works to India, and taking them back. Just the fee for standard carton is about 8,000 euros, and even if works are sold in India, laws decree that they be taken back, and then sent to the buyer, adding to already considerable transportation costs for galleries. Peter Femfert of Die Galerie has been returning, and this time too, there were modern European masters interspersed with Indian artists at the stall. “We see India as a long term market,” he says, admitting sales have been slow. Son Damiano expresses surprise that works of Chagall (for under Rs 50 lakh/$80,200) and Picasso lithographs (under Rs 10 lakh/$16,050) remained unsold!
Reg Newitt, an Australian working out of Beijing, says what makes this fair unique is the number of people visiting and their curiosity. While he wants greater exposure for the galleries he represents in India, he is also on the lookout for works by Indian artists. “There is interesting work coming out of India,” he says, though he says that if an artist is genuine, he does have to overtly try to make his work more ‘Indian’, often a demand by gallerists.
Melissa Digby-Bell of London’s Scream says the gallery has decided on India as an upcoming region. “We feel the audiences are open for contemporary art. We are also committed to supporting artists on a global scale.” The stall was a magnet for visitors for Pakpoom Silaphan’s works on Gandhi and Ye Hongxing’s crystal sticker collage.
London’s Grosvenor Gallery, a repeat exhibitor and with a focus on Indian art, especially modern Indian art, admits sales have been slow. “This is a good chance to meet collectors and artists, says Charles Moore. Harry Hutchison of Aicon Gallery says there is some interest in the moderns since the auction by Christie’s in December. Hoping for a better response for contemporary works as well, he says the gallery has an aggressive calendar for them, and that the art needs to speak for itself. Aicon, which displayed works of F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and Ram Kumar, made Rs.3.2 crore (approx $513,240) on the sale of about a dozen works. A G.R. Iranna work was sold for Rs.17 lakh (approx $27,265), indicating a returning confidence in more contemporary work.
Adding meaning
The need to make their audiences think remained paramount in the works though. Tasveer Gallery was one such booth that displayed stylish and rare pictures taken by former fashion photographer Norman Parkinson in the 1950s in India. Gallery Mark Hachem from Paris presented a sketch of Coco Chanel with a red lipstick in the frame as well as plexiglass sculptures of Chanel perfumes with the names of countries undergoing social upheaval – Tunisia, Egypt, Thailand, Iran, etc, printed on them, but with strong political messages. ‘Parfum de revolte’ indeed. Spectacle sells, and the bottles ended up sold! Bhavna Kakar of Latitude 28 says the buyer response has been as good as last year. Ashish Anand of Delhi Art Gallery says works by great modern Indian artists still have the confidence of the buyers, and that buyers go by aesthetics of a work. Interested buyers are taking longer to decide, often repeating visits before buying, says Sukriti Dugal of Palette Art Gallery. Uday Jain of Dhoomimal Gallery, specialising in modernists, mentions the increasing demand for contemporary art.
The need to create greater awareness about the finer points of art is involving more and more stakeholders. The artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra conducted a walkthrough, in conjunction with Le Meridien hotels, for those attending the art fair. Arnaud Champenois - Brand Director, Asia Pacific, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, says it is important for hotels to connect better with their guests. “This is how a whole generation of new travellers gets connected, who visit a city for work, but also want to discover, and arts is a great way,” he feels.
The organisers no longer mention how many people attend the fair. To be pushed and jostled at an art fair may be a rare occurrence globally, but going by the sheer crowds at IAF, at least attendance, ticketed at Rs 300 (approx $5) this year, was considerable. Even if a fraction translated to sales, this fair will count its success in a year that has seen spending on disposable luxury shrink considerably.

Suman Tarafdar is a journalist and writer based in Delhi. He has worked with a number of leading Indian media organisations, and writes on various aspects of luxury, lifestyle and culture. When not writing to earn a living, he likes to travel, read, cook, chat, shop and watch all kinds of soppy stuff on tv. Yes, current politics bothers him.

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