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An Indian interpretation of Hong Kong's heritage

In a year with minimal participation from India at the Art Basel Hong Kong, one collaborative project has a proper Indian connection

'Neon Signs', by Insane 51

After a year-long pandemic-induced break, Art Basel Hong Kong is set to go live with its 2021 edition. This marquee event in Asia-Pacific’s world of arts will be held from 19-23 May.

The event, in the past few years, has seen adequate attendance by Indian art galleries. In 2018, for instance, nine galleries from the country had participated at the fair. This year however India’s presence remains largely muted. That is barring one unique collaborative series called A Memory of the Future. Presented by Marriot Bonvoy in collaboration with Mumbai-based not-for-profit The Plated Project, the art series has four artists—Anila Agha (based in the US), Insane 51 (Greece), Suket Dhir and Sahiba Madan—creating one work each centred on a traditional art form of Hong Kong. What is interesting is that the art works have been done on ceramic plates.

Also read: Revisiting Ram Kumar’s unsung genius at Art Basel

“It was an experience of a lifetime to work on a project like this,” exclaims Chitresh Sinha, founder of The Plated Project on how A Memory of the Future came about. “Marriott International approached us with a very interesting brief of using art and Art Basel as a platform to raise awareness about the intangible heritage of Hong Kong. When we did our research, we realised that Hong Kong has always been a melting point of cultures but there were some art forms which were intrinsically Hong Kong. We picked four of these to be featured in the project.”

'Handmade Stencils', by Anila Agha
'Handmade Stencils', by Anila Agha

The shortlisted art forms were Cantonese opera, hand-carved mahjong tiles, handmade stencils and neon signs which were then assigned to the artists to work on.

For fashion designer Suket Dhir, the project was slightly out of left-field considering he had to create art—and not clothes—around the subject of Cantonese opera. A lot of Cantonese opera was listened to, he says. Dhir’s ‘plated art’ is quirky. It shows a Chinese figure atop a horse evidently playing polo. It is hard to miss the appendages of 21st century life like the film camera, drone camera and boom mic in the work.

“The subject was a part of the broad brief given to us by The Plated Project team. My interpretation of it evolved over a period of time. I started with looking at traditional art/paintings of Hong Kong then studied the Cantonese opera very closely. I had to first learn and then unlearn,” says Dhir. Commenting on the imagery, he notes, “It’s my playful take on a Cantonese opera character playing polo with fellow animals and plants keenly observing it all.”

'Cantonese Opera', by Suket Dhir
'Cantonese Opera', by Suket Dhir

About the art fair itself, Dhir confesses to having “butterflies in the stomach”. “Art Basel is an opportunity that I didn't even know I was waiting for,” says the designer who won the International Woolmark Prize for Menswear in 2016, and in recent times, notably dressed laureate Abhijit Banerjee for his Nobel ceremony.

“(Art Basel Hong Kong) came at a perfect time. It has been one of the most productive times for reflection; a great moment for ‘manthan’—the great churn that leads to clarity. This project has been a glimmer of hope of times to come after all that is now behind us,” he says.

'Mahjong Tiles', by Sahiba Madan
'Mahjong Tiles', by Sahiba Madan

When she got down to working on the theme given to her, Sahiba Madan, architect and founder of Kalakaari Haath art collective, realised that she had her work cut out for her and her team. As Indians unfamiliar with mahjong, they had to first get acquainted with the game that originated in China during the Qing dynasty.

Also read: In Hong Kong, furniture made from tree waste

“We did extensive research on the game, its origins, how it was designed and played traditionally, and how it has transitioned over time,” says Madan. Following research, the core idea that emerged was to chart the game’s evolution through various geographies and cultures. The artwork itself, however, takes inspiration from the Indian miniature style of painting: “It is one of the original methods of documenting historical events,” she reasons.

As for working on a plate as canvas, Madan says, “There is a unique dichotomy in artworks that are composed on a circle. On one hand, the plate can be viewed as an infinite canvas that has no real boundaries or edges. On the other, it can be used to present a zoomed-in version of a larger picture within its boundaries.”

Following the Art Basel Hong Kong exhibition, 40 plates of this series will be up for sale on www.theplatedproject.com.

Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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