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Experiments with colour at Frieze London

From Benodebehari Mukherjee’s paper-cut collages to Prafulla Mohanti’s Tantra works and Mahesh Baliga’s paintings of melting time, colour is at the heart of Indian galleries’ showcase at the art fair.

Detail from Benodebehari Mukherjee's paper cut collage. Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery
Detail from Benodebehari Mukherjee's paper cut collage. Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

With the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, like most fairs across the world, Frieze London too has decided to go the virtual route. A wide array of forms, mediums and styles can be seen on the online viewing rooms of international galleries. Indian galleries too are adding to the discourse on how artists are interpreting the changes taking place in the world today, with their deeply personal takes on politics, gender, the environment and more. While Experimenter focuses on the body and its relationship with the space around it with Radhika Khimji, Praneet Soi, and others, Nature Morte showcases Jitish Kallat’s immersive installation, Covering Letter (terranum nuncius), as part of the Frieze Focus section, 'Possessions', curated by Zoe Whitley. The one thread that emerges from the various showcases is the focus on colour and materiality. Galleries are using this to talk about personal stories of resilience, as is evident in Vadehra Art Gallery’s display of Benodebehari Mukherjee’s rare paper-cut collages created after he lost his eyesight, or an exploration of the spiritual that Jhaveri Contemporary is showing with Prafulla Mohanti’s solo display. Then there is Project 88’s selection, which looks at painting as a labour of deep affection and attention. Here are the highlights:

Benodebehari Mukherjee's 'Reclining Man', collage on paper. Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery
Benodebehari Mukherjee's 'Reclining Man', collage on paper. Courtesy: Vadehra Art Gallery

A rare showcase of Benodebehari Mukherjee’s modernist language

A set of exquisite collages can be seen on the Vadehra Art Gallery’s page. These are a rare collection of artist and pedagogue Benodebehari Mukherjee’s paper-cut collages and lithographs, produced between 1957 till the late 1960s. This is a continuation of the gallery’s engagement with the artist’s work, having organised seminal exhibitions such as Between Sight and Insight in 2019, which included his preparatory drawings, sketches of flora, landscapes, and more. You get a further insight into the workings of Mukherjee’s mind as part of ‘Spotlight’, a curated section at Frieze Masters. “We have been working actively with the artist’s estate, and this is a great platform to engage with new audiences for his work,” says Roshini Vadehra, director, Vadehra Art Gallery. “We are exhibiting 12 works of the artist from a specific period in his career, after him losing eyesight [in 1956] and he started working on paper cuts and collages.”

This body of work has been of special interest to international museums, with the Tate and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, having already acquired Mukherjee’s work. “And we are hoping that this will further the institutional interest in the artist’s work,” she adds. These collages and lithographs stand out as an example of the artist’s resilience, who continued his practice even after losing sight in his only functioning eye in 1956. He continued to create drawings, paper cuts, clay sculptures and murals, while also writing about how blindness alters one’s perception of the world. For the paper cuts, he would explore a surface with his hands and then create complex compositions with motifs, pictorial signs and pieces of coloured paper. “Thus colour, paradoxically, entered his work in an unprecedented manner after its sensory experience was denied to him,” mentions the curatorial note.

Prafulla Mohanti's 'Manita' (1981), mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary
Prafulla Mohanti's 'Manita' (1981), mixed media on canvas. Courtesy: Jhaveri Contemporary

Prafulla Mohanti’s experiments with colour

At first glance, Prafulla Mohanti’s works seem like vibrant orbs of light, which seem to pulsate with energy. There is something very primordial about them. The display is inspired by Zoé Whitely’s curated section for the fair, ‘Possessions’, where Jhaveri Contemporary is participating with a solo display of the work of the UK-based artist. Be it Manita or Jagriti, each of his mixed media works on canvas featuring pure circles rimmed in colour are inspired by his childhood experiences in a remote village in Odisha, when he would draw circles on mud with chalk. Acknowledging his skill, the villagers would ask him to draw for special occasions.

Later, after getting a degree in architecture from the Sir JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, he shifted to Leeds to study town planning. And it is there that he started his own style of painting performances, when he would display his abstract works and then enact a set of self-choreographed movements to embody the essence of his paintings. “Today, Prafulla lives in the UK and has been in poor health recently. He has exhibited in India sporadically in recent times, but yet again this is a case of an artist who has worked consistently, and has a large body of work. But as he does not live in India all the time, he somehow becomes invisible here,” says Amrita Jhaveri, director, Jhaveri Contemporary. In the 1980s, Mohanti started exhibiting with the “Neo-Tantra” group of artists, and yet his paintings are not simple expressions of Tantra but also formal exercises and experiments in colour.

It is this thread that continues in the main section of Frieze London as well, where the gallery is showing works by Prabhakar Barwe, Shezad Dawood, Harminder Judge, Mahirwan Mamtani, Prem Sahib and Parul Thacker. “An interest in spiritual matters has come to the forefront in exhibition making recently due to the times that we live in. At the moment, several exhibitions in the UK are exploring this theme such as ‘Tantra’ at the British Museum and ‘Not Without My Ghosts’ at Drawing Room, UK,” says Jhaveri. “Therefore, I think the desire on the part of artists to explore the theme of unity or dissolution with larger forces that shape us is very evident now.”

Velu Viswanadhan's 'Untitled', casein on linen (1991). Courtesy: Project 88
Velu Viswanadhan's 'Untitled', casein on linen (1991). Courtesy: Project 88

Works that talk about tectonic shifts

With works by artists like Velu Vishwanadhan, Mahesh Baliga, Prabhakar Kolte, Neha Choksi and Amitesh Shrivastav, colour and materiality seems to be at the heart of the Project 88 showcase. These then become conduits to talk about tectonic shifts both in the artistic process and in the world around us. According to Sree Banerjee Goswami, the selection of works brings about different understandings of the medium of painting. “It was important to pitch the act of painting, the varied approaches, and how colour and process becomes a conduit to emotions in these very strange and difficult times,” she says. Painting then creates a ground for possibilities where the optic and the haptic meet. “It is where colour becomes matter-flow and the maker and the created are on the same plane,” Goswami adds.

Some of the themes explored by the artists include nature, form, space, the body geology, the sense of touch, the sublime, the violent and the political, among others. For instance, Velu Vishwanadhan’s abstract works are deeply contemplative and inspired by the colours and shapes of nature. The idea of presence and absence runs like a thread through the works of artists. For instance, in Prabhakar Kolte’s work, forms pulsate, appear and disappear in a screen of colours, either hidden or revealed partly. “The canvas becomes the ground for tachisme: stains, drips, and the materialism of paint as a medium is the mainstay. His canvases reveal his own experiences of things, the magic of making,” mentions the curatorial note. “Mahesh Baliga’s paintings speak of melting time, memories of travels, of places and people lost in maladies of their own. Colours, laid in layers in tempera become fine lenses capturing the sublimity of the human mind, the violence and reclusiveness.”

The gallery decided to go with large-scale paintings to suit the format of the online viewing room. While Baliga, Shrivastav, Choksi and Sandeep Mukherjee have been working in their studios in Baroda, Mumbai and Los Angeles respectively, the gallery, with the resources available together with Galerie 88 Kolkata, was able to add Paris-based Vishwanadhan and Mumbai-based Kolte to the mix. “That has been the fun part of putting this virtual show together. There have been no limitations of space or of shipping and handling. And we have been able to put together a fine selection of paintings,” says Goswami.

The works can be viewed on the online viewing rooms of galleries till 16 October

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