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From memes to paintings: Changing the game with #InstaArt

Instagram is allowing artists to use social media as a personal exhibition space and create a new audience

The Instagram meme by Abhinit Khanna.
The Instagram meme by Abhinit Khanna.

Social media is the new playground for artists—some call it their studio. Here, they can add a new dimension to their practice, test ideas, get instant feedback, enter into spontaneous collaborations with colleagues thousands of miles away, crowd-source material or simply reveal an aspect of their personalities that doesn’t show in a formal gallery environment. Armed with GIFs, memes and animation, artists are now using virtual tools to create cultural commentary in a unique language.

Quick GIFs populate artist UBIK’s Instagram account (@whoisubik). Featuring texts such as “Rap is the new curatorial statement" and “Art fairs are trade fairs", these videos, humorous and irreverent, poke fun at the artist himself, even the art ecosystem. He started with street art and text has always been critical to his practice. Now he is using Instagram to employ it in novel ways. In one GIF, the words flash by, allowing the eye to merely take in the words “Art" and “God". Only when you watch it on loop can you see the entire message: “Art saves us from making God". Between the first viewing and the final one, your mind takes a leap of imagination, filling in the words, lending new meanings to the sentence.

Text is the new image

Like UBIK, Mumbai-based artist Vidha Saumya (@vidheshwari) has been using text on social media since 2016. She is fascinated by the idea of text as an image. “We are so used to reading text on Facebook and Twitter. In that zone, Instagram emerges as a purely image-based platform. How do you, then, create text as something primarily visual?" she asks. Saumya has been putting up texts on her social media accounts, and the reaction has been fascinating. Two months ago, she started posting poems in the Devanagari script. “Many of my friends in Pakistan messaged saying, could you please give a translation as well? Even though they couldn’t understand the text, there was something about the way it was presented that made people curious," she says.

Art world in memes

What’s social media without memes? Arts manager and consultant Abhinit Khanna’s Instagram handle (@abhinit_khanna) has been getting a lot of attention lately from the Indian art world. And that’s because of his hashtag #ArtWorldMemes. This was launched in late September, when he stumbled upon a handle that was posting bizarre photographs of Bollywood celebrities from the 1980s and 1990s. This triggered the idea of using memes to cast a humorous look at the art fraternity. A lot of his memes stem from the interactions taking place within the art world.

In the past few months, Khanna has been followed by artists, curators, writers and scholars from across South Asia. Professors from leading universities are now studying his memes as reflections on popular art and culture. The memes have gone viral because of their emotional impact, and because they allow easy accessibility to the art space.


Social media has expanded the scope of collaboration enormously. The audience is no longer simply looking at the message but also participating in its making. Last year, Pakhi Sen (@pakhi.sen) started the Body series on Instagram, requesting women to send photographs of their bodies. “The artworks created in the project were an exploration of anatomy as shape and form. The idea was to censor everything around the areas that are usually censored," she had said in an interview to Lounge. Currently a student at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, Sen still finds it amazing that so many women trusted her enough to send in their nude images. “Maybe I am able to articulate my ideas of feminism on Instagram, which is why they could trust me," she says.

Social media also gives a different agency to people’s work. When Mriganka Madhukaillya, co-founder of Desire Machine Collective, started Periferry 10 years ago as a laboratory for generating hybrid practices, atop a ferry on the Brahmaputra, Facebook and Instagram helped him find collaborators. Soon, Periferry not only became an arts space but also a networking platform for artists from across the world. Recently, when it decided to host Assembly of Desire, a multidisciplinary symposium and festival on Majuli island, social media posts prompted 40 artists to fly down of their own accord to take part.

The virtual world also allows artists to give viewers a peek into their creative process. “Unless you are part of a collective, creating art can be a lonely activity. Most people don’t fully comprehend the rigour that goes into making it an artwork," says Varunika Saraf (@varunika.saraf), who shares glimpses of her practice on Instagram. “Because of my Insta feed, they now know what goes into the process, whether it is grinding a pigment, making watercolours or creating a surface for painting."

Insta-art in the gallery

But how do you blur the lines between social media and the gallery? In the future, we will hopefully see a space emerging from a subset of the two. There could be a show opening simultaneously within a physical space, and on Facebook and Instagram. Or newer formats of artworks could emerge from this cross-section of the physical and the virtual. For instance, for his forthcoming solo DEAR, at the Sabrina Amrani Gallery in Madrid, UBIK is considering taking GIFs meant for Instagram and showing them there. “The standard way would be to do video works. But I am not going to do that," he says. “I am going to convert these into something more tangible."

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