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India Art Fair: Shouts and murmurs

  • Opening on 1 February, it’s the subcontinent’s most awaited art fair
  • For this year’s Speaker’s Forum, IAF has curated talks by globally known artists, curators, writers and gallerists

Idris Khan in his studio with a collection of drawings from ‘21 Stones’ in the background. Photograph by Theo Christelis/Courtesy The Artist
Idris Khan in his studio with a collection of drawings from ‘21 Stones’ in the background. Photograph by Theo Christelis/Courtesy The Artist

Opening on 1 February, it’s the subcontinent’s most awaited art fair. Helmed by its director Jagdip Jagpal, the annual cavalcade of immersive performances, talks and exhilarating art returns this year to Delhi, taking things a notch higher. Here’s a map that will help you navigate the three-day event with ease


For this year’s Speaker’s Forum, IAF has curated talks by internationally known artists, curators, collectors, writers and gallerists. Artist Idris Khan, who makes his IAF debut, talks about his work ‘21 Stones’ 

This is a signature component at the India Art Fair (IAF). The section “What I did last summer" was introduced last year by the fair’s director, Jagdip Jagpal. “South Asian artists are doing fantastic stuff abroad," Jagpal had told Lounge last year. “Unfortunately, people in India don’t really get a chance to view that. We want to make sure that urban audiences in India are able to get the opportunity to see their work."

This year, Galerie Isa brings down the British artist of Pakistani origin Idris Khan, who will be talking about his “journey as an artist and where I am headed" at the fair’s Speaker’s Forum. Khan, who sources inspiration from a spectrum of media, including photography, literature, history and art, recently produced a site-specific work for the British Museum titled 21 Stones, a collection of 21 drawings. When viewed from afar, they appear to be shattered pieces of glass struck by a solid object. They are, however, a collage of words and phrases authored by him. Using rubber stamps, Khan imprinted the words on paper, layering them through an act of repetition. Lounge spoke to Khan about 21 Stones, which will be on view at the art fair. Edited excerpts:

What served as the starting point for ‘21 Stones’?

The 21 drawings are based on the Stoning of the Jamarat or the Stoning of the Devil, a ritual that takes place during the annual Islamic Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. In this ritual, pilgrims nowadays throw the stones at a single wall which represents the original three pillars of the Jamarat. I wanted the wall in the gallery to almost transport the viewer to the wall in Mecca.

Why is the ritual of repetition crucial to your work?

Each piece is made with a unique piece of poetry, stamped with blue oil paint on paper mounted on aluminium. Each drawing represents (the action of) a stone thrown and the words hitting the paper, solidifying the text into an artwork. It almost recreates the energy of the experience in Mecca. For me, it becomes a meditative act. When viewed from a distance, the overall work has a strong visual impact, but when viewed up close, the words are partially revealed, creating an intimate experience. I have always imagined that when a pilgrim releases a stone and it hits the wall, the words and prayers that the stone represents explode into a physical language.

Could you tell us about the words/text used?

I have been making drawings and paintings using text over the past eight years. After writing a poem or a small passage of writing, I then turn the words into rubber stamps. These become my tool to create a geometric composition on either paper, gesso and aluminium, or as a wall drawing. The words themselves are personal; about me and my life to date. And I never like to share them. But I see (the text) as the starting point to make an abstraction. The words are not representative of what the work is—they are a tool to get to the sublime. I do not want to be judged on the words that are used. I prefer the viewer to enjoy the image rather than try to understand its content.

Ai Weiwei. Photograph by Gao Yuan/courtesy Ai Weiwei studio and Neugerriemschneider, Berlin
Ai Weiwei. Photograph by Gao Yuan/courtesy Ai Weiwei studio and Neugerriemschneider, Berlin


In 2018, internationally renowned gallery David Zwirner came to the fair for the first time, making heads turn by bringing in the works of Japanese conceptual artist Yayoi Kusama. One of the biggest debuts this year is Berlin’s neugerriemschneider gallery, which will be exhibiting works by Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, alongside those of the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who is known for his larger-than-life installations. While Weiwei has had a number of shows in private and public art spaces across the globe, his works haven’t been shown in India at all.

The gallery will be exhibiting Weiwei’s Iron Root (2015), “which captures the ornate structures of a large wooden root in the industrial materials of iron and car paint", explains gallery co-founder Tim Neuger. “The work itself originates from a major piece Rooted Upon (2009), in which a group of uprooted tree trunks stood as a monument for change and progressive thinking."

Trees and roots have been a recurring motif for the artist as instruments commenting on modernization, industrialization and artificiality in society. At first glance, Iron Root appears to be in a natural, organic state. Step closer and you realize its ingenuity. Ai Weiwei’s Porcelain Vase (Journey) (2017) ), also on view, “takes the millennia-old material of porcelain to depict the migrants’ journey, painted in the coveted Ming dynasty blue-and-white style," says Neuger.

Participants in a walk at the 2018 edition of IAF. Photo: IAF
Participants in a walk at the 2018 edition of IAF. Photo: IAF


Newbies at the IAF—flounder no more! An art fair that is spread across 12,000 sq. m can be an overwhelming experience for first-timers, so it would be a good idea to take some help from the experts. With art walks garnering interest and appreciation, the IAF team—with the support of independent curator Kanika Anand—has organized 12 themed walks. IAF director Jagdip Jagpal says these curated art walks offer first-time visitors “a closer look at a selection of modern and contemporary art on display".

Trialled last year, the walks have been launched on a full-fledged scale for this edition. Of these, Anand highlights three walks themed To Belong, Of Geometry and Photography Today, which are meant to put the spotlight on both the contemporary and the historical. In the Walk of Geometric or Elemental Forms, she says, people will be taken through the works of Waqas Khan (1x1 Art Gallery, Dubai), Ayesha Sultana (Experimenter), Rana Begum (Jhaveri Contemporary) and Aisha Khalid (Anant Art), among others. To Belong will focus on socially engaging practices rooted in place, interrogating identity, whether personal or collective, collective memories and social histories. Each walk, 20-25 minutes, is offered free of charge, and seems tempting enough for art fair regulars too. 

‘What Are You Doing Here’ (1992) by Arpita Singh. Photo courtesy: Arpita Singh and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
‘What Are You Doing Here’ (1992) by Arpita Singh. Photo courtesy: Arpita Singh and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art


While the fair will be the epicentre of the thriving art scene, there will be mini collateral talks, events and exhibitions taking place alongside it. For instance, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi, will open the much-awaited retrospective on Arpita Singh. The core of Singh’s oeuvre is exploring the female narrative in India. The exhibition (31 January-30 June) will be an intimate invitation into the complex, yet immensely important, world Singh creates. On view will be her paintings, sketches and drawings, picked from the museum’s collection as well from public and private collections.

Threshold Art gallery in Delhi will host a special talk between Nilima Sheikh and art historian Kavita Singh as a prelude to Anindita Bhattacharya’s solo show. Sheikh, known for her seminal oeuvre, is one of the country’s foremost contemporary artists. She is known for revisiting traditional art forms like miniature and Pichwai painting, and exploring them in a contemporary context.

There is also the ongoing street art festival, St+art Delhi 2019, where mural art is blanketing the walls of Lodhi Colony. The festival has brought in artists from around the world while also featuring home-grown artists like Shilo Shiv Suleman and Sameer Kulavoor.  In addition, DAG will exhibit over 400 artworks from multiple artists at Red Fort, a Unesco World Heritage site.

‘Code Of Love’ by Youdhisthir Maharjan. Photo courtesy: Blueprint12 Studio
‘Code Of Love’ by Youdhisthir Maharjan. Photo courtesy: Blueprint12 Studio


The fair has a strong focus on South Asian art, exhibiting artists from neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There is also an interesting mix of Nepalese art this year. While we have seen a fair share of Pakistani and Bangladeshi artists represented in mainstream Indian art galleries, Nepalese art has seldom enjoyed a similar spotlight. Among the artists exhibiting at the fair this year is Youdhisthir Maharjan, who explores the significance of texts by meticulously erasing letters and words. Represented by Blueprint12 Studio, the Nepalese-born artist’s practice involves purchasing books from thrift stores and rendering them anew. The artist does not read the books, ensuring that his visual work isn’t influenced by the contents of the pages or what the author wishes to convey through them. Another Delhi-based gallery, Latitude 28, will be representing Kathmandu-based artists Prithvi Shrestha as well as Saurganga Darshandhari, both of whom interweave the traditional Paubha art form and motifs with contemporary themes.

A restorer working on a painting in a monastery. Photo: iStock
A restorer working on a painting in a monastery. Photo: iStock


Serious collectors have always maintained that investing in art means a lifelong study of the subject, even before you purchase your first work. Understanding the importance of provenance or rescuing your metal sculpture from the vagaries of time, simply called rust, are all part of this process. This year, the art fair is conducting a Collecting Masterclass, with six sessions by experts in the field lined up. You need to have an invite, but IAF is accepting sign-ups too. So, line up, young collectors.

We caught up with Anupam Sah, an award-winning art conservator-restorer based in Mumbai, who will lead a session on restoring artworks for private collections. With 24 years of experience to draw from, Sah says he intends the session to be in an interactive round-table format, centred on concerns and queries that participants themselves have. “I want participants to be able to recognize the obvious signs indicating that things are about to go wrong with their artwork. They need to have practical ideas on how not to allow the work from deteriorating further. With the right empowerment, you won’t have to flounder, looking for experts to help you," says Sah, who works as chief art consultant for the ConservArte Citi-CSMVS Art Conservation Project in Mumbai.

Bottom line: Sah wants to take the novelty out of art conservation. Luckily for the collectors these days, there is sufficient information available for contemporary works, right from the medium to how materials will behave in a certain environment.

Self-sufficiency is the goal, but that doesn’t mean Sah is dismissing the importance of dialling art doctors in a crisis. What he stresses upon is that collectors be aware what an art restorer ought to be doing. “We don’t want our art in the hands of unqualified technicians, much like how we don’t want to be at the mercy of dubiously qualified, prescription-happy medicine men."

Pannaga Jois’ installation made at Dharti Arts Residency. Photo: Serendipity Arts Foundation
Pannaga Jois’ installation made at Dharti Arts Residency. Photo: Serendipity Arts Foundation


The Serendipity Arts Festival has done a fair bit to highlight Goa as a centre for multidisciplinary contemporary art. Founded by Hero Enterprises chairperson Sunil Kant Munjal, it has been scaling up consistently since its first edition in 2016. Apart from the annual festival, Serendipity’s two artist residencies, Dharti and Line of Flight, are noteworthy too.

At the IAF, Serendipity’s booth will showcase these two residencies. Festival director Smriti Rajgarhia says the recent proliferation of residencies, in India and around the world, has raised key questions that the booth will highlight.

Dharti, its annual residency in Delhi, gives young artists the space and resources to cultivate their practice. Line of Flight, on the other hand, includes a symposium and exhibition, and was launched last year. “Given the intimate nature of the booth, we will not have actual artworks on display there. The residencies will be shown through text and images," says Rajgarhia.

Visitors can also look out for a conversation space, on the lines of #CoffeeWithSAF. Grab a chair, some coffee and ask any questions you have—regarding the foundation, the festival and the residencies.

Scene from Caste-pital, being performed by Sajan Mani at Haus der Kunst, Munich (2017). Photo courtesy: Sajan Mani
Scene from Caste-pital, being performed by Sajan Mani at Haus der Kunst, Munich (2017). Photo courtesy: Sajan Mani


This year, there are some exceptional performances to watch out for. For instance, Berlin-based, Kerala-born artist Sajan Mani, who was born to a family of rubber-tappers, uses his performance to prod audiences to question and challenge long-standing social monoliths. He explores the country’s grossly fraught history of caste. In his recent performance, titled Caste-pital (2017), Mani scribbled, “Not a single letter is seen on my race", a socially loaded phrase borrowed from a poem by Poykayil Yohannan, a 19th century Dalit revolutionary, across blank walls of Haus der Kunst in Munich. For the IAF, Mani has conceptualized a new performance, Art Will Never Die, But COW? It will focus its lens on recent sociopolitical developments in the country. “I’m interested in exploring themes of body, time and space," explains Mani. “Throughout India’s history, metaphorically speaking, the body of the cow has collided with that of the Dalits’. Through my performance, I try to explore the pain and shame which Dalits have undergone for centuries."

Renowned artist Mithu Sen will be performing a new piece, A 100 Silent Ways. Using gibberish as her primary medium of communication, Sen will mimic the routine of a staged lecture. “I will give an illustrated, spontaneous lecture delivered in a heavily jargonized, noisy, highly idiosyncratic language," says Sen. Through this piece, she wishes to interpret the notion of silence. “Violence, oppression and silence have a strong relationship—how someone’s voice can be silenced by a dominating power. In relation to domestic violence, for instance. Or, when you don’t speak out on certain important issues, you are choosing to remain silent. I want to explore such ideas of silence."

Yasmin Jahan Nupur will stage a 6-hour performance, Word And Hopes, that will try to penetrate the unspoken and invisible boundaries established by human beings, by engaging with visitors at the fair. And, through his performance, Take The City, Amol Patil will walk through the fair grounds, trying to recreate sounds reminiscent of the spatchcock chawls of Mumbai.

The BMW Art Car by David Hockney. Photo: BMW group
The BMW Art Car by David Hockney. Photo: BMW group


There are few things that can make a bigger splash than a pool painting by David Hockney. But, how about a grand tourer painted by him?

Hockney, one of Britain’s finest, is notable for his paintings of Californian calm—swimming pools, palm trees and clear skies. Deserving of equal attention are his line drawings, print suites, even a stained-glass window that he created for Westminster Abbey. The year 1995 brought along an innovative experiment. Car manufacturer BMW invited Hockney to treat its car as his canvas.

The Hockney art car comes to India for the first time at the IAF. Thomas Girst, global head of cultural engagement at BMW Group, who has been heading the art car series since 2004, says, “The BMW Art Car by David Hockney is a match made in heaven when it comes to automotive design and one of the greatest painters of our time."

Playing with perception, Hockney visualized the car’s interiors on its exterior, as if he were using a stylized X-ray vision. The bonnet reveals an engine, the driver is visible through the door, and don’t miss the dachshund in the back seat. “His vibrant colours of the Los Angeles countryside are full of joy while his theme of turning the car inside out—including the rendition of his beloved Dachshund in the back seat—turns the sports car into a playful rolling sculpture," says Grist, who will be introducing the art car with Edith Devaney, curator at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, on 1 February.

Last year, Hockney earned the label of the world’s most expensive living artist, after his Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) sold for a record $90 million (around 640 crore now) at a Christie’s auction. Some will have their reservations about the sale record, call it inflated even, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Hockney devised a unique vocabulary for pop art. His style is on display on the 1995 BMW 850 CSi as well; he created it “as if one could see inside".

In the BMW art car series, Hockney followed in a line of artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Esther Mahlangu. BMW has previously brought six art cars, painted by Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, among others, to India—to the IAF and Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. The 850 CSi, in particular, has a speed of 250 kmph. Now, imagine if Hockney had painted that splashing into a pool.

‘Bail’, a terracotta bull from ‘RM 10 Objects’. Photo: Raw Mango
‘Bail’, a terracotta bull from ‘RM 10 Objects’. Photo: Raw Mango


What do a bartan (vessel), a chulha (stove) and a putla (puppet) have in common? The answer could be Sanjay Garg.

Ever since he launched his label Raw Mango in 2008, Garg has been synonymous with the world of handloom textiles. As the brand finishes a decade, the designer is commemorating the occasion with a limited-edition series, RM 10 Objects.

At first glance, the series may seem completely removed from the world of silk and zari that Garg belongs to, but RM 10 Objects will launch alongside the art fair at Garg’s flagship store in Delhi, with “the intention of taking the conversation beyond textile". All the objects have a strong recall value, given how they reference indigenous design practices and historical artefacts.

Raw Mango will also be dressing the IAF team; we spotted Jagpal in a Raw Mango suit at an IAF-Raw Mango event earlier this month. Garg says, “The team will be wearing our saris and garments in shades of black, white and grey. Some will also be draped in saris while they go about their busy day." 

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