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Inside India’s art incubation centres

Residencies are mushrooming around the country, providing artists with a vibrant creative environment

Khoj Live, the first international performance arts festival. Photo: Khoj Studios
Khoj Live, the first international performance arts festival. Photo: Khoj Studios

In July 2015, Yuko Kaseki, a Berlin-based Butoh dancer, improviser and teacher, created a singular performance piece during her residency at HH Art Spaces, Goa. The 300-year-old Indo-Portuguese house in Arpora that houses HH Art Spaces served as a backdrop for her performance art, involving objects, texts and soundscapes. One saw artists from different disciplines inhabiting rooms and sites within the house, responding to each other’s body movements, the surrounding architecture and personal memories. “It was a collaborative piece, which required the participation of six other artists. So, we all jumped in to create a unified artwork. It was interesting to see people condense their practices to make this piece a success," says Nikhil Chopra, who founded HH Art Spaces in 2014, along with Romain Loustau and Madhavi Gore, to foster such interdisciplinary collaboration.

Kaseki returned to Goa in December 2017 to present yet a new collaborative piece with HH Art Spaces at the Serendipity Arts Festival.

Spaces such as HH are now serving as incubation labs, where artists can simply unleash their creativity to test new ideas. Here, you can tinker for months on end with unexplored mediums and hyperlocal materials to push your practice further—unfettered by the commercial pressures of the market. Where else but at the Khoj workshop in Delhi could you bond with gamers to create a visual narrative board game on Kashmir to address issues of sustainability and conflict in an engaging way? Or turn the garden into a graveyard of texts, at HH Art Spaces, by creating words using candles, a reference to the fragility of basic rights such as freedom of expression. At incubation spaces, the possibilities are endless.

Existing beyond the structured frameworks of art schools, galleries, biennales and fairs, these have emerged as “clubhouses" for artists, as Peter Nagy, director, Nature Morte, likes to describe it. “These are sort of an underground for the art world," he says, allowing practitioners to function outside the conventional norms. “Together with institutions such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and commercial spaces such as galleries, these incubation hubs make for a strong art ecosystem. Especially at a time when young galleries such as Lakeeren in Mumbai are shutting down, these spaces have become all the more important to foster cutting-edge experimental art," he says.

Thinking out of the box

Each incubation space, through programmes and residencies, starts with the premise of offering something “outside the box"—things that artists might not learn at art schools. So, there’s the six-week-long The Moving Image: A Course Exploring Light, Movement And Narrative course at the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (Fica), New Delhi, organized in association with the Serendipity Arts Trust, where young artists get the undivided attention of practising artists like Lokesh Khodke, Susanta Mandal, Chandan Gomes and Babu Eshwar Prasad on aspects of kinetic art, photography, video and sound work. As part of this, they get to create experimental videos, work with “rejected photos" or found images to create unique photo albums or explore light as a material. All these works are then shown on one day to an audience comprising curators, scholars, artists and gallerists. “This course helps us reposition the question of learning where informal spaces and peer processes can be successfully channelled to generate a fertile ground," says Vidya Shivadas, Fica director.

An artwork by Moumita Das at the WAA? studio. Photo: What About Art

Redefining the studio

Participating artists and scholars are encouraged to come out of the isolation of their private studios and think of the city as a studio, entering into a dialogue with local communities, histories and material. This helps foster the spirit of enquiry so critical to avant-garde art. “Sometimes, their surroundings act as an immediate trigger, and they start creating the work while at the residency. At other times, they might just walk around, soaking everything in, and create something out of it months later. But this dialogue will have an impact on their lifelong practice for sure," says Saloni Doshi, founder, Space118, which offers month-long residencies and four studio spaces. Take the example of artist Tanya Goel, whose interactions with urban theorists and artists like Kalam Patua during residencies at Space 118 and Sarai, in Delhi, helped her conceptualize what a grid meant to her.

Similarly, at What About Art? (WAA?), Mumbai, one can see Pat Dionne and Miki Gringas, current artists-in-residence from Quebec, Canada, creating large-scale animated images based on their photo documentation of Bandra. WAA? converted one of its seven studios into a makeshift photo studio, with a DIY green screen, in order to capture the residents, who were invited for the project. WAA? is now looking forward to its annual open studio on 4 February.

Miles away, at Delhi’s Khoj studio, which pioneered the idea of incubation spaces way back in 1997, the urban village of Khirkee too serves as a laboratory where contemporary practitioners explore art’s relationship with food, ecology, science, gaming, performance, fashion and sound. For instance, at a recent open studio that was part of the Khoj PEERS Residency, Sahil Naik used Khirkee as an inspiration to create scale-to-size replicas of the nearby landscape, as built in a post-apocalyptic set-up. He sparked an active conversation around the sculpture of a city, which could be located in Khirkee or anywhere else, while also addressing the times we live in, with the dangers of civil war, chemical warfare, terrorism, food shortage and displacement.

Once they start questioning set perceptions of medium and materiality, artists start pushing the boundaries of their practice. Eve Lemesle, WAA? founder and managing director of the Mumbai Art Room, cites the example of Delhi-based textile and fibre artist Moumita Das, who came through the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation partnership. When she first arrived, her practice was mainly two-dimensional, making large, intricate fibre tapestries using wool and cotton thread. “Through scheduled interactions with senior artists, curators and gallerists, during her residency, she was encouraged to play with scale, dimension and immersion," says Lemesle. Drawing inspiration from the colours of Bandra’s fishing villages, Das created a sculptural piece that took over the studio as a three-dimensional, immersive artwork.

Something for everyone

Contrary to popular perception that these incubation spaces are meant only for emerging artists, there are a series of programmes for practitioners at various stages in their careers, and often away from the urban centres of Delhi and Mumbai. For instance, one of Khoj’s flagship programmes (the International Workshop) is for local artists across the country—in Goa, Kashmir, Pune, Patna and Dharamsala. Then there is PEERS, the organization’s pioneering programme, which sees artists interacting with a larger creative community from disciplines like architecture, media and design. Khoj’s international residencies for young, mid-career and senior practitioners explore art’s relationship with food, science, gaming, fashion and sound

‘Mumbai Hand Cart’, 2010, by artist Vijayendra Sekhon.Photo: Space118

Besides these residencies, there are also spaces such as Sunaparanta—Goa Centre for the Arts, and Experimenter in Kolkata, which serve as platforms to showcase new concepts and develop ideas at the educational level. “Currently, though they are more informal, we are able to host artists, curators and academics on the merit of their work. My friend Dattaraj Salgaocar founded Sunaparanta with a view of developing the arts in Goa, starting at the student level," says honorary director Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. So, recently, Swedish artist Stina Wirsén did a workshop for schoolchildren. Sohrab Hura has done a class for young photography students.

Whatever the format, each of these incubation spaces offers artists the luxury of space and time, which can result in a deeply transformative experience.

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