Delhi’s annual India Art Fair has needed a clear identity after growing successfully for nine years into one of the country’s leading cultural jamborees. Last weekend that identity began to emerge with new direction, a strong Indian base, fresh international interest and a flood of fringe exhibitions and other events around India’s capital city. That should anchor it in the art world’s annual calendar, boosted by the owners of Art Basel being its biggest shareholder.
Many exhibitors reported good sales and reserves on the first pre-view afternoon (February 9) including, significantly, David Zwirner, a leading New York and London gallery (below) that came to the fair for the first time. If Zwirner had gone away unhappy, it would have damaged the fair’s foreign image and deterred others from abroad in future years – in the past big international names such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson and White Cube have not returned.
A triptych by Sujan Dangol showing three generations’ symbolic objects of Nepalese consumption. Nepal Art Council.
There was also good news on the opening day from Art Tactic, a London-based analysis firm, which produced a report that said the South Asian market rose 13 percent in 2017 to an estimated US$223 million, driven by global auction sales up 17 percent to US$118.2 million, though the contemporary auction market remained weak.
Gallery sales within the region were estimated, on the basis of a partial survey, to have risen only 8 percent to US$104.5 million (including US$81.1 million in India), but this included strong contemporary sales with newer galleries allocating over 70 percent of their space to such works
Commenting on the success of contemporary art in galleries, Anders Pettersen, who runs ArtTactic, says that “auction houses show little confidence in this market, so by default contemporary art is sold through galleries, art fairs or online, though the it is still relatively modest”. That was reflected in the fair, where many exhibitors showed contemporary works and relatively few offered (albeit impressive) works by India’s famous old Moderns such as S.H.Raza, Tyeb Mehta and F.N.Souza.
Starry Pumpkin – fiberglass reinforced plastic and tile – by Yayol Kusama, showing in India for the first time. David Zwirner gallery, London/NewYork
Many visitors however felt that there was nothing outstandingly memorable among the contemporary works, despite some socially conscious paintings such as those by Nepalese, Gujarati and Assamese artists (above and below), and a humorous rendering of Mahatma Gandhi doing a selfie, plus a few quirky exhibits like a clever painting of a carpet, which looked so real that visitors strained to touch it.
Zwirner had sales and reserves ranging from etchings and screen prints at US$10,000 up to major works around US$650,000 (Rs4.3 crore) by artists who included Thomas Ruff, Yayoi Kusama, and James Welling. “We came to see what was possible. We have strengthened existing connections and made some new ones,” James Green, a Zwirner director, told me, indicating the gallery would be back next year.
Along with other Indian and foreign galleries, Zwirner was attracted by Art Basel’s owner, the Swiss MCH Group taking control late in 2016 with a 60.3 percent stake. Even more important for many however was the choice last August of Jagdip Jagpal, 53, (below) to succeed Neha Kirpal, the founder director.
Jagpal was brought up in London by Indian (Bengali and Punjabi) parents and has been an international program manager at the UK’s Tate. Till last year she was working in Manchester on a New North and South network to bring together arts organizations from South Asia and the UK. She decided last year, on her second visit to the fair, that she wanted to become the director.
“I’m proud of being Indian,” she told me. “We’ve focused on Indian galleries to get those who haven’t been coming”. She allocated 70 percent of the space to South Asian galleries and applied strict criteria with firm guidance about the works on show, refusing to admit some 30 would-be exhibitors. “They mustn’t show stuff that hasn’t sold elsewhere so has been brought here,” she says. In total, the fair had 70 galleries, broadly the same as recent years, with some 420 artists.
A triptych by K.P.Reji from Baroda (Gujarat) depicting dissatisfaction with security forces. The Guild, gallery, Mumbai)
One of Jagpal’s leading fans is Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai. “We love her energy and that’s why we are here,” he told me. “Young Indians buyers are willing to buy challenging words at international market prices….it’s been our best year ever”.
The most flamboyant participant in the fair for the past few years has been the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), run by Ashish Anand, whose continually high expenditure causes wonderment among rivals, not least because of its gallery expansion to Mumbai and New York with rumored plans for London.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary as a family business, DAG has had two brand-building exhibitions over the past week that have surpassed anything else on show. Navratna – Nine Gems at the art fair showed India’s “national treasure” artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Amrita Sher-Gil, and Rabindranath Tagore, while India’s French Connection at the Visual Arts Gallery in the Habitat Centre had works by 27 Indian artists who had studied or worked in France. They included Amrita Sher-Gil (again), S.H. Raza and Jehangir Sabavala. Also at the Habitat, DAG staged a series of events that included a lecture by Pablo Picasso’s grandson.
The Reader by Anju Dodiya – acrylic on mattress 48” diameter. Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi
Other notable exhibitions on the fringe have included two by contemporary artists that are still open – a 50-year retrospective of Vivan Sundaram at the Kiran Nadar Museum, and gripping recent works by Anju Dodiya staged by the Vadehra Art Gallery at Bikaner House.
At the end of the fair on February 12, a large number of galleries said they had sold well or had reserve options on works that they expected to go through, though some of the first evening’s euphoria cooled.
One of the biggest deals I heard about involved a collection of five paintings by S.H.Raza dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, which a private Delhi buyer acquired from the Akar Parka gallery of Kolkata and Delhi for an undisclosed sum. Experimenter from Kolkata told the organizers it sold 80 percent of its works with buyers including Kiran Nadar’s art museum and Devi Art Foundation.
Endangered – acrylic digital painting on canvas by Veer Munshi who also did the sculpture. Art District III gallery, New Delhi
Delhi galleries that told me about good sales included Gallery Espace, which sold a complete collection of recent small works by Manisha Gera Baswani on the first day for between Rs250,000 and Rs450,000. Threshold said it had sold well in the Rs150,000-800,000 range, and Art Indus was successful between Rs120,000 and Rs300,000, having brought in lower priced works this year.
Higher up the price range, Art District XIII sold a new Veer Munshi painting of Kashmir (above) for around Rs700,000. Dhoomimal Gallery did “better than last year” with sales of its Moderns between Rs500,000 and Rs2m. Palette Art Gallery was “happy” with contemporary sales from Rs600,000 upwards.
Among the foreign galleries, Aicon from New York was “overall happy” (ie, not ecstatic) with several sales and reserves around Rs20,000-30,000, while Lukas Feichtner Galerie from Vienna did well on its second year at the fair with contemporary sales totaling Euro100,000. From Bahrain, Art Select was pleased with sales of five women artists’ paintings on its first visit.
Sounds Good by Sachi Bonde, described as “dental pop, etching and collage on brass weighing scales” – a set of 10 variable sizes. 1×1 Art Gallery, Dubai
Foreign galleries have not always been successful, sometimes because they brought Indian artists who were already in plentiful supply. Often it has also been because there has not been much Indian appetite for foreign works – many Indian collectors aim for whatever their friends and peers can recognize and admire on their walls, which steers them to Indian artists (mostly Moderns despite a brief surge a decade ago for contemporary works). This year however, partly because of guidance from Jagpal, they did better.
The ArtTactic report notes a swing from international to local auction houses with Moderns art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams being 22.5 percent lower than in 2016 while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole more than made up for the loss. The relatively less-known Asta Guru has emerged as the third largest auction house after Saffronart and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.
Now that the art fair is over, attention swings pack to the famous old Moderns who dominate the top end of auctions, as they will do next month with auctions in New York, where both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have a Raza as their highest priced offering. Sotheby’s Ville Provenҫale is expected to fetch more than US$2.5 million. In Mumbai, Saffronart also has a live auction with a Tyeb Mehta work as its top lot.
Meanwhile Jagpal says she is starting work immediately on next year’s fair and is aiming to have the “concept” ready by the end of March. The exhibitors will be expecting greater success when they return, and visitors might welcome some more memorable examples of contemporary art.
Sudipta Das with her Soaring to Nowhere depicting the displacement of refugees, bought by a London collector with four more editions available – Gallery Latitude 28, Delhi
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.