Frames to fame : representing indigenous practices in contemporary times
photos: courtesy of lekha and anupam poddar collection
In recent years, the global South has seen some dynamic creative energy brought forth by some interesting philosophical encounters, highlighting a blossoming of interactive spaces with collaborative experiments that interweave traditions with contemporary studio practice. While there has been no dearth of experimental works and dynamic cultural practices in the past, recent events become fascinating for their structure and predominant focus.
As an academic discussing Indian Visual Culture in the classrooms today, I find it immensely invigorating to talk about indigenous practices and arts to the current generation. With indigenous arts, I refer to those practices that predate ‘western’ ideas when ‘art education’ as a discipline was brought to the subcontinent by the colonisers. Simultaneously, when discussing contemporary Indian Visual Culture I find it equally difficult to remain non-objective and unbiased, particularly when confronted with recent experiments with traditional practices.
Akhila Krishnan (in collaboration with Neha Puri Dhir (for MOOL) and Govindbhai) Naksha: Patterns in Space and Time Dyed ikat cotton thread on red and black paper . 8 x 8 inches (closed concertina), 8 x 205 inches (opened out) Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon 2014
Any study of a visual culture remains incomplete without an understanding of its popular arts, creative practices, cultural spaces and folk traditions. In relation to Indian arts through history, and perhaps for the entire subcontinent, apart from a rare few mentions in recent art books, ‘popular’ arts (not the
‘classical’ traditions) and artists” find rare reference. The classification of those traditions, which were popular with the masses in pre-colonial times, exaggerates the lack of representation and illuminates a vast chasm in our visual culture. From this representation, practitioners of this genre of cultural production – the craftspeople, women, tribal groups and the rural, non/ semi-literate artists – who mainly belong to lower socio-economic backgrounds, highlight an inherent hierarchy our visual culture remains ridden with.
Similar hierarchies can be seen to exist across the globe, the scenario across South Asia is similar, but highlights a unique trajectory of inclusions and exclusions distinct from other areas. This is due to the social hierarchy and discrimination of indigenous practitioners, which stems out to discrimination against indigenous arts and demonstrates the abject inadequacy of our systems to represent them. To put things in perspective, one needs to identify the place and position of popular artistic traditions that preexisted the advent of ‘western’ art education in India. This inherently leads us to the identification of the
Aneetb Arona . Link/Interlink (detail) Thread on thread 132 x 108 x 96 inches . Devi Art Foundation, Gorgaon 2015
‘classical’ and the craft traditions as distinct categories and indigenous arts being clubbed together under one single category since colonial times – crafts.
It is evident there is a direct link between national attitude towards indigenous art practitioners and support structures and opportunities made available to them. Let us thus clearly identify that the producers of indigenous arts are chiefly the lower caste, women and minority groups. In postcolonial India, most indigenous arts were seen as ‘artefacts’, as objects produced, collected, presented and treated as relics or ‘living traditions’. Some fitted ‘high art’ categories and were accepted as exquisite examples of ‘classical’ traditions, while others remained overlooked as ‘folk’ traditions. Nonetheless, samples collected and commissions made were used to establish necessary benchmarks, evaluated on the basis of skills, material and philosophical frameworks evident in the collections. Benchmarks were diligently followed and became mandatory for the survival of the craft and craftsperson. Generations of craftspeople needed to conform to these benchmarks – to establish allegiance to their tradition, to justify the purity and continuity of their practiced tradition. Things haven’t changed much for the indigenous artist, their art was and will remain ‘craft’ and they will be called craftspeople.
Parismita Singh (in collaboration with Kocha Rabha weavers). Mwsing Talam. Hand woven textiles and text. Dimensions variable. 2014.
Since the 1950s there has been a gradual shift in opinions regarding indigenous arts in India. Bolstered by an abundance of exhibitions, books and studies over the years, a taste for indigenous objects has been nurtured. So these crude, ritualistic objects of unrefined taste acquired the status of ‘objects of desire’. Although many factors contributed to this gradual development of taste for the exotic, and many agencies capitalised on this shift, indigenous arts remain classified as crafts and got such representation through exhibitions and events. Emerging from the traditional domain, indigenous arts reached the broader public domain but as a lower category art; to be closely monitored, shaped and controlled by collectors, art historians/ critics and bureaucrats. Given the support, chosen few indigenous artists and practices flourished, while others ‘vanished’ succumbing to inadequacies of local systems.
Berenice Ellena (in collaboration with Sri Niraf!ian, Institut Franrais). Yatra Kalamkari. Kalamkari. 76 x 198 inches. 2014
Exhibitions and festivals have been a regular occurrence since colonial times. Throughout the history of India’s representation, events have managed to perpetuate a specific image of the country and its people and have succeeded in overlooking numerous people and practices from its exhibition lists and catalogues. It is important to note here that many such events have also led to the removal of various examples of creative practices from popular imagination, erasing several sections from the socio-cultural and political histories of this land. The resultant popular image of India has made such a long lasting impression worldwide, that even people within are unaware of these erasures and most fail to recognise the lapses made by decision makers. The most predominant concern here, however, is the role of the indigenous artist, their status and position.
Representation requires serious deliberation. At most platforms mainstream practices are chosen to present a desired image, today this being the techsavvy digitised, ‘modernised’ global image. Here indigenous arts and cultural practices are essentially selected as examples highlighting and portraying wellpreserved ‘traditional’ links to past glory. Such representation only reflects the nostalgia of a decolonising nation and its elite; it further elicits the deeprooted disregard mainstream decision-makers habitually hold towards indigenous artists. Closer inspection points to an intricate web of discrimination, of behavioural issues cast out of socio-cultural and economic histories which camouflage a gaping hole of indifference and bias.
In recent years, the global South has seen some dynamic creative energy brought forth by some interesting philosophical encounters, highlighting a blossoming of interactive spaces with collaborative experiments that interweave traditions with contemporary studio practice. While there has been no dearth of experimental works and dynamic cultural practices in the past, recent events become fascinating for their structure and predominant focus. Here I refer to some recent instances that herald a significant shift in perceptions of artistic practice. Let’s look at two such examples, a recently concluded exhibition of textile arts at Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, called
‘FRACTURE’1 and another exhibition curated by TARQ Gallery. Mumbai entitled ‘Encounters’2
Both exhibitions represent traditional techniques to establish a much awaited and important dialogue between traditional and contemporary audiences. FRACTURE chose to bring this dialogue in focus through collaboration that brought together artists, craftspeople, designers, curators and collectors to engage with an eclectic mix of textiles collected and commissioned by the founders of Devi Art Foundation, Lekha and Anupam Poddar over a period of fourteen years, all under the guidance and vision of textile exponent RahulJain, textile curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul and designer Sanjay Garg. Thoughtfully conceptualised, beautifully displayed and framed, ‘FRACTURE’ startles the audience by challenging timeworn notions and presents possibilities to reinterpret textiles from various perspectives. This engagement at Devi Art enforced the mind to find new prospects to view textiles, thus unravelling unspoken ideas and the concept enveloping handmade textiles.
As is evident from the works on display at ‘FRACTURE’, this exhibition found space to represent a wide cross-section of people from various disciplines, all involved with the ‘craft’ of ‘making’. Hand-made textiles, a medium used for the first time by some of the artists and designers commissioned for this show, became the highlight, and the artwork presented the soul of the show. The credit for this exhibition, in my view, goes primarily to the curatorial effort put behind it, the vision in commissioning the works and the way it was framed within the gallery space. The lighting, the display, the structure of the conceptual frame, the layout of the exhibition, keeps in mind the material and the utilisation of materials and techniques in establishing an alternate perspective of viewing the traditional technique. The aesthetic nature of the display enhanced the very properties of materials and techniques. Non-conventional manners of display helped in re-evaluating the identity of traditional textiles; many design and structural techniques had been utilised to produce desired effects. Subdued lighting protected the older textiles and managed to lend a theatrical effect to the entire exhibition. Use of focussed lights aided in highlighting desired areas of the textiles, and the darkened spaces enhanced colours to emphasise the materials and techniques used. Suspension of artworks across specific areas and sections through which appropriate amount of light could filter further created a vibrant and tactile feel. This not only established an understanding of handmade textiles, it forced people to re-imagine alternative perspectives.
On one hand, ‘FRACTURE’ opened up the muchrequired dialogue to reinterpret hand-made textiles; on the other, it unearthed the necessity to rethink the existing approach towards the identity of the artists. While ‘FRACTURE’ challenged many underlying perspectives in representing indigenous artists, by including artists/ designers along with master craftspeople, at a certain level it fails. This is particularly significant as the exhibition cannot establish the type, extent of collaboration and exercised for each work. The collaboration of the curator/ gallery and the artist/ designer is well established, but the role of the craftsperson in reinterpreting each piece is not clear. Hence, when we talk about reinterpreting traditions, how do we view our own standpoint regarding the craft and the crafts-person? Is her/his role only that of skilled labour? If so, how do we evaluate their contribution? In addition, what value does the art-
ist/ designer bring to such collaborations and with whom does the ownership of such works reside?
Let me now present another exhibition that piqued my interest, as an example to establish my view on prevalent ideas and concepts regarding representation of indigenous arts and artists. ENCOUNTERS3, as the TARQ Gallery refers to it, was a cross-cultural dialogue of folk traditions from across the world. Referred to as a solo exhibition by the London-based Polish artist Alicja Dobrucka, this exhibition was an individual’s experiments in finding skilled collaborators from around the world to re-design a fantastic traditional paper-cut from Poland. Alicia takes the iconic image of roosters done in traditional Polish folk art style on her journey through India, Palestine and Turkey, encouraging craftspeople to translate the image and reproduce it in their medium of specialty. Alicia identified regional styles, interacted with practitioners and commissioned each piece as a reproduction of the original paper cut. What subsequently emerged was a series of artworks that are as close a copy to the original paper cut as possible. Apart from the rare few, most pieces looked like direct translations of the paper-cut in another medium, bringing in mind several questions: does this portray a lack of individuality of the collaborative indigenous artist? Or was this a loss of translation within the cross-cultural exchange?
Alicia personally sees this as an experimental project, from craft to art as she calls it, to “explore modes of inter-cultural dialogue in the era of capitalism and globalisation”. In reviewing craft traditions and embroidery in particularly, Alicia refers to the thoughts of Walter Benjamin, “the fingerprints of the potter are seen as a way of individuating, authenticating works that is profoundly different from the authentication of works of fine art”.2 But the exhibition becomes an encounter due to the role of the curator; in this case the artist and the gallerist, who is the co-curator. The role of the curator is of paramount importance because of the very nature of the intercultural dialogues that Alicia seeks to explore within the frameworks of capitalisation/ globalisation. These can only find credence when represented appropriately and I feel the young TARQ gallery managed to provide the artist this opportunity successfully. Yet, I feel, conceptually this exhibition was weak in making an impact.
This is evident in the very nature of works represented. While each of the individual pieces could be used separately to establish the basic concepts of cross-cultural exchange, as a whole, the exhibition falls short in justifying encounters between old and new. Transforming the Polish paper-cut to various techniques of embroidery, terracotta, Bollywood set-design and hand-painted billboards was an excellent idea. Juxtaposing these collaborations together worked at one level, however the exhibition loses its intent in the initial concept, that of translating the iconic image in its original format. To elaborate, the collaborative artworks displayed although labelled and attributed to individual indigenous artists, did not display the individual’s creative input. The exhibits look like copies of the original; lacking in originality, they challenge notions of ownership and of authorship of works. In essence this is rightfully the work of the curator/ artist and the indigenous artists are skilled executioners commissioned to replicate a traditional design from another land. Questions of ownership, nature of production, level and type of participation and the authorship of basic concepts all get emphasised with such collaborations and it becomes important to understand what such efforts seek. Such events challenge the basic premise on which they are established, the equal participation of creative skills involved.
Contemporary Visual Culture is changing, so are its mediums of expression. Exhibitions that challenge stereotypical ideas can be seen as landmarks in more than one way; although these challenges come from individual interests and are directed by the curator, they also hold the key to the success of a show as well as the artists represented. Relevant to this discussion, they define the very existence of the indigenous practice and artist in the public domain. In upholding contemporary values, employing shifting boundaries of art, and aligning with contemporary ‘global’ visual culture, such exhibitions provoke a revaluation of classifications in art. These become excellent examples to highlight the neglect we afflict upon indigenous arts and artists; the typical problems faced by similar kinds of practices around India and the rampant disregard they face by the governmental machinery and society at large.
As evidence of vibrant times, these exhibitions, present innumerous avenues and platforms to confront established dogmas and articulate alternate discourses. Blurring the lines between art, craft and design as moribund categories, these exhibitions set forth the Indian visual culture on a novel trajectory of creativity and establish the significant role of curatorial practices. Engaging with theoretical discourses, approaching traditions from a fresh perspective, underlining the shifting perceptions of art as a practice, is all possible under the aegis of such curatorial practice. These are perhaps the best times and most appropriate platforms to represent indigenous arts and artists.
Framed to perfection, many former experiments of national and international stature can be identified that fulfilled similar concepts. But I refer predominantly to collaborative spaces and exhibitions that represent
‘traditional’ practices, ‘cultural heritage’ and work in collaboration with objects often viewed as ‘crafts’. Immeasurably creative, these collaborative exchanges are phenomenally thought provoking as they augment an evolving visual culture and heavily dependent on the strengthening relationship between the curator and the artist. Ignoring aspects normally associated with artistic production, contemporary objects can transform into a work of art by the sheer value denoted by its representation.
Societies across South Asia have transformed with technology and widening of markets. Where tourism and sustainability find relevance in contemporary markets, traditions are finding favour with the current generation as a worthwhile endeavour4. Today objects are fashioned to strike out as products that can attract a wider audience, the millennial generation. Accessibility to media and its common use not only gives rise to the latest and cheaper avenues of representation, but also contributes to the broadening scope of creative possibilities and experimental work. The increasing numbers of social and cultural platforms therefore are under immense pressure to bring novel ideas to the forefront, leading practitioners to dip into repositories of traditions as a source of inspiration.
As far as creative industry is concerned, contemporary South Asian visual culture is an exciting space for creativity and creative processes; particularly in the urban situation where people are globally connected, far more discerning and consumer-oriented. Where formerly regional cultures, particularly in decolonising societies, present their ‘best’, most iconic and ‘traditional’ examples of creative and cultural practices, now the same need to be presented in a new avatar. Combined demands of novelty, quality and ethnic distinction are the need of the hour, which makes it imperative for arts and cultural practitioners to design and develop ideas of an aesthetic nature that would simultaneously interest the young and satisfy the eclectically inclined.
In conclusion, most contemporary efforts that seek to represent traditional practices and crafts need to be carefully framed. Art events, many targeting an international, multicultural audience utilise traditional creative practices in their new avatar. These were formerly used for branding a distinct ‘ethnic’ national identity, and are currently used to also establish a dynamic, continued involvement within the ‘handmade’ industry. Events and exhibitions are now charged with the agenda of securing a globalised ‘modern’ image that retains ethnicity, yet emphasises on the youthful, exhilarating, and popular culture quotients. Objects and events are fashioned to leave a lasting impression on the visual memory of a rapidly metamorphosing society and visual culture, yet most still fall short in making national impact.
Most events and exhibitions, even the most brilliant curatorial efforts, primarily focus mainstream practitioners, urban artists, designers and curators; such exclusion is strikingly biased and non-democratic. For a country that has three-fourths of its population residing in rural areas, to promote a visual culture based on cultural discourses that primarily represent urban and mainstream ideas as culture of high value is discriminatory. I think it is time to realise our folly and make our visual culture more inclusive. It is time to adopt a democratic approach and represent indigenous artists not as skilled labour but recognise their true potential, as creative individuals of refined skills.
Things need to be changed; to bolster interest in the arts and keep audiences alive in the country and outside, a changed approach is essential. It is crucial to realise the true contribution of indigenous arts in our visual culture and give them their true recognition. This may be far more beneficial than the sustainable development schemes or employment opportunities planned for the masses. Change can happen, by raising the status of indigenous arts, it can be used as a tool to sustain socio-economic interest in the arts by current generations, and to garner larger interest in the arts by the masses. Hence in proposing a visual culture that nurtures indigenous arts and its practitioners at par with the mainstream, things can be changed beyond a moribund singular perspective that can affect the arts of not only India, but across South Asia.
a) Here I mainly refer to the indigenous arts and practices, practices that are not ‘classical’ traditions but are known as ‘popular’. It is awkward to employ a blanket term to identify the broad cross-section of society, the under-privileged ‘art’ producers who produced not for nobility or temples but for the common man. So rather than addressing them as ‘handicraft producers’ and their works as ‘handicrafts’, which is the usual practice, I prefer to use the term ‘indigenous’ arts and artists.
1. Vaidya, Rujuta. 25 March, 2015. Why you need to see the exhibition ‘Fracture: Indian textiles, new conversations’. VOGUE India.
Vasudev, Shefalee. 21 March, 2015. Art review: ‘Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations’. Live Mint.
<http://www.livemint.com1Leisure/pfSU2FIQ21CglDveRNS2YI/Artreview-Fracture-lndian-Textiles-New-Conversations.html>. YamsandFibers News Bureau. 28 February, 2015. Fractures, an exhibition reviving ancient Indian textiles. YNFX.
2. TARQ. ENCOUNTERS 2012-2015.
Polish Institute New Delhi. Exhibition “ENCOUNTERS” by A/icja Dobrucka. <http://polishinstitute.in/exhibition-encounters-by-alicjadobrucka/>.
3. Mumbai Mirror. 25 May, 2015. Art to Heart. TARQ. <http://tarq.in/presspost/80>.
Chaterjee Arundhati. 4 May, 2015. Rule the Rooster. TARQ.
4. Vora, Sivani. 17 July, 2015. For Indian Weavers in Varanasi, Help for an Endangered Craft. The New York Times.
<http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/travel/for-indian-weavers-invaranasi-help-for-an-endangered-craft.html? _r-1 >
Dr Neeti Bose is an educator and community worker. She teaches art, design, art theory, and liberal arts. Dr Bose has taught at Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology, Bangalore, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, School of Visual Arts & Design at Beaconhouse University, Lahore, University of New South Wales, Australia and more. She has worked on projects with innumerable regional and international NGOs and Indian/other diplomatic missions in India and Ethiopia. Dr Bose is currently a Professor at FLAME University in Pune.
Leading Image : Astha Butail (in collaboration with Raw Mango, M. Y asim) . Weavers: Mustak Ahamad, ]agdish Prasad and Ra”!fi Maurya . 7 Yo kings ef the Felicity . Hand woven benarasi kimkhab textile (silk and gilded thread) . Site specific dimensions. Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon . 2013 – 2014
photos: courtesy of lekha and anupam poddar collection In recent years, the global South has seen some dynamic creative energy brought forth by some interesting philosophical encounters, highlighting a blossoming of interactive spaces with collaborative experiments that interweave traditions with contemporary studio practice. While there has been no dearth of experimental works and dynamic cultural…