Creative energies | Exciting things to watch in 2019

Pick Your Language

On November 3, The Metropolitan Museum of Art woke up to the quiet, covert and powerful ‘Performance/Call to Action’ by Michelle Hartney. The American artist appended her own wall labels next to displays of doyens like Balthus, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso, calling out their reckless misogyny and abuse of power. She quoted thus from the culturally innovative stand-up special, Nanette, next to Picasso’s The Dreamer (1932): “The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers.” Museums will never tell you how Gauguin took local teenage girls as wives and gave them syphilis. But Hartney’s wall text squarely addressed these “art monsters” for the price they extracted for their self-expression.

By inviting feminist artist collective Guerrilla Girls, the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale has indicated its hunger for revolutionary behaviour and agent provocateurs. Guerrilla Girls are anonymous art world activists in gorilla masks fighting sexism and racism.

India needs more contemporary women artists, beyond modernist pioneers, to break auction records, more uncensored visual commentary on political realities, more post-Banksy type enfant terribles. But, for now, let’s roll out the red carpet for compelling acts across mediums in the Indian art world in 2019.

Bharti Kher

In 2010, Kher sold her fibreglass replica of a slumped elephant studded with her signature ‘bindi’ for $1.5m at a Sotheby’s auction, making her the highest-valued female contemporary artist in India. Her sculptures, installations and paintings are internationally renowned for their narrative elements that interweave mythological references. On January 19, Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi will premiere Kher’s biggest solo exhibition in India titled “The trick is living”, which is expected to present a blaze of new and never-shown-before artworks culled from museums and private collections around the world. Will any of these exhibits end up as the most expensive piece of contemporary art?

Sajan Mani

In a 50-hour performance titled ‘Liquidity Ar’ at the Kampala Art Biennale 2016, Mani channelled the colour red from his childhood days in Kannur, Kerala, to reflect on postcolonial dalit identity, slavery and marginalisation. Clad in a long red hat and a boiler suit made from the mundu, the Kerala dhoti, and stationed in a glaring red boat, Mani tugged and pushed and paddled on the grass for two days and two nights. The state of limbo and dislocation, that wrestle to rise above one’s station, was aptly conveyed. The performance artist, born into a family of rubber tappers in Kerala, likes to engage in personal biography and lived experiences to enunciate concepts of space, time and body. His 2018 work ‘Caste-pital’ will get major billing at the upcoming India Art Fair in late January.

Sahej Rahal

Rahel’s sculptures evoke a mix of awe, bewilderment, disgust and wide-eyed wonder. The artist and sculptor mines city scrapyards, local legends, religious iconography and contemporary science fiction to create strange, dystopian installations in clay and straw. He was a big hit at the Liverpool Biennial, in 2016, where his fossilised sculptures were scattered across city landmarks. Rahal has a much-awaited solo show coming up soon at Chatterjee & Lal, where his fantastical creations will fuse the past with today’s “absurd fictions”.

Ranjani Shettar

If there ever was an embodiment of pleasing abstractions, one can find it in Shettar’s floating moulds in stainless steel. For more than six months in 2018, the visual artist from Shivamogga in Karnataka held forth in an acclaimed solo at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Titled ‘Seven Ponds and a Few Raindrops’, it followed hot on the heels of the shows of artists Nasreen Mohamedi and Zarina Hashmi. An immersive installation draped in muslin and plastered with tamarind paste, it swirled up to the ceiling, hinting at ecological disasters and degradation of natural habitats. Shettar goes to Washington DC this year to commune with Wassily Kandinsky’s book Sounds.

Ronny Sen

Silchar-born and Kolkata-raised, Sen is rapidly gaining international attention for his brooding, black-and-white images that occupy a space between reportage and documentation. He covered the 2014 general elections for the United Nations, and his photographs are now part of the permanent collection of the Alkazi Collection of Photography. In 2016, he won the Getty Images Instagram Grant for his work on Jharia coal mines, which was exhibited in the Netherlands and New York. His 2018 debut feature film Cat Sticks extends his stark, monochrome aesthetics to cover Kolkata’s brown-sugar addicts in the 1990s and 2000s. Cinematic and edgy, this self-trained photographer will soon join the league of Sohrab Hura.

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