‘A turning point’: India’s art fair challenges sexist and sexual stereotypes | India

EEven through the haze of Delhi’s shimmering heat and thick dust, the mural is impossible to miss. Pinks, blues, greens and yellows erupt from the wall, coming together to form a utopian scene of equality, and splashed across the middle is a slogan designed to challenge India’s male-dominated society. “The future is female,” he says.

The artwork sits at the entrance to this year’s Indian Art Fair, the country’s biggest event showcasing Indian artists and galleries, which opens in Delhi this weekend after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

People walk past graffiti in Bangalore. Photograph: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

His presence is significant. The Aravani art collective, the artists behind the work, have never been exhibited in a major gallery nor do they consider themselves part of the money driven art market, which mostly exists within the confines of the white walls of the galleries.

Aravani is India’s only trans art collective, encompassing around 40 trans people – mostly women but a few men – from cities across the country, who paint murals and artwork in public spaces. Subway stations, schools, universities, sky bridges and parking lots have been transformed by their works depicting scenes of inclusion and gender fluidity. The murals have brought visibility and empowerment to the trans community, which is still widely rejected and stigmatized in India and often forced to live on the margins of society.

“In this mural, we wanted to celebrate the intersectionality and inclusivity that has always existed within the trans community but is rarely seen in our society,” said Poornima Sukumar, who founded the collective in 2016.

Children walk past a mural painted by members of the Aravani collective in Mumbai.
Children walk past a mural painted by members of the Aravani collective in Mumbai. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

The decision to attend the art fair wasn’t entirely comfortable, Sukumar said, but she hoped it would help change perceptions and give them a platform to describe the multifaceted nature of their collective and of the trans community as a whole.

“It’s important in our work to challenge this perception that everyone in the trans community is the same,” she said. “Yes, many ran away from home because of the pressures and ended up begging or prostitution because it was the only viable source of money, but in these experiences there is so much individual travel.”

For Mayuri Pujari, who has been part of the collective since 2017, the impact of her involvement has been profound. “Visibility is empowering,” she said. “People see the trans community as art professionals, not just beggars on the road.”

Among the new generation of young artists featured at this year’s fair, which plays a central role in India’s burgeoning art market, many have used their works to push the boundaries of sexuality, gender and queer stories. In a specially commissioned performance, for example, Gurjeet Singh, a famous young Sikh artist from a small village on the border with Pakistan, delicately interrogates and reverses traditional gender roles in families and at home.

Aravani's public art shows people wearing face masks to raise awareness about coronavirus
Aravani’s public art shows people wearing face masks to raise awareness about the coronavirus. Photograph: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

For Jaya Asokan, director of the fair, “diversity and inclusion” expanding India’s art landscape, as well as growing international interest in the Indian art market, meant the fair was taking place at “a turning point for Indian and South Asian art”. ”

“A lot of our artists had regional appeal for a while, but the narrative is changing and now they’re in demand internationally,” Asokan said.

Certainly, from a business perspective, things have never looked so good for the Indian modern art market. The pandemic has given an unexpected boost to sales and over the past two years; there have been at least three record sales of modern Indian art, including Amrita Sher-Gil’s 1938 painting In the Ladies’ Enclosure for $5.14 million, the second highest amount ever paid for a modern indian artwork.

“I haven’t seen a market as strong as this since 2006, which lasted for a few years before the financial crisis,” said Dinesh Vazirani, managing director of Indian art auction house Saffronart. He attributed the boom to a host of factors, including lockdowns giving people a greater desire for beautiful objects in their homes and income growth among people in the world of Indian tech and pharmaceuticals, with businessmen and newly created entrepreneurs wanting to invest in art as something “aspirational”.

Graffiti created by Aravani in Bangalore
Graffiti created by Aravani in Bangalore. Photograph: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

“We are seeing a whole new type of collector, young people in their 30s and 40s, entering the Indian market with a whole new mindset,” Vazirani said. “Art now has a social status and there is almost a social pressure to buy art and buy the best. So people who entered the market at $100,000 are now ready to move up to half a million. At each auction, we have seen records broken, one after another.

However, market changes do not only concern the sphere of Indian modern and contemporary art. For the first time, this year’s art fair showcases rare Indian folk art, some dating back 100 years, illustrating changing perceptions towards older indigenous art in the Indian market, which has always focused on modern and contemporary. Among the works on display are a series of bronze mukhalingam sculptures, a representation of the Hindu god Shiva, which have never been seen in public before.

“Our folk culture has been much more popular overseas over the past four decades than in India’s domestic market,” said Amit Jain, who organized the folk art stalls at this year’s fair. “I’m used to this art and these artists being seen as peripheries, so it’s amazing to see all of India’s history brought into this contemporary space. It is high time that museums in India looked at art in a lateral way and not compartmentalized between modern and folk.

Members of the Aravani collective work on graffiti illustrating the history of coronavirus in Bangalore
Members of the Aravani collective work on graffiti illustrating the history of the coronavirus in Bangalore. Photograph: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

The fair will also tackle the darker side of the Indian art market, especially when it comes to antiques. Collectors and onlookers have been invited on a tour of a museum of confiscated antiquities at Purana Quila, a former fort in Delhi, where the exhibits will be those recently returned to India after being stolen and sold to wealthy collectors or on display in the world. renowned galleries. The museum features items recovered from high profile looters currently in prison, but also from institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“India is one of the biggest victims of illicit trafficking in antiquities, it’s as big a black market as drugs and ammunition and we still have a lot of looting,” said Anica Mann, the curator of the program of young collectors at the fair who organized and will lead the tour. “Antiques are a very important cog in the whole list of South Asian art, so it’s time we talked about ethical collecting.”

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