Art Sans Borders
Art connoisseurs and collectors will be in for a surprise if they look beyond their fences
The inaugural edition of The Kathmandu Triennale (KT 2017) opened on 24 March to critical acclaim. Curated by Philippe Van Cauteren, it had Francis Alÿs, the Belgian-born-Mexico-based artist as its Patron. The exhibition My-City-My-Studio / My-City-My-Life hosted more than 50 artists from about 25 countries. Art is not new to the capital of the Himalayan kingdom. The KT 2017 builds on the successes of past editions of the Kathmandu International Art Festival in 2009 and 2012. The Indian curator Veerangana Kumari Solanki Jamwal was responsible for the international colloquium. Most Indian art collectors did not make it to KT 2017 but those that were there vouchsafed for the quality of the art works and praised the sheer variety and versatility that was on show. Including, from local Nepali painters and that too not painting the traditional tankhas.
Art from our near neighbours has always lived in the shadow of Big Brother India. With so much to choose from within our own country, there has been very little reason or initiative or enthusiasm for Indians to look outside, even though the distance to destinations was not far. Which is why, some of South Asia’s most prominent artists have found their way to India as it remains the most attractive and lucrative market in this geography. So, if collectors will not come looking for them in their home markets, the neighbouring artists are here to seek them out.
Vinita Karim, one of Bangladesh’s best known painters, was prominently on display at the recent India Art Fair in New Delhi in February 2017. Born in Burma, and educated all over the globe including Sweden and Philippines, Karim calls herself a cultural nomad. Her art comes alive in her abstract landscapes which though devoid of humans, look as if they are inhabited by millions of people. Karim’s large works found willing and ready buyers at the Art Fair. Her gilt-leafed canvases are set around lands lived and imagined, in histories and geographies of her choosing, places rich with meaning and life despite the physical absence of human figures. Hers are narratives built around life-lines of waters, in cities with significant sea histories. Painted layer by layer, with lines that are repositories of those memories, her works combine the blazing sun in Egypt with the waterways in the Philippines, the banks of Tripoli with the lakes of Switzerland. Karim’s signature half-moon crescent is the defining feature of each of her art works. Her prices are competitive, though not exactly cheap. We had lunch with Karim at the India Art Fair. She said that works of Monirul Islam, Rafiqun Nabi and Tayeba Lipi Begum were her personal favourites from Bangladesh. None of them though are well known in India.
The India Art Fair this year also had a lot of works of the Sri Lankan master Senaka Senanayake. His works have been selling like hot cakes in India for the past decade, if not more. Grandnephew of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake, this art prodigy, and Yale alumnus, has been holding international solo shows since he was 10 years of age. In a world full of gloom and despair, Senanayake’s works capture the colours, the moods and the beauty of the rain forests… flowers, foliage, birds, butterflies, insects, even fish… painted in colours that are real and amazingly captivating. The warm rays of the sun lend a luminous glow to his curling banana leaves on one canvas; on another, butterflies, painted in a coruscating kaleidoscope of colours, are perched on vibrant flowers. The cicadas, torch ginger, hummingbirds, ferns and frogs in Senanayake’s works are all just mesmerising. But it is really the translucent circles, smooth-faint orbs glazed over the verdant scenes that define Senanayake’s symbolisation of the eternal Buddhist cycle of life and death. We met the genius Senanayake five years ago in his Cinnamon Gardens bungalow in Colombo. He had just come back from a blockbuster show in Mumbai where his prices had zoomed past Rs 1 lakh per square foot in a market that was in doldrums. His show at Tao Art Gallery had sold out in a matter of hours on the first day itself. At the Art Fair, we met collectors Alok and Dipalee Goyal who had just picked up a 30”x 36” Senanayake masterpiece. “His work is pure magic; pure joy. When I see the painting, I just feel elevated. Senanayake’s colours bring alive a drab and dreary day,” said an ecstatic Alok.
The walls of the home of Manpreet and Naseem Vohra are graced by masterpieces from Lahore and Karachi. There are works of Sadequain and Ismail Gulgee. There are three works each of Mansoor Aye, Ahmad Zoay and Iqbal Hussain. One work each of Ghulam Rasul and Jamil Naqsh too. Manpreet Vohra is the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. He was posted to Islamabad before moving as Ambassador to Peru, and then to Kabul. He acquired the best of Pakistani art during his diplomatic tenure in that country. “Zoay is a notoriously eccentric old man. I went to his studio in Lahore and found that I couldn’t afford the painting I liked. But I used his madness and my charm over a marathon eight hours, helped along by a stock of cigarettes, beverages and life stories, to bring him down to what I could afford! Delightful memories!! Great art,” reminisces Vohra.
Dubai-based collector Maheshinder Bahadur who picked up works of Pakistani painter Mashkoor Raza from the recently concluded Art Dubai is equally lyrical in his praise, “Art from across the border is very similar to ours. The strokes, the colours, the language are all very similar. Mashkoor’s works are very muscular and macho. His horses have a fractious streak to them.”
Kelly Dorji is back from Bollywood and now has a picturesque studio, the Terton Gallery, in the heart of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Traditional art in this Happy Kingdom has been mostly Buddhist inspired tankhas. Dorji brings in a whiff of modernity interpreting the same themes in a style that is far more contemporary. We were with him last summer. Dorji uses a local leaf-like substance with liberal dollops of gold foil to create a painting with the Buddha tormented by a black raven. The painting is nothing extraordinary but Dorji is symbolic of Bhutan headed to newer horizons in art. Dorji is very reasonably priced. Taking home one of his paintings is any day better than picking up a local antique mask or Druk souvenir.
Karim markets herself aggressively in India, working with leading galleries like Art & Soul and Art Alive. She is in Delhi and Mumbai almost every month. While she is silent on the subject, India is her largest, and most lucrative, market by far. Senanayake too is a collector’s favourite in India. He sells extremely well. In a flat art market, his rates have increased by 200-300 per cent in the last 10 years. His works are available with few Indian galleries and there is little scope for negotiation. However, Senanayake is not entirely dependent on Indian patrons. Killi Rajamahendran in Colombo and Ralph Marshall in Kuala Lumpur, both of Sri-Lankan origin, have tens of his works. In Colombo, owning a Senanayake is akin to owning a Raza in India. Unfortunately, political tensions overshadow an Indian art relationship with Pakistan. What a pity! Some of Sadequain’s and Gulgee’s works would look really nice in Indian homes.
Carol is pursuing her Masters at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.Tanya Goyal is Chairperson of The Kailasham Trust.
Disclaimer: The works of many of the artists in this article are part of the collection of The Kailasham Trust
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.