We spent the past week visiting the fifth edition of the Delhi Contemporary Art Week at the Bikaner House in the national capital. This event is collectively organised by seven women-owned art galleries that focus on and showcase contemporary South Asian art across media. The show was divided between a curated group show and individual gallery displays. Art critic and writer Meera Menezes curated a show featuring artists from the seven galleries (Exhibit 320, Blueprint 12, Gallery Espace, Vadehra Gallery, Latitude 28, Nature Morte, Shrine Empire) in the old building titled Legal Alien. This was accompanied by each gallery's display across the newer space. Throughout the week, there were also various events ranging from opening previews, a music night, and workshops to multiple walkthroughs by notable curators and organisations targeted at different audiences.
The ‘contemporary’ tends not to be defined by certain formal characteristics or a common visual language but rather reflects a specific and ongoing moment in time. This temporality associated with this classification makes it vast, open to interpretation and highly versatile. This diversity and versatility are represented at this year's exhibition. The discourse around the dynamic and ever-growing meaning of the ‘contemporary’ was explored not only through the displays of the exhibit but also through walkthroughs, panel discussions and symposiums that accompany the event. The walk-through series ranged from Meera Menezes, Shaleen Wadhwa, Arjun Sawney and Iram Sultan to groups like Carpe Arte and India Art Fair. Each walk-through leader brought a new perspective to the displayed work, focusing not only on thematic concerns but also materiality and individual perception.
The Old Building at the Bikaner House is currently home to Legal Alien, an exhibition curated by writer, critic and curator Meera Menezes. The exhibition features work from across the seven galleries and the multiple artists they represent, spanning a range of media and scales. The thematic thread tying the exhibition together is a shared feeling of alienation. Multiple factors contributed to the development of this theme, the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, political circumstances where citizenship has come into question, refugee crises and climate crises. In the context of these events, Meera ties the thematic strands of alienation, isolation, and desolation across personal, political, national and environmental facets. The exhibition's title borrowed from a song called 'Englishman in New York'. Menezes recalls listening to the song, which follows the trajectory of a homesick Englishman living in New York, and says that the term ‘Legal Alien’ immediately stuck with her. I had the opportunity of interacting with Meera, listening to her talk about the conceptualisation of the theme of the exhibition, and she shared Find a glimpse of the exhibition here.
The unique quality of this year’s displays is the extensive diversity of material and medium. Each gallery brings something unique to the event, with artists from the subcontinent exploring beyond imagination and limits. Each artist also addresses the medium from a unique perspective, and the displays have something to offer for every kind of viewer, be it experienced artists, collectors, art enthusiasts, amateurs and also children. It is not unknown that a primary barrier to public engagement with contemporary art within India remains a lack of accessibility and explanation for works that are often highly conceptual. However, the network of gallerists and gallery representatives remains crucial at this edition of the art week because they are present at all times to explain, discuss and share. The representatives appear approachable and willing to discuss the artist's process and practice, which is a crucial step in making contemporary art more accessible.
Whilst encapsulating the extent of the creative output is impossible in a singular visit or text, here is our round-up of some pieces we think you must not miss at the show this year! This list does not include works from Legal Alien because of the sheer volume of engaging displays brought together by the galleries, but we will share a post highlighting a few pieces from that on our social media page.
Sumakshi Singh's most recent embroidered series is inspired by her grandparents' home in Delhi. This diptych features an intricately woven structure of a brick wall, a juxtaposition between the typical heaviness and weight of the brick with the fragility of the thread forming an interesting point of consideration. Singh suggests, that this home which was built by her grandparents shortly after the Partition, when they moved to Delhi from Pakistan, is the only place she has truly felt at home. Coming from an army background, she moved around extensively as a child and this was her only permanent address. When her grandparents passed away she decided to document parts of this house, yet chose to embroider the structures. The weaving is reminiscent of an image she has of her grandmother sitting in the sun with her embroidery. The fragility of the medium, gives the piece a sense of softness but also mirrors the fragile nature of personal memory.
Kumaresan Selvaraj's eye-catching, colourful and magnificent circular paper sculptures are most definitely the highlight of the this years' display. Whilst most visitors see it as the most photographable or instagrammable display, it is the use of paper as a material to represent and depict the subconscious mind, that attracts us to this work. Selvaraj is a Chennai based artists who grew up in the vicinity of a paper factory, and hence his use of the material is guided by his surroundings. Even today, he often uses recycled paper by visiting factories and collecting scraps and subsequently compressing them into tight coils inside a wooden frame. If you look at his works long enough, they seem to be in motion, almost spilling out.
Origami artist Aditi Anuj considers the notions of collective existence and change. With kinetic technology she produces a work that is multifaceted and uniquely viewed by every individual. Anuj's paper-based sculptural installation she suggests, is 'best viewed from its two ends, the light blues on the left, which is the calm surface of the ocean and the intense blues on the right for the depth'. Through this peice, she highlights how a singular drop which is often 'considered incompetent, insignificant, inconsequential - is oblivious that it's the essence of the ocean'. The mechanics behind the installation serve as a visual delight for all visitors. Anuj also held an origami workshop for children to accompany this exhibit and notably made the exhibition and art more accessible to a wider audience as a result.
Sunil Gupta's iconic series of photographs from the 1970s probably remain some of his most well-known in a career trajectory that has spanned over four decades. The photographic prints were installed on the fourth day of the exhibition, and we were overjoyed to see them on display. Gupta's black and white portraits of queer folk in New York on Christopher Street at the height of gay liberation remain dually representative of a lost era of queer liberation at the same time; however, they hold a sense of playful familiarity for any viewer. This is perhaps because he was not capturing people as an outsider or on-looker; rather, in his own words, he was photographing his people, his 'tribe'. Whether it is their daring fashion choices or their confident gazes, these portraits seem to comment on a promise of freedom, liberation, desire and joy.
Nidhi Agarwal's paintings are inspired by abstract expressionism. Whilst the thematic concerns are often born out of serious reflections upon life, emotionality and experiences, her use bright colours, and occasional figurative elements provide a sense of comic relief, resulting in a balance between existential considerations and also humour. She uses elements such as eyes, unusual creatures, and aggressive colours to mock linear narratives of emotion and experience.
In this work, Gopa Trivedi comments on the commodification of saffron as one of the most sought-after spices throughout history. Through this, as with her other works, she addresses social anxieties by creating 'subversive idioms using seemingly insignificant spaces of objects'. She is inspired by the Indian Miniaturist tradition, which is reflected in this piece, with each strand of saffron making a distinct statement.
You must stand across this painting for some time before the colours and shapes reveal themselves. A view from the inside, a well-used couch, a window sill, and steel rails. The shadows and light are soft and reflect a specific time in the day. They make me introspect, pause and consider my response to the moment I have seen. They help me evoke a mood that lies between nostalgia and peace, but perhaps a sense of loss, past grief. Divya Singh's work explores the notion of an exile, particularly an exile from childhood. She reflects on past memories and uses her practice to consider temporality and healing.
This delicate graphite drawing is part of Purvai Rai's Confluence series. The series was created and conceptualised during the peak years of the COVID-19 pandemic and is a response to social and political crises during the period. Her abstract visual language in this piece represents the 'precariousness of existences on the margins'. This work has been displayed in the 'Drawing Room' space in the display building, along with another work from the same series.
A few other glimpses from our time at DCAW 2022.
The Delhi Contemporary Art Week is on view until the 7th of September at Bikaner House. Browse through their Instagram page to keep up to date with the events and activities being hosted as part of the week, and drop by if you are in Delhi.