In an art gallery in Berlin, Ashwin Thadani stands mesmerised as he gazes at artist Anslem Reyle’s abstract contemporary paintings. Then, he has his Eureka moment: why not exhibit Reyle’s works in Mumbai, at Galerie Isa, which he owns.
Reyle jumps at the opportunity and becomes the first international artist to exhibit his works at the Mumbai-based gallery. That was 2011. Maybe it opened the floodgates. Word spread. Today 18 months down the line, there is a clear trend emerging, of art galleries catering almost exclusively to international artists.
Gallery owners in the city in fact are confident that in the next five years, the city could well see a global art explosion. As of now though, some galleries find the procedure to bring down an artist and his works too tedious an effort, while others believe this is just the beginning.
Thadani calls it a back-breaking experience, but one that leaves him satisfied. “Yes, it involves a fair share of work, but the response has been very good. The market is not big, but this investment has a long gestation period,” says Thadani, who has around five to 10 serious collectors of international art. “I took a chance and started Galerie Isa as a venue which would exhibit works of only international artists,” says Thadani, who hosts three solo and one group exhibition every year.
An art collector himself, Thadani took to collecting contemporary artworks five years ago. “I would plan my trips around international exhibitions and art fairs in Switzerland, London and Berlin. That’s when I realised that it would be great if the artists were given a platform in India,” he explains, admitting it is a huge responsibility, which involves research, studying artist biographies, and following their careers closely.
“Before zeroing in on an artist I want to invite, I understand the work of the artist over a personal meeting at the gallery that represents him/her or by walking into their studios. I find out which galleries and museums they have exhibited in. I also look out for upcoming and promising artists,” says Thadani.
Once the selection is done, the gallery procures a visa for the artist, and follows the stipulated procedure of shipping the works. “We host a formal opening where the artist gets to interact with collectors and viewers,” says Thadani.
While galleries such as Gallery 7 started hosting international artists, even way back in the ’90s, foreign artists are now viewing India as an active art space to showcase their works.
Chandra Sachdev, partner at Gallery 7 in Kala Ghoda, which has hosted artists such as Canadian Jerzy Kolaxz and Frenchwoman Anna Stein, says, “The market is not wide, but this investment has a long gestation period.”
German contemporary artist Michael Kunze, who exhibited his works at Gallerie Isa between December 2012 and February this year, was overwhelmed by the response. “It was my first time in India and it was a completely different atmosphere here than anywhere in Europe.
It is crucial for an artist to reach out to more people and that can happen only when they are exhibited on a global platform,” says Kunze, who was thrilled to meet the collectors.
Meanwhile, New York-based artist Mindy Shaparo, who is part of a group show in July at Gallerie Isa, chose to exhibit her works in Mumbai, a city she has never visited but was always fascinated by the Indian culture. “I want to see how my work is viewed here. I want to be part of a broader dialogue and that includes places beyond the Western Hemisphere. Reaching out to a wider audience will help me understand myself better as an artist,” she adds.
The artists or the galleries that represent them stipulate the price. While Reyle’s works were priced between 40,000 to 80,000 Euros, New York-based Louis Despont’s works ranged between USD 4,000 and 25,000.
There are other galleries too which are now promoting international artists. For instance, Volte, a two-year-old gallery, primarily represents international artists. “Our first show was of South African multi-media artist William Kentridge,” says owner Tushar Jiwarajka. According to him, earlier, foreign artists did not find a market here and galleries weren’t encouraging enough. “But, that is changing now,” he adds.
Interestingly, the eight multi-channel works by Kentridge were based on socialism, communism and bureaucracy. “It is obvious that the exhibition found a greater resonance here than most West European nations, which may not have faced some of the issues highlighted in their daily lives,” concludes Jiwarajka.
Art knows no boundaries
Multi-media artist Jitish Kallat, who exhibits his works internationally, welcomes this exchange. “In India, we have an active art community. Art is a conversation and artists want to extend it globally to gain greater exposure,” says Kallat. Even if the country’s art scenario is not brimming with art collectors who want to invest in international works, India is a big stage, he adds. “It is important to be able to share and show your work to a varied audience. The shape of one’s work shifts as it travels borders. My work receives a different dimension and meaning when I exhibit my works in three diverse countries. It is received differently by every audience, and that deepens the artwork,” says Kallat.
Artist Sudarshan Shetty, who also exhibits his works abroad, agrees with Kallat. He adds that there is a need for viewership. “When you exhibit abroad, it opens your work to a different perspective — something you won’t grasp by showing it to your friends and peers. An artist must step out of his/her locality, and show the work in another culture.
The question is how does the new audience perceive it, what does your work bring to them? Sometimes, even the physical space of the exhibition dictates the work,” says Shetty, who believes that the same piece of art takes a different form in every other space. “The preempting of the space and an audience becomes a part of my work. Very often the first question I ask before working on a project that will be displayed in an international space, is the size of the door,” he says in a serious voice. “My work has to pass through it right,” he says, breaking into a jolly laugh.
Not so easy
However, many galleries are wary of bringing international artists over, because of the complicated procedures of import duty and customs. However, a gallery owner says, on condition of anonymity, “While a collector will pay a 12.5 per cent of VAT, he will shell out 17 per cent import duty. That is the only difference.”
According to Vikram Sethi, chairman of Institute of Contemporary Indian Art (ICIA), “It is not easy for an artist to bring his or her works to India. There are a lot of nitty gritties to be sorted out such as custom duty on the sale of the piece. Of course, when consulates host artists, the process is relatively smooth as they take care of the entire procedure.
There have been instances when artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have wanted to come to India, which is a bigger market, but they don’t always find buyers, which keeps them away. Also, we do not have a gallery to gallery exchange of artists, which would help in increasing the momentum. In spite of this, we cannot deny that there is a wide audience for international artists here,” says Sethi.