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  • Aug 05, 2011

Hullabaloo in the Indian Art World

The International Question on the Question of Palestine, Geneva, 1983. Emblem by

Judging by their rather long and unending successful run with shows in almost all parts of the world, it is difficult to imagine pained Indian artists impaled on the horns of ethical or moral dilemmas when looking at their art’s colorful, large-scale, die-cast exuberance. Recently, however, 24 artists, invited to feature in an India-centric exhibition “Deconstruction India” planned for April 2012 at the new Amir Wing of the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel, are experiencing a rite of passage.

It began with the Bangalore-based veteran artist Pushpamala N. recently appealing to fellow invitees to boycott the Tel Aviv show—to support the cause of The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PCACBI) launched in 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals, and led internationally by noted British novelist and art writer John Berger. The Indian chapter of the PCACBI was started in 2010 by the artist and archivist Vivan Sundaram, and Pushpamala.

In an email she sent to her fellow artists on July 26, Pushpamala rationalized her call for boycott, saying, “The newly built Amir Wing of the Tel Aviv Museum, designed by American architect Preston Scott Cohen, is planned to be a showpiece for the discredited Israeli Government, to increase its status and prestige internationally at a time when the country’s image is at its lowest ebb.” She concluded, “If we exhibit in this show, we will be legitimising the racist and apartheid policies of the Israeli Government.”

In an email exchange with ArtAsiaPacific, the curators of the show, Miami-based Tami Katz-Freiman and Rotem Ruff, insist that though they had “met with most of the artists for a studio visit, with others—we contacted their galleries or collectors to check for work availability—[…] we couldn't finalize a checklist [of artists participating in the show] until fundraising efforts … conclude in September. We planned to contact the artists we didn't visit once we were certain about the funding and got a final green light from the museum.”

Already informed by Pushpamala of her withdrawal and her subsequent appeal to the other featured artists in the exhibition, the curators responded in an email to all of the artists in their original, yet tentative, undisclosed list that had been made public by Pushpamala. In it, they explained the show:

This upcoming project at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art reflects a profound interest in the political and critical function of art across societies. It will be the first major exhibition of contemporary Indian art in Israel and will provide the Israeli public a unique opportunity to observe this dynamic and fascinating art scene, which, in many respects, deals with similar issues and concerns as the Israeli art scene. […]

 The curators ended with a fervent appeal to the potential participant artists, especially the boycotters:

We […] hope you can differentiate our efforts amidst opposing forces and a bitter struggle in Israel. There is a wide chasm between those who oppress and those who attempt to stand guard. Help us create the possibility of an outstanding exhibition and a critical discourse.

Later, in an email exchange, the curators informed ArtAsiaPacific:

Out of the 24 artists participating…only five signed on the boycott press statement. One of the artists recently changed her mind and she will participate in the show. […] Most of the other artists do believe, as we do, in critical discourse and in an intellectual dialogue, making a distinction between the State and its art institutions, and in this spirit we responded to the artists.

Their claims seem to be borne by the response of the majority of the participants. Among them, the New Delhi–based artist Atul Bhalla, who writes, “I showed in China last year despite [its] stand on Tibet, Arunachal and Kashmir [Indian states China regards as disputed]! And I want artists from all over the world to come to India despite…” and here Bhalla lists the names of Indian states where the Indian government is often pulled up for its own violations of human rights, including the northern state of Kashmir, and instances where the state looked away while such transgressions occurred, as in the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984—the guilty still roam free.

Art writer and critic, Girish Shahane echoes Bhalla, as he says in exasperation, “If we start boycotting museum shows because of bad things governments are doing, where will it end?” A New Delhi-based artist, Ashok Sukumaran, one of the boycotters, points to the successful embargo of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi over labor conditions on the island of Saadiyat, but adds as a caveat, “Boycotts can have an effect, where artists have some leverage.” Referring to his own experience of working in East Jerusalem and the brutality of the Israeli occupation he witnessed there, he says, “Saying ‘no’ to becoming a particular type of tourist-artist, in the midst of many festering wounds, is, I think, a valid aesthetic choice,” adding, “At this point, it is as interesting to not have an India exhibition in xyz, as it is to have one.”

The debate is not so much political as it is the political versus apolitical or even amoral: Israel’s wrongs are equated, by the participants, with a host of similar offences by other nations. One of the leaders of the campaign to culturally boycott Israel, Vivan Sundaram, trashes this logic in a note to the Indian national broadsheet, The Hindu:

Each one of us will respond to a greater or lesser degree to a historical moment, a place, a movement, to express our solidarity. But one does not have to recount at every point all the ills that beset the world’s nation-states and thus cancel every political call on that basis.

Sundaram adds, “I further believe that a political position of any complexity allows an artist to use imaginative and intellectual resources in their mode of political intervention,” listing among a host of them, “protests and boycotts.”

Considering the boycott campaign made only a slight dent in “Deconstruction India,” Sundaram might have been talking to the wall. Yet for all the bored and the indifferent—that is, the majority of the list of the featured artists—this present ongoing frenzy of email exchanges with a temperate tone of discussion and allowance for individual choices is a sign of an art scene alive to the world around it, canny about guarding a more complex set of self-interests than their subscription to a monochromatic ideology will allow.

A note from the curators Tami Katz-Freiman and Rotem Ruff emailed toArtAsiaPacific:

The original list [tentative list] of the featured artists:

Ravi Agarwal, Atul Bhalla, Hemali Buhta, Anita Dube, Sakshi Gupta,Shilpa Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Ranbir Kaleka, Rashmi Kaleka, Jitish Kallat, Amar Kanwar, Bharti Kehr, Riyas Komu, Pushpamala N., Raqs Media Collective, TV Santhosh, Gigi Scaria, Shanthamani Muddaiah, Sudarshan Shetty, LN Tallur, Hema Upadhyay and Lochan Upadhyay.

Out of them—Amar Kanwar, Anita Dube and Pushpamala are the only boycotters.

As for other artists—we approached Nalini Malani in an earlier stage and she declined our invitation at that time. 

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