NEW DELHI – As you enter the maze, painted panels with portraits of suffering refugees line your path. The sound of crashing waves fills your ears. Light flickers.
This is “The Flow,” an art installation by New Delhi-based artist Subba Ghosh, a work inspired by the world’s ongoing refugee crisis, and the millions of people driven from their homes by conflict and poverty.
Human displacement, the suffering of refugees and the notion of identity dominated the 2018 India Art Fair, an important platform for contemporary artists that provides a carefully curated glimpse into the South Asian art scene through the years.
The themes are universal, the artistic expressions deeply personal.
Paintings, experimental photographs, abstract expressionist art and mixed-media projects pushed the boundaries of form, filling a sprawling fair grounds in the heart of the Indian capital. Seventy-eight galleries from 18 countries participated in this year’s fair, which ended Monday.
The young Indian artist Sudipta Das hung 200 paper sculptures of migrants from the ceiling, suspended in the air to symbolize their physical and emotional situation. The work, “Soaring to nowhere,” took more than two months to finish.
A fourth generation Bangladeshi migrant, Das said her work not only visualizes the notion of belonging and identity for the dispossessed, but also captures the pain of their everyday lives.
“Within that pain also they are living their life,” she said.
For the critically acclaimed Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi, looking inward is as important as looking outward.
Known for hard-hitting work that draws on feminist issues and gender rights, Lipi uses stainless steel razor blades to create objects: a metallic mask, handcuffs, a clutch.
“Some part of my work is making objects and doing sculptures. Those are very much intimate with my own life,” she said. “When I work with the community, then gender is a big issue in my work.”
The fair is deeply important to younger artists looking to make their names, but it’s the modern art masters who remain the bestsellers and account for most global sales of Indian art. Works by masters like F.N. Souza, Ram Kumar and M.F. Hussain remain much sought-after by art lovers, said gallery owner Nakul Chawla.
Many of that generation of artists have died or are no longer painting. “To get a hand on extremely priceless works is getting very hard,” Chawla said.
According to the market analysis firm ArtTactic, the South Asian market grew by 13 per cent in 2017, with sales estimated at $223 million.
Female artists are increasingly fueling that growth.
The India Art Fair celebrated the enigmatic Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil, one of India’s best-known modern artists, who died in 1941 at age 28, with a rare collection of photos of her taken by her father. Often called India’s Frida Kahlo, Sher-Gil’s work is among the most expensive by Indian female painters, and is a favourite with collectors.
Art experts say that while men still dominate the top end of the Indian art market, women are beginning to sell at comparable prices.
Among those women is Bharti Kher, who is known for using bindis, the decorative forehead dots worn by Indian women, in many of her works. One of her pieces sold at auction last year for more than $150,000, the most expensive Indian contemporary artwork sold in 2017.
Feroze Gujral, a New Delhi-based art patron and collector, said there was growing critical appreciation for female artists.
“It’s really about output and work,” she said.
While there are still fewer big-name female artists, they increasingly dominate the larger art world: heading art collectives and museums, managing artists and galleries, collecting, curating, representing auction houses.
“They are everywhere,” said Das, the young Indian artist.