Conversations

CURATORS LOUNGE: Artist turned curator, JITISH KALLAT engages with POLITICS OF ART on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Jitish Kallat_3

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a large-scale contemporary arts exhibition that will take place in Kochi, India and is set to open on 12/12/14. Founded by artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari, the Kochi-Muziris Foundation that owns the Biennial is funded by the Government of Kerala. A host of contentious issues has plagued the endeavor from its inception, which makes its survival to a second edition all the more relevant for discussion. POLITICS OF ART approached artist-turned-curator JITISH KALLAT on his experience of curating his first major exhibition for the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial with regard to the social, historical and political context as well as the contentions that exist in the framing a biennale of national import in a pluralistic and diverse country.

POLITICS OF ART: How does the position of curator, Kochi-Muziris Biennale dovetail with your own artistic practice? …Conflicts? …Confluences?

JITISH KALLAT: As disciplines go, curating art and making art could be seen as differentiated versions of the same intention. At a fundamental level, isn’t it all an attempt to understand reality? One can do this either through the work one makes as an artist or through dialogue with several artists when one curates. In the studio you set afloat questions in solitude and converse with your inner voice, as a curator you conduct the inquiries through an expanded format, along with fellow practitioners, and thereby co-creating the project in dialogue. It just feels as though I have briefly shifted my toolbox and the ambience in which I function.

POLITICS OF ART: What sets you apart as an artist within the Indian context (with, it should be mentioned, an impressive international resume) is the intellect-driven nature of your art. One could say that socio-political subjects drive your concepts, which in turn, drives practice. Does your curatorial note follow the same logical structures? What are/were your points of departure?

JITISH KALLAT: Two chronologically overlapping, but perhaps directly unrelated historical episodes in Kerala became my points of departure. The 14th to 17th Centuries was a time when the Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics was making some transformative propositions for locating human existence within the wider cosmos. It was also the moment when the shores of Kochi were closely linked to the maritime chapter of the ‘Age of Discovery’. The maps changed rapidly in the 1500s with the arrival of navigators at the Malabar Coast, seeking spices and riches… And within the revised geography were sharp turns in history; heralding an age of conquest, coercive trading and colonialism, animating the early processes of globalization. A reflection of this navigational history, as well as a shift of one’s gaze deliberating on the mysterious expedition of our planet Earth hurtling through space at over a dizzying 100000 kilometers per hour, where none of us experience this velocity or comprehend its direction, were two prompts made in my letter to artists. The seemingly unrelated directions of these suggestions were intentional; one was a gaze directed in time, the other in space. The historical and the inter-galactic are to be viewed metaphorically within the exhibition; an analogy could be drawn to gestures we make, when we try to understand something. We might either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly. We may also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. The exhibition draws upon this act of deliberation to bring together art-works that picture versions of the world referencing history, geography, astronomy, time, myth and interlacing the terrestrial with the celestial.

POLITICS OF ARTIn contemporary art in India, a strong hierarchy runs from north to south, with the south on the receiving end of academic and artistic prejudices. Can you share with us your curatorial approach? Given the patronage of the Government of Kerala, was there a clause, spoken or otherwise, that local/regional interests had to be observed? There is also a feeling that the danger of regionalism is inherent in a location specific event managed by individuals with specific cultural affinities…

JITISH KALLAT: I did not begin with any of these considerations. For a long while I perceived the entire biennale as a bio field of ideas and practices. I began with a core group of artists whose work for me became the nucleus of the project. Thereafter the process of inviting artists has been primarily one of responding to the ever-shifting field wherein every invitation greatly alters this constellation of signs. It is only a little later in the process I began to attend to the role that a biennale plays with an artistic ecosystem and its potential to affect a shift in the local art-scene. These considerations drew me towards the works of some older artists who might have been overlooked within the biennale context with its overemphasis on youth; and equally towards some very young figures for whom this might be the very first opportunity to exhibit in an international context. To me it seems legitimate that the density of artists might be seen in a concentric fashion circling out of Kerala and South India, to the Indian Subcontinent and then the world at large. I feel my list of artists quite naturally reflects this kind of geographic density with regard to proximity of participating artists to the site where the project takes place.

POLITICS OF ART: In the lead-up to the first edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial in 2012, there were rumors that fierce resistance had emanated from local quarters. Were there founded concerns within the resistance, do you think? What, according to you, triggered this off? Have there been similar politics at play with the current edition?

JITISH KALLAT: All protests, resistance and allegations, hurled at the KMB 2012, in retrospect, seem like a passing endurance test. It became evident that much of these emanated from sources with clear vested interests in seeing this biennale fail. Having navigated these allegations with elegance, the biennale today has the widest support base one could expect locally, nationally and internationally.

POLITICS OF ART: Context is everything with a biennial, as you know. Every location poses its own set of challenges. We are thinking, for instance, of the world’s oldest and most popular one – the Venice Biennial. It happens in a place that would seem like the most impossible venue on earth where logistics are concerned. Yet, that exhibition has survived for more than a century. Back to the Kochi-Muziris Biennial: some of the exhibits of the first year appeared to be out of the context of the biennale space. Are this year’s exhibits a specific response to the location or are you also sourcing existing artworks?

JITISH KALLAT: If I have to make an analogy I might say that this edition of the biennale is conceived as an observation deck hoisted in Kochi. This historic site has catalyzed much of the ideas, and hence it is ‘site-responsive’, but I would not use the word ‘site-specific’. Kochi in this instance is the viewing device and not the vista. A large portion of the biennale is new work so as a curatorial project it is also about working with and through the unknown. Chance and contingency are productive working principles within the format of the biennale. It is not about administering a single thematic track but about provoking the unlikely.

POLITICS OF ART: Some of the exhibits of the first year appeared to be out of the context of the biennale space. Are this year’s exhibits a specific response? Or are you also sourcing existing artworks?

JITISH KALLAT: If I have to make an analogy I might say that this edition of the biennale is conceived as an observation deck hoisted in Kochi. This historic site has catalyzed much of the ideas, and hence it is ‘site-responsive’, but I would not use the word ‘site-specific’. Kochi in this instance is the viewing device and not the vista. A large portion of the biennale is new work so as a curatorial project it is also about working with and through the unknown. Chance and contingency are productive working principles within the format of the biennale. It is not about administering a single thematic track but about provoking the unlikely.

POLITICS OF ART: The Indian art world revolves around an established set that is a self-sustaining microcosm of individuals. Our first blog post was a critical view of how art in India operates within organized cliques and preferred circles of influence – amongst a room of “friends,” so to speak. In light of this, how did you make your curatorial selections and what was your process like?

JITISH KALLAT: The process entailed six months of incessant travel and dialogue with artists and scholars in various places around the world. Is this comprehensive and covers all parts of the world geographically and artistically? How could it be? The biennale, like any human endeavor, is a snapshot of a journey in a sea of possibilities.

I began a solitary journey in November 2013 travelling widely and by March 2014 I had invited more than half the participating artists. This was also a moment when a wonderful team began to emerge around me. A group of young energetic colleagues became part of the process and they joined in varied designations. Shyam Patel joined in the capacity of Production Manager and Reha Sodhi joined as Curatorial Assistant. In May, Nandini Thilak, a talented young graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University joined me to work on all the artist texts, and she was soon to be followed by Preema John, who is the exhibition manager to the project. These designations are only indicative. In actuality our curatorial base camp at the Kochi Biennale office is a fertile space where ideas are exchanged, and the biennale incubates in dialogue. And every time I have even a passing epiphany I share it with the team whose collective instinct I deeply value.

POLITICS OF ART: Did you engage with other curators? Is there a curatorial team and how did this team come about?

JITISH KALLAT: I began a solitary journey in November 2013 travelling widely and by March 2014 I had invited more than half the participating artists. This was also a moment when a wonderful team began to emerge around me. A group of young energetic colleagues became part of the process and they joined in varied designations. Shyam Patel joined in the capacity of Production Manager and Reha Sodhi joined as Curatorial Assistant. In May, Nandini Thilak, a talented young graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University joined me to work on all the artist texts, and she was soon to be followed by Preema John, who is the exhibition manager to the project. These designations are only indicative. In actuality our curatorial base camp at the Kochi Biennale office is a fertile space where ideas are exchanged, and the biennale incubates in dialogue. And every time I have even a passing epiphany I share it with the team whose collective instinct I deeply value.

POLITICS OF ART: The “internationalism” of any large-scale exhibition or event in India can be defeated at the outset due to local/national challenges. We see it time and time again. Yet, the biennial has survived the first round in the ring to see the second. With the sizable number of international artists exhibiting at the biennial on your invitation, did you labor to contextualize India within a global framework? It seems rather inevitable that this would happen…

JITISH KALLAT: One can’t really answer such a question. One can ask what does it mean to assign an adjective such as Indian to an art scene? Or, how does an Indian art scene differentiate from that in New Delhi, Nagpur or an Asian art scene? How do London and New York figure in the making of a so-called “Indian” art scene? Does Bagdogra figure in this process? It is all too entangled and the question begins to disintegrate, the more one chisels it.

This interview has been modified from the original post to include all the excerpts of the original questions from the interview. 

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FAKING IT

Recent developments in the Indian art market – the withdrawal of key works by important artists from auctions conducted by leading auction houses – point to the enormous threat being posed to a healthy art market by an unchecked and brazen parallel market for art forgeries, or ‘fakes.’ While auctions may be the most public undressing, fakes can be seen everywhere: in galleries, with art dealers and at well-known collectors’ homes, for example. Images of fakes are carried in reputed art magazines with editorial persons absolving themselves of responsibility vis-a-vis advertisements. Questionable works crop up regularly in publications and auction catalogues, validating the existence of forgeries as legitimate works of art. Well-known galleries and auction houses plead ignorance in instances of discovery. Significant legal recourse is currently not available, thereby placing the onus on individuals for greater transparency and oversight. 

Politics of Art walked in unannounced to a few galleries that deal with works of the Moderns in Colaba, Mumbai. What we uncovered was shocking: fakes of major artists such as M.F. Husain, Manjit Bawa and F.N. Souza, among others, line the walls of these galleries, with art dealers openly touting poor quality fakes as originals. It’s hard to accept that such criminal activity happens openly, and without fear of legal repercussions.

In light of recent events, Politics of Art posed a questionnaire to 5 prominent personalities –a representative of a well-known auction house, an Independent authority on a major Modern artist, a family member of another major Modern artist, a leading gallery owner, and an author of a fictional book on the fake art market. We extracted the most salient points from their commentaries that shed light on the dubious fake market.

What came up is an open secret

  • The fake art market is large enough to ring alarm bells. The stakes have risen sharply in recent years with the expansion and growth (not to mention, soaring prices) of the Indian art market.
  • The artists being faked the most are Modern Indian artists: M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, Manjit Bawa, F.N. Souza. Bengal School artists: Somnath Hore, Jamini Roy, Ramkinker Baij, Bikash Bhattacharyya, Rabindranath Tagore.
  • Several influential players within the Indian Art Market are culpable: from reputed galleries and auction houses, from family members of deceased artists to critics who “authenticate,” the nexus of deceit is widespread and well entrenched.
  • Canny collectors and greedy buyers in cahoots with rogue dealers are part of the web.

Our blog post provides our own case study, comments from reputed names on different aspects of the faking business, links to other related posts. We welcome critical feedback and responses as well as information that would be of use to the art community and for buyers in our comments section.

ART WORLD EXPERTS ON FAKES

QUESTIONS

• How large would you estimate the Indian market for fakes to be? Which are the artists being faked the most? • Would you it be correct to say that galleries, auction houses and buyers are part of the nexus too? Can you cite some incidents of such discoveries and action taken thereafter? • Are there any legal precedents or avenues of re-dressal available at the moment? • On discovery, does it become the artist’s estate/family’s responsibility to take action against the gallery/forgers? • Caveats to buyers?

RESPONSES

1. DADIBA PUNDOLE, PARTNER, PUNDOLE’S AUCTION HOUSE, MUMBAI “The usual suspects are generally independent dealers or consultants who don’t exhibit but rather deal with clients on a one-to-one. However much galleries may despise auction houses, it is in the auction situation that brings to light most fakes. The public visibility invariably provokes a debate on the authenticity of a work and leads to withdrawal.

Even though punishable by law, it is almost impossible to take any action against organized faking. The police are reluctant to register a complaint – this is the first step. They can’t be blamed entirely either as they lack the necessary expertise. As long as buyers keep looking for ‘good deals’, they will always be susceptible to fraud. I would equate your art dealer to your doctor who you trust. And similar to a doctor, he cannot be a specialist in all aspects of art.

It would be appropriate for an artists’ estate, if there is one, to take necessary action. The first step would be to issue a legal notice to the offender and if the painting reappears, take necessary legal action. All the above sounds good in theory but within our current legal system it is impractical for an individual or family to devote the time. A young lawyer who might be interested and has the inclination should be identified along with a sympathetic police officer. Once the process starts it will gradually become a lot easier to take action and could even become a lucrative profession.”

2. INA PURI, DOCUMENTARIAN, CURATOR & AUTHORITY ON MANJIT BAWA, NEW DELHI “More often than not, when auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s approach me to look at works purportedly by Manjit Bawa, if the work is not Bawa’s then it is withdrawn from consideration. In the year 2000, Manjit and I discovered a miniature in the Christie’s New York auctions, which turned out to be a fake. This was later withdrawn when we raised an objection.

We did seek legal advice on copyright laws in 2004-5, but before any course of action could be decided upon, Manjit went into a coma. For artists to catalogue their own work is therefore of crucial importance. Manjit and I had started a book project similar to a catalogue raisonné, but unfortunately this was never realized before his illness took over.

At present the problem (of fakes) is dire, as there are only a few living experts to authenticate works. There are also questionable practices of conservation (which sometimes includes signature restoration) of which buyers should be aware, when appraising the provenance of a “signed” work.”

3. YUSUF MEHTA, SON OF TYEB MEHTA “While there is no legal onus on the artist’s family, we do feel that there is a moral responsibility to bring a fake to the attention of the buyer and seller of the work. The Tyeb Mehta Foundation set up by the family regularly receives at least two to three requests for authentication of Tyeb Mehta’s works. Only a miniscule number of the works sent to us for verification are authentic.

I would presume that there are a large number of works claiming to be his, of which we are not even aware. This would make the number of fake works available for sale today many times more than the value of his authentic works that are available. We are lucky that my father documented most of his work. We have access to high-resolution images that provide us with a means of comparison – in that we do not rely on memory alone.”

4. SHIREEN GANDHY, DIRECTOR, CHEMOULD PRESCOTT ROAD, MUMBAI “Faking happens in the case of living artists too. I was party to such an incident when I bought a work by Anjolie Ela Menon from a regular dealer, someone I trusted and continue to trust. Neither he nor I were aware that Anjolie Ela Menon, an artist in her prime, was being faked. Apparently her ex-assistant was involved. The dealer friend brought it to me, and in turn, I sold it to a client looking for a work by the artist. After the client got the work, she took it to Menon to show her the new acquisition, unsuspecting of any fraud.

It was fortunate this happened. Anjolie found the work to be a fake and immediately contacted the police and registered a complaint against her assistant (whom she suspected of carrying out the deed). The dealer and I returned the money to the client and gave our complete compliance in assisting Menon with the case. The action worked because it put an immediate stop to that assistant indulging in any further activities.”

5. AMRITA CHOWDHURY, COUNTRY HEAD & PUBLISHER, HARLEQUIN INDIA & AUTHOR OF ART CRIME THRILLER FAKING IT “Borrowing from the world of business, Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna defines institutional voids as gaps in an emerging marketplace, which lead to opportunities for business (or exploitation, as the case may be). Despite the rapid growth in demand for Indian Art over the past two decades, with accompanying hoopla over acquisitions and pricing indices, it remains an imperfect marketplace.

The infrastructure needed to support the art industry, such as valuation expertise, paper trails, critical appraisals and writing, restoration expertise, still need development. Provenance papers are largely missing in India. Many originals were in collections of old estates, where such records were never created or maintained. It is but natural that the first movers to exploit the opportunity were the forgers.

When buying a trophy piece, buyers should not take for granted the reputation of the gallerist, owner or auction house. They should do their own research about the artist and the piece, request for papers where available, get the feedback from independent experts, speak to the family of the artist where possible, and generally avoid rash, impulsive decisions. Even if a piece is being sold at an auction- whether live or online, the works will be available for preview. Buyers could always take an independent expert for a casual preview. At least, the first cut visual appraisal should be done.”

POLITICS OF ART CASE STUDY

A few years ago, we were working to sell a painting by M.F.Husain that had come to us from another dealer, who was apparently connected to the seller in New Delhi. The image of the work and two pieces of supporting documentation were provided, and upon inspection, other than some minor condition issues, the work appeared to be genuine. It was a good size, and appeared to be of solid provenance. Allegedly, the current seller had bought the work directly from Husain in 2002, the year he painted it, and had had it authenticated by the artist in 2004. So it was signed on the front top left hand and also on the verso with the date. The work bore Husain’s signature strong lines and impasto brushwork in the white areas.

Red flag However, there were a few red flags, which compelled us to investigate further. Firstly, the price was too good to be true. The asking price was 60 lakhs (about US$130,000 at the then exchange rate), which for a work by M.F.Husain of this quality and provenance – it had also been published in the book Husain 88 – was a steal. Secondly, the sellers were putting an enormous amount of pressure for a quick sale. In most cases of authenticity of premium quality works, there’s no such thing as a steal. These works almost always come at a premium. Clearly, the unscrupulous sellers were looking to flog the work as quickly as possible. Thirdly, the work when it was shown to us was unrolled and spread across the floor. Would you stick a painting worth US$130,000 in a roll, courier it to another city and allow it to be handled so casually? Something didn’t fit.

Too good to be true We made an appointment with a leading expert on M.F.Husain’s work and took the work to him. What we uncovered was unbelievable. The same painting published in Husain 88 had been auctioned by a major auction house a few years after the date of the alleged purchase by the buyer, setting up the first major contradiction in provenance. So, could there have been a copy made by the artist? According to the expert, “no”! While he admitted that the copy displayed a certain virtuosity of paint handling that resembled the artist’s strokes, there were further contradictions in the materials and techniques used that pointed towards a potential forgery. Why would the artist so painstakingly copy himself? Remember, a faker never employs a structure to build a painting. It is only the surface that they replicate.

We walked away from the deal, but the whereabouts of this painting are unknown. We had the advantage of having access to a living expert, but in the instance of no living experts or family members, what is to become of the parallel fake market if it is already so brazen?

Footnotes: 1. Since this case, like most cases, was never reported we have decided to keep all parties anonymous. 2. Politics of Art editors Sharmistha Ray (an Independent art consultant when the incident occurred in 2010) and Anupa Mehta worked on this deal together. 3. The documentation included 1) Husain’s authentication for the artwork signed by him, and 2) Authentication from Husain’s son, Shamshad Husain. There is reasonable doubt that both documents are forged.

THE FAKE The fake M.F.Husain detailed in Politics of Art case study

Fake Document -1 fake document 2

Fake Document -2 Fake document 1

SPEAKING OUT : THE STILL SMALL VOICE

 

Anil Dharker, Madhusree Dutta and Mallika Sarabhai speak out  (more…)

Are the politics of exclusion restricting the growth of Contemporary Indian Art?  

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Anupa Mehta and Sharmistha Ray engage in a no-holds-barred conversation about
contemporary Indian art, the market and the merits of inclusion. 
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