Life | Fair Play

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Fair Play
Text by Nasrin Modak
Published: Volume 20, Issue 11, November, 2012

Dispensing with the middlemen – the art galleries – the United Art Fair, that concluded recently in the capital, has sparked a new trend of promoting emerging artists

At the entrance of the United Art Fair stood a colossal 22-feet-tall piece by KS Radhakrishnan titled Time, Tide and Growth. Subodh Kerkar’s Bread Route, a fibreglass installation outlining colonialism along the Goan shores, stood nearby. Inside the hall were rows of artworks. In one of the aisles was a portrait of a sanitary napkin rooted in red ink, with the musings of a young girl rejoicing in her newfound sexuality. Another painting showed a pair of man’s eyes piercing through a woman’s clothing to satiate lustful desires suggesting the lewd approach of Indian men. Whether anyone buys these paintings for their homes and office is debatable, but you’ll have to admit, the subjects were bold and very contemporary.

At the first edition of the United Art Fair, the sprawling 1,00,000 square feet display area was abundant with artworks that did not shy away from brave themes, ideas and urban leitmotifs in bright colours, 3D imagery and a strong command over material. Some of these held immense promise and potential. Like any other fair, this one too had sculptures, paintings, photography, printmaking, digital art and videos but a huge component was missing...there were no galleries – only 525 Indian artists from metros and small towns, of which 350 were emerging names housed alongside Indian masters like Akbar Padamsee, MF Husain, Anjolie Ela Menon, FN Souza, Paramjit Singh, Paritosh Sen and Bhupen Khakkar. This fair was clear in its focus on young artists, curatorial innovation and radical democracy.

Each aisle was named after a renowned artist. The special tributes to Raja Deen Dayal, Ramkinkar Baij, Prabuddha Das Gupta and Sarbari Roy were important highlights. Divided into two segments – one for the new cutting-edge artists and the other for the masters – a separate sculpture court presented a panoramic snapshot of the new semi-abstract and figurative movements in bronze, ceramic and mixed media. A photography section exhibited photographs touched up digitally in abstract compositions. The print-making section featured experimental mixed-media prints and etchings.

While some of the work seemed amateurish, the organisers of this art fair wanted you to think that art is after all a subjective matter. Gallerists have certain aesthetics, work from a chain of interest and they decide who should be projected at a fair. This is the perspective the organisers want to change. They wanted a de-centric approach, no hegemony and a doing away with the monopolisation of aesthetics. They wanted artists to be created on the basis of talent. At this art fair, the criterion was rather simple. The works had to be very contemporary.

Annurag Sharma, the MD of United Art Logistics Private Limited and Johny ML, a noted art curator and critic and the project director of the fair, travelled to 15 art hubs in India (Baroda, Mumbai, Goa, Chandigarh, Guwahati, Kochi to name a few), met 3850 artists and identified 1850 artists to apply with their work profiles. After being juried by sculptor KS Radhakrishnan, Diwan Manna, Nanak Ganguly, Sandhya Bordawekar, art collector Franck Barthelemy and Ajaykumar alongside Johny ML and his crew, 525 artists were finally selected.

Picking up the cue from the reluctance on the part of collectors to buy art cheap, the United Art Fair scaled up its price to liven up a curious inverse price dynamics in the art market – the higher the tag the better is the quality. Priced between Rs 15000 and Rs 1.5 crore, about 42 per cent of the art on display was sold in the three days.

What sparked a debate amongst viewers and artists was the ‘no name tags’ on the inaugural day, a conscious decision by the organisers to play fair. While some artists felt their work got lost without the name, others like 15-year-old artist Revant Bogra thought it was a good idea as people would appreciate the work and not just go by the big names.

Art Fairs are a way to reach out to emerging buyers in the mainstream market who are looking for affordable art in direct deals. The process of buying art at this fair was relatively easy. There were no galleries to influence market responses, hype and manipulation in prices, making the interface with collectors a win-win situation for true talent. The artists took responsibility for their own art and propagated it, so even if not all of them might have managed to sell, they aroused interest and generated curiosity.

In all honesty, the United Art Fair was like a group show of a very large scale but what it did do was that it created an effective platform which would push a lot of price corrections while boosting the market. The positive response to the first edition made the organisers book the venue for next year as well.

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