Essays-18

Amrit: A Poetic Meta-Exhibition

by Sunanda K Sanyal

Four white horses stand atop tall columns, surveilled by a series of watchful painted eyes; two bowl-like objects rest on a padded bench; a two-part slab with its own ocular sits on a tall wooden stool; seven white horses, standing in a row on a horizontal metal beam, confront a dark painted surface; dense, vertical rows of manufactured ceramic electrical accessories hang on the wall in a picture frame, flanked overhead by two painted panels… This is a glimpse of Partha Dasgupta’s ceramic installation Amrit. What are we looking at here? Are these replicas of archaeological remnants of a civilization that we have yet to understand? Or perhaps they are imagined metonyms from our own forgotten past, waiting for us to decode them in our current crisis as a culture and reconstruct memories of our histories and legacies? If some practicing ceramists are puzzled, or even disappointed by the exhibition, by that same token, some sculptors are likely to be energized by it. Either way, the response would stem from the fact that the ceramic objects, albeit central to the display, are but components of a broader intermedia conversation between ceramics, sculpture, and painting.

Those who know about my persistent critique of the rhetoric of high modernism might wonder why I support the work of this mid-career ceramist-painter, who not only has always maintained a careful distance from the postmodernist experiments that have dominated contemporary Indian art in the recent years, but who is also deeply invested in form, process, and authorship, among other things. A fair question indeed; and the purpose of this essay, in a way, is to respond to it. But in order to cover certain broader implications of my response, I want to cast my net wider, around a discussion of the contemporary relevance of the notion of medium in the visual arts, before turning to Dasgupta’s work.

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Essays-17

‘Global’: A View from the Margin

by Sunanda K Sanyal

There is no question that for contemporary artists of non-Western origin, the doors to international art scenes, barely ajar in the late 1980s, have opened wider, with increasing access to an inter-continental art market and blockbuster exhibitions. What is more, in the absence of any dominant paradigm in the contemporary discourse of art, critics like Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nicolas Bourriaud have defined contemporaneity as a condition demanding diverse approaches to the making and criticism of art (Smith: 2009, 2010; Enwezor: 2009; Bourriaud: 2009). Identifying the diachronic historiography of Euro-American modernism and its universalist claims as hegemonic, they have proposed a heterochronic approach to art history. In sum, art today appears to have gone ‘global’.

Once the term ‘global’ is isolated from its misuse as a generic synonym for ‘worldwide’, it signifies an immensely complicated and constantly evolving, totalizing discourse of economics, politics, and culture of the present era that involves the entire planet. The problem is that the fluidity of the cultural aspect of ‘global’ makes it particularly elusive. The euphoria of sharing a ‘global’ culture, for instance, may conceal the fact that despite all its heterogeneity, fragmentation, hybridity, etc., the space we call ‘global’ is hardly a level one. Let me explain.

In their celebrated book, Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri contend that capitalism’s historical role as a tool of imperialism has become obsolete (Hardt & Negri, 2000). As a decentered, deterritorialized apparatus, global capital, they argue, is engaged in erasing the traditional boundaries between the West and its Others, replacing them with the domination of a borderless world market, where profit is the sole standard of value. Backed by neo-liberal political powers worldwide, this all-encompassing market constitutes the new Empire. While this emerging system of power necessitates new forms of resistance, it also undermines the conventional forms of cultural normativity, hierarchy, domination, exclusion, etc. Discrimination in the Empire is caused by economics, not by chauvinistic forces, such as a prejudiced art establishment.

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(Published: First Word column, African Arts, 48(1), spring 2015, pp. 1, 4)

Essays-15

Current Article  published in www.globalthek.com

“Being Modern”: Identity Debates and Makerere’s Art School in the 1960s 

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: Monica Visona and Gitti Salami eds., A Companion to
Modern African Art.
Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell: pp. 255-75)

Ulrich Middeldorf was a historian of Renaissance art. A student of the legendary Heinrich Wölfflin, he headed the Art Department of the University of Chicago. On 16 May 1950, he wrote a letter to his contact at Uganda’s Makerere University College, thanking him for sending an exhibition of student paintings to Chicago. “I have seen many things coming from curious outposts of civilization,” Middeldorf wrote:

From Asia, from the Americas, from our city slums,…..but the material which you lent us is really the most surprising and most satisfactory which I have ever seen. What seems to me so remarkable about it is that it seems altogether developed from genuine feelings and interests of the students, with little or no reference to European conventions. That gives the work an amazing freshness and makes it……excellent study material for the psychologist of art, on the same level as good children’s drawings or genuine primitive art.

He also felt strongly about the artists’ choices of palette:

I very much hope that the modern magentas, greens, purples and reds and yellows never will come to your corner of Africa before this particular color taste is firmly established. I have seen so many good folk arts completely ruined by them.[1]
The unequivocally essentialist and paternalistic tone of Middeldorf’s remarks shouldn’t surprise us, since it was the norm of colonial culture. Rather, what we should find odd is that his “curious outpost of civilization” was actually an art department of an African institution of higher learning. Why, then, did Middeldorf find “little or no reference to European conventions” in those images?

Margaret Trowell, an English artist and educator trained at London’s Slade School, brought formal art education to Uganda in 1937. Having accompanied her doctor husband to Kampala, she organized art classes first at her house, and then at Makerere College, which, in the following year, became the Higher College of East Africa. This art training enterprise was soon recognized as the college’s informal art department, a status that became official after the institution became Makerere University College..

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Essays-3

Scandalous Art and the “Global” Factor

by Sunanda K Sanyal

One often hears these days that Indian art has “gone global”. Indeed, for those of us who were adults in India during the 1970s and 1980s, living with dead telephones, state-run television and neighborhood mom-and-pop stores is now all but a hazy memory. In that era, a young artist having an exhibition in another part of the country made news; and someone able to score a show abroad became no less than a myth. Terms like “installation” and “postmodernism” were alien to most; and art criticism, at its best, was a few marginal columns in newspapers and literary magazines. Much of that system has undergone a stunning facelift since the 1990s. There is today at least a dozen art periodicals published nationwide, covering both Indian and international art; intercontinental galleries actively operate in the Indian art market; youngsters barely out of training casually discuss plans to participate in biennales and art summits abroad; visitors at openings of new media installations socialize over hors d’œuvres and bubbling champagne; relatively unknown artists often sell in the domestic market at prices that would be inconceivable thirty years ago, even including the inflation factor. When I arrived in the United States in the late 1980s as a graduate student, hardly anyone there knew or cared about contemporary South Asian art. Even the most renowned artists were unknown in American academe, and more so in the art community. All of that is reasonably different now. They not only get a fair amount of recognition, but some are even familiar names in the American auction houses. What is more, American universities now graduate scholars specializing in contemporary South Asian art. These are indeed evidence of a new era of Indian art— the era of globalism.  [Read more..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(6), February, 2011: 55-7)

Essays-2

From Object to Experience: Notes on American Sculpture

by Sunanda K Sanyal

To put it rather bluntly, it is impossible to write an exclusive history of modern sculpture. Though one could make the same argument about modern painting, it certainly is more relevant to sculpture; for unlike painting’s occasional insistence on purity and self-critique (as with Abstract Expressionism), sculpture of the last century has been more consistently engaged in self-deconstruction, opening itself to complex dialogs with almost every other medium and mode of expression: painting, photography, architecture, landscape, video, light, sound, motion, language, not to mention the human body. Sculptural practice today is thus infinitely more hybridized than the enterprise of painting. Instead of attempting a survey of such a complex history, this brief essay touches on some of the key attributes of American sculpture of the 1960s.

Civilian life in the United States was unscathed by World War II. So while much of postwar European art bore dark memories of trauma and destruction, American art from the same period was largely indifferent to the social and political changes at home and abroad. Instead, it was deeply involved in its own discourse. The differences among them notwithstanding, all the post-war American trends —Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Happenings, Minimalism— were essentially hermetic in character, underscoring self-referentiality as art’s primary goal. But whereas Abstract Expressionism’s high-winded, anxiety-ridden, author-centered rhetoric of self-referentiality was all about the processes and materials of art-making, Pop art in the ‘60s insisted on the self-referentiality of signs by collapsing the barrier between “high” and “low” cultures. Tawdry images of soup cans, coke bottles, Mickey Mouse and living as well as dead celebrities emerged as unstable, thoroughly mediated signs in a media-driven consumer culture, with no hierarchy of values. Pop owed much to the Dada strategies of Marcel Duchamp, yet it bypassed Duchamp’s biting social critique to eagerly embrace capitalist materialism with a non-committal gesture, articulated through wit and irony— an attitude often summarized in the expression “deadpan cool”. Thus repudiating the conventional supremacy of the artist-author, Pop’s self-referential images signaled the end of a discourse of art that had reigned since Manet and Courbet. Minimalism emerged in the late ‘60s with curious ties to Pop.   [More..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(4), December, 2010: 29-31)

Essays-1

An Unexplored Discourse in Kolkata’s Visual Culture

by Sunanda K Sanyal

In its vibrancy, variety, and opulence, Durga Pujo is indeed comparable to such grand spectacles as the Carnival of Brazil. Yet unlike the Brazilian event, which has been closely examined by chroniclers of visual culture, this dynamic Bengali autumn festival has largely been denied serious scholarly attention. From thepandal (temporary sanctuary for housing the deity) and the idol to the neon displays, ad campaigns and fashion, the multi-faceted visual culture of Durga Pujo is remarkably responsive to changing times. Even a brief look at the recent developments in pandal designing can shed light on the inventiveness and adaptability of this creative enterprise.

25 Palli, Khidderpore, 2007.   Designer: Bhabatosh Sutar

25 Palli, Khidderpore, 2007. Designer: Bhabatosh Sutar

A conventional pandal, built by urban artisans known simply as “decorators”, has almost always been a simulation of a lavish residence.But since the late 1990s, involvement of art school graduates has brought a new dimension to Kolkata’s Durga Pujo through a diverse array of environments popularly known as “themepandals”. Along with its religious and mythical identity, Durga Pujo also has a strong secular side, which has been an advantage for the creative experiments in pandal designing. A well-known historic building or site, such as a Hindu temple, co-exists with pandals representing the Bengal countryside.     [More..]

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(3), November, 2010: 52-3)

Film

“A Homecoming Spectacle”

(58 mins. & 28 mins.)

The documentary examines specific aspects of the visual culture of Durga Pujo, a grand religio-cultural festival held in Bengal, India. Locally, it is seen as the occasion of the Hindu Goddess Durga’s annual visit to her parental home. Central to the rituals is a sculptural image of the Goddess killing Mahisasura, or the buffalo-demon. This mythic event is considered a symbol of the eternal battle between Good and Evil, and of female empowerment.

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