Police Removed a Work From the India Art Fair on the Suspicion That It Referenced Ongoing Political Protests in Delhi
Tensions over the Citizen Amendment Act led to the shuttering of an artwork about female empowerment and inclusivity.
Political tensions rising across Delhi bubbled to the surface on the last day of the India Art Fair on Sunday, as police shut down a live community artwork installed that afternoon at the booth of the Italian Embassy Culture Centre by Post-Art Project, an art studio founded by Gargi Chandola and Yaman Navlakha.
The protests across the city against the Citizen Amendment Act were something of a silent presence throughout the fair, which posted signs at the entrances warning that although organizers “are aware of events taking place across Delhi” and that they “support art as a means of expression,” there would be a “zero-tolerance policy against banners.”
“It’s about safety and security for everyone here,” fair director Jagdip Jagpal told Artnet News, citing the event’s permissions. We were speaking on Saturday, when dealers were reporting promising sales and the political works on view were flying under the radar.
Just a 15 minute drive from the fairgrounds, Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighborhood has become the epicenter of opposition to the CAA. A sit-in protest has blocked a Delhi highway there since December 15, the camp largely made up of Muslim women standing up for their faith.
The CAA would force all residents to prove their citizenship. The act also offers a pathway to citizenship for refugees persecuted for their religion—unless they are Muslim. Opponents of the legislation contend that the CAA will strip Muslims of their citizenship if they are unable to provide sufficient proof of identity.
The censored piece contained no overt references to the CAA, according to the artists. “It was about celebrating the power of women in India,” Chandola told Artnet News in an Instagram message, noting that it featured the work of roughly a dozen artists representing differing backgrounds, including the Hindu and Muslim faiths, as well as the LGTBQ community. The artists invited fairgoers to help sew together artworks to create a cohesive work.
“Every thread is a wish—a wish for solidarity and unity and the rise of women bringing that to fruition,” Chandola added.
Apparently, not everyone saw it that way. The police allegedly descended on the art project just 20 minutes before the fair was to close
Authorities “were responding to an anonymous complaint made about ‘artwork being prepared by someone wearing clothes resembling the women sitting in Shaheen Bagh,'” wrote the project artists on Instagram, noting that the police initially left before fair officials came and instructed them to remove the work before closing the booth to visitors. “The art fair is NOT a safe space.”
“India Art Fair organizers don’t seem to have a spine whatsoever,” booth curator Myna Mukherjee told local internet media outlet the Quint. “We deferred to the fair’s rules. There was no sloganeering.” One of the works included the word Shaheen, while another read “Hum Ek Hain,” Hindi for “We are one.”
The fair contends that it did not know all of the details about the performance at the embassy’s booth, and that they only learned of the communal piece from the police. “The India Art Fair embraces freedom of expression and believes individuals have the right to express their opinions in their own way,” said a representative of the fair in a statement to Artnet News. “Artists are conscience keepers of a society and we place their voice at the centre of our program.”
The response from both the police and the fair suggests that Mumbai’s TARQ gallery was wise to leave Ronny Sen’s Portrait of Protester tucked on the back wall of their booth. The photograph captures a young rapper at a recent protest, the words “Don’t give me religion, give me food” emblazoned across his chest.
“The situation is very heightened in Delhi, and you don’t know who is going to take offense to it,” the gallery’s Aashna Jhaveri said to Artnet News of the piece. But having it on view at all, she added, was important, especially given that Sen is one of the biggest influencers posting about the protests on social media. “It’s putting out the message about the political situation, and it’s taking a stand about what’s going on, and not being neutral.”
Equally outspoken was the work of Shilo Shiv Suleman, who painted a poem about her dual Muslim and Hindu identity on the wall of Mumbai gallery Art Musings’s booth. The written words accompanied her large-scale paintings inspired by the Buraq, a mystical figure from the Koran that is half woman, half horse.
“I’m half Hindu and half Muslim, and I was brought up drinking deep in both faiths,” Suleman told Artnet News. “When all of the stuff with the CAA began, I began to have these dreams where I was growing out these iridescent wings and flying away to a safer place. It felt almost as if the Buraq was visiting me.”
The artist has actually been spending most of her time not at the fair, but at Shaheen Bagh, where she was painting a mural in support of the protesters.
The encampment and the strength of the women there “is like the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen,” said Suleman.
Other pieces at the fair also tapped into the political zeitgeist, such as a number of works featuring Mahatma Gandhi, who supported the notion of an independent India of many faiths. “When you see some of the works that have political resonances, there’s obviously a very direct dialogue with what’s happening [at the protests],” said Ankush Arora of Akar Prakar, which has locations in New Delhi and Kolkata.
He was pointing to a Superman-style statue of Gandhi—”the most photographed piece in the fair,” he claimed—by Debanjan Roy, titled Super Gandhi and for sale for 800,000 rupees ($11,200). But the booth also had the more subtle Portrait of a Memory by Debasish Muiherjee, a large sculpture priced at 600,000 rupees ($8,400).
“It’s inspired by Gandhi’s final fast in 1947 in order to unite the Hindus and Muslims,” Muiherjee told Artnet News. “The piece is made from contrasting materials, sandstone and fabric, to show that the two communities can certainly stand tall and create a monument.”
The artist hand-embroidered the fabric components of the work—a representation of “the undeciphered wounds of generations”—and hopes that the government will listen to the protests, because “this is not the time to go backwards.”
Political turmoil aside, the mood at the fair earlier in the weekend was upbeat, with numerous dealers reporting multiple sales.
Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal reported a strong first day, selling out of drawings by Nikhil Chopra, which range in price from 300,000 to about 1 million rupees. And newcomer PSM, of Berlin, was pleasantly surprised to have sold four works—including a €14,000 ($18,200) Daniel Lergon and a Nathan Peter painting that they had left in Germany and could only show on the iPad—despite having no existing collector base in the region.
Now in its third year under Jagpal, the fair retains its commitment to South East Asia with a dedicated 70 percent of dealers hailing from the region. But the slate of international galleries is getting stronger.
David Zwirner—one of the first mega-galleries to sign under Jagpal back in 2018—was showing an impressive site-specific mural by Marcel Dzama to accompany new work by the artist that incorporates elements of Indian visual culture and history. Three of the paintings, priced $15,000–50,000, had already sold come end of day Friday.
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