“The artistic community is currently focused on revisiting artists whose history has been neglected”: gallery owner Mortimer Chatterjee
Think of Indian art and a few names pop up effortlessly. VS Gaitonde or FN Souza, giants of the Indian art market; Amrita Sher-Gil, often compared to the libertine Frida Kahlo; Where MF Hussain, whose works have become more controversial than they should have been. That these are some of the first names we remember says a lot about how cannons work.
A cannon can be as restrictive as a white cube—devoting its artists, creating market value and asserting itself as a place of power. This is what happens with lists such as “Top 50 Artists” or “Top 100 Works”. Is there another way to create artistic categories?
An attempt was made in Moving Focus, India: New Looks at Modern and Contemporary Art, edited by Mumbai-based gallerist Mortimer Chatterjee. In this investigation, Chatterjee invites 54 curators, historians and writers to each select five works produced since the 1900s. The book pushes the limits of an investigation of art by boldly taking into account a criterion often approached with hesitation: taste. personal. The 54 guests have chosen their favorite works, which reflect their interests but also their politics, intended to offer various points of entry to appreciate indian art.
With short essays, a round table and illustrations, Mobile Focus, India is a two-volume book and the first in a series that uses this multi-author format to examine other aspects of arts and culture ecosystem. Published by The Shoestring Publisher, the book costs Rs7,500 for the slipcase edition and Rs25,000 for a limited edition (with hardcover and limited edition prints by artists Vivan Sundaram and Nilima Sheikh). It is currently available at store.chatterjeeandlal.com and will be officially launched on April 29 at the India Art Fair.
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Chatterjee spoke about making Moving Focus, India and the decision to go beyond the canon of modern and contemporary Indian art. Edited excerpts:
What made you start Mobile Focus, India?
The book was born out of late-night conversations with friends, as we debated our list of favorite works of art. The question arose of how best to represent this in book form. We decided to get lists of artists, curators, critics and scholars. We also thought we wouldn’t include collectors or those openly connected to the art market.
We began sending out invitations in the second half of 2020 and received the final round of nominations around spring 2021. It was important that we provided context for the lists and thus commissioned essays from a wide range of respected writers. We also hosted a panel discussion to discuss some of the tougher issues a project like this was likely to expose.
What is striking Mobile Focus, India this is how he downplays the greats of modern Indian art. Even the Jamini Roy in the book is not in the style most identified with him. Many of the usual suspects are missing here. What impact does this have on the investigation?
The relative absence of names and works usually associated with a company of this kind also surprised us. As we began to take a closer look at the nominations, however, other types of commonalities between the selections began to emerge. For example, there is a marked interest in the work of women artists active in the 1980s and 1990s: notably Rummana Hussain, Nalini Malani, Nasreen Mohamedi, Nilima Sheikh and Zarina. There are also many examples of objects in media other than painting: for example photography, film, installation and performance. I suspect that the collective memory of the Indian art community is currently focused on revisiting artists and media whose stories have been overlooked by earlier narratives.
I wrote an essay in the book on the idea of ”memory sites”. A site of memory can be a concrete thing or an amorphous idea, but either way communities of people come to it at different times to derive meanings specific to their own temporal context. Monuments like Babri Masjid are a prime example. The same goes for artists and works of art. Different generations will necessarily form very different opinions towards a work or an artist. just look the way Raja Ravi VarmaThe practice of has been variously praised and vilified over the past hundred and twenty years since his death.
One of the purposes of this book is to expand and resist a canonical approach to categorizing or appreciating Indian art from 1900. There are various reasons in the book as to why this is important, but what do you think?
We made it clear to our nominators that we were not looking for what they considered to be the five “best” works of art of the past 120 years. We don’t exist in a world where value judgments like that no longer hold, and frankly that wouldn’t have produced a book of great interest. We were hoping for more personal answers; answers that might risk being obscure, for example.
Polls are as much about what is excluded. How important was representation during this investigation?
I spoke earlier of “places of memory”, of objects or ideas around which the collective memory testifies. Of course, sometimes memory sites can be deliberately removed from view or altered by those with access to power. I would say a good way to prevent this from happening is to provide as many different points of view as possible, which is ingrained in the DNA of Moving Focus, India. At the same time, I recognize that I came to nominator selection with my own blind spots, both conscious and unconscious, and regardless of how many other people I relied on to suggest possible nominators, residual traces of these blind spots must exist in the book.
Given the specializations of each nominator, how did you ensure that your curation would ensure a complex and nuanced investigation?
We assured our nominators in academia, criticism and curation that our marketing of the book would be such that no one would require them to report on their lists in five years or even a year from now. I think it allowed each of them to really break free and produced a wide variety of responses.
In your opinion, does Mobile Focus, India include a controversial artist, in terms of subject, style or life?
The sheer number of nominated objects that work outside the confines of traditional definitions of fine art amazed me: photo books, films, jewelry boxes, chairs, shawls, saris, designs for palace interiors and designs for magazine covers.
At the risk of falling into clichés, the enigmatic and troubled life of KG Ramanujam has always fascinated me and I was happy to see one of his works selected for the book.
The title of the book is a tribute to a collection of essays by KG Subramanyan. Why Subramanyan and why this particular collection?
KG Subramanyan strongly believed that art should be accessible to everyone in society (here he was influenced by the writings of Ernst Gombrich) and in his own practice worked in a dizzying array of mediums related to both to art and design. Moving focus is a collection of essays published by Subramanyan in the late 70s that distil much of his thought on art and culture into a group of short, highly readable texts. As we worked on our book, we began to realize that the nominations were building an image of artistic production that resonated strongly with Subramanyan’s vision: one that is inclusive, non-canonical, and unafraid to embrace the everyday, the farce, the downright silly.
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