China way ahead of India in contemporary art
Source:- Reshmi Dasgupta
NEW DELHI: This Saturday, a show of Indian art opens in Wolverhampton, UK of all places that may just prove to be a watershed event. Manchester businessman Frank Cohen (along with advertising maven Charles Saatchi, the most high profile foreign collectors of Indian art) is striking his colours with Passage to India, an exhibition of contemporary Indian art from his own collection. A few months later, Saatchi will do the same at his new London gallery, impishly titled The Empire Strikes Back. As both men collect Chinese art as well, this will add a new dimension to the rivalry - even in art - between the two Asian giants, India and China.
At Sotheby's sale of South Asian (mostly Indian) contemporary art in New York last September, works fetched a total of $3.2 million. Flash forward to April 8 to April 11, the dates for Sotheby's Hongkong sales. Their Contemporary Chinese Art sale is expected to rake in at least $32 million or 10 times the Indian tally. So India can't quibble at Time magazine's observation last week that "China has passed France as the world's third largest art market", for in numberspeak at least, China is way ahead of India as the Asian art mart comes into its own.
Arriving at an accurate number, however, is complicated. As Osian's chairman Neville Tuli says, it's a matter of not only computing the average sales of auctions (five major houses deal in Indian art worldwide - Sotheby's, Christies, Bonham's, Osian's and Saffronart - besides several newbies) and the average prices they fetched, but also doing the same for sales and prices of galleries as well as private dealers in India and abroad.
That would give a ballpark figure, but that's assuming all primary and secondary sales are accounted for. The same applies for Chinese figures.
Tuli will not hazard an off-the-cuff guesstimate, but Crayon Capital's Gaurav Karan, who manages an art fund, says the current volume of traded Indian art is around $350-400 million. The figure for Chinese art traded in 2007 is an estimated $3.3 billion, according to the Chinese art website Artron which tracks 100 auction houses.
Karan adds that given that both Sotheby's and Christies's had record total sales of over $6 billion each in 2007 and that figures of other auction houses and galleries like Larry Gagosian's which clock $1 billion a year swell this kitty further, it's evident that Indian art (which fetched just $36 million for Christie's last year) is but a drop in the art ocean.
Head to head examples merely accentuate the gap. Last October 34-year-old India-born Raqib Shaw notched up a record of $5.49 million for his colourful Garden of Earthly Delights III at a Sotheby's sale in London. But Execution by Yue Minjun, whose frighteningly grinning faces are fast becoming a cult, also fetched a shade less than $6 million there. And at Christie's in Hongkong a month after Shaw's sale, a set of abstract gunpowder-on-paper drawings by 1957-born Cai Guo-Qiang, went for $9.5 million.
Shaw's record has put him far ahead of his desi contemporaries led NS Harsha, who topscored on the youngsters' art chart for 2007 with Mass Marriage selling for $833,400 in Hongkong in November. But a slew of young Chinese artists, like Liu Xiaodong, Zeng Fanzhi and Zhang Xiaogang, have crossed the million dollar mark. In India's case, however, it's the veterans who dominate the million dollar club: Tyeb Mehta, SH Raza, MF Husain, Raja Ravi Varma, FN Souza, Amrita Sher-Gil, J Swaminathan and VS Gaitonde.
Only the first three are still alive (the youngest of them 85), Husain joined the club just last month at $1.1 million and Mehta's Mahishasura that sold in 2005 for $1.58 million still retains top spot. Unsurprisingly, Chinese artists of the same vintage are also ahead price-wise. The late Xu Beihong's Slave & Lion, for example, went for $7 million at a Christie's sale in November 2006.
So why's China painting India into a corner? "The whole world is buying Chinese art, while its still largely Indians buying Indian art," observes Chennai-based Sharan Apparao of Apparao Galleries, whose online auctions are doing well. "And Chinese underground art in particular has an increasing appeal." Even Tuli implies that at one level India's guaranteed freedoms seem to act against the creation of powerful art! Indian art also has other hiccups, with every successful sale by an established auctioneers being countered by patchy success rates of newer entrants. "That doesn't mean Indian art is bad or patchy, it just causes confusion in the buyers' minds," insists Sunaina Anand of Delhi's Art Alive gallery.
"A lot depends not only on the credibility of the seller, but also the quality and selection of artists' works." Karan concurs, saying, "Once Indians used to buy signatures, not quality; that's changed now." And a more mature market means better prices.
Chinese artists have also been more farsighted in showcasing their art. The effort has to be at both ends: if artists have to touch a chord, galleries have to mount first class shows too, catalogues, publicity et al. And India seems to have largely ignored a new platform that Apparao points out - art fairs. As Don Thompson writes in the recently released The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, "The start of the 21st century was also the beginning of the decade of the art fair. Today, there are four international fairs whose branding is such that they add provenance and value to contemporary art. They are to art what Cannes is to movie festivals."
According to Tuli (who bought a Raja Ravi Varma for $1.24 million at Bonham's in October), "The Indian art market is deeper and more abundant with collectors; China's is faster and more rampant with speculators. Both have a great interest for the rest of the world right now albeit in radically different ways. But the world will have more empathy and affinity with Indian art's spiritual and cultural sensibilities..."
Yes, China's had a headstart, but as Saffronart's figures show, sales of Indian art in public auctions have grown from $4.5 million in 2003 to $150 million in 2006, Tuli may well be prophetic.