Nationality and the market

One aspect of Indian artists who have lived and worked overseas is their concern with identity. S H Raza became the first Asian (or, more correctly, the first non-European) to win the prestigious critics award in Paris in 1956, paving the way for a successful career in France. During its early decades, collectors of his works would have been French or European buyers. In London, F N Souza had launched a similar career and was at least as successful (though he did shift to the US in the mid-'60s). Clearly, it was the native community that bought his art - its scathing nature alone would have been enough to deter all but the foolhardy Indian collector at the time. S K Bakre's sculptures created while in London, Sakti Burman's paintings produced in France but shipped to America for conversion into prints, Avinash Chandra's move to Britain, V Viswanadhan's to France, Ambadas's to Norway, Shoran Qadri's to Denmark, Zarina Hashmi's to New York - you would have to wonder whether these artists were henceforth seen as "Indian", "European", "American" or simply "Western" in the context of their art making.

This question of identity and patronage becomes interesting with Indian galleries promoting Indian art internationally in quest of overseas buyers. Yet, those artists had found collectors in the West since the 1950s on the merit of their talent. It can be safely surmised that their art of the time appeared to have no overt Indian identity, though it might have earned the "exotic" tag. You might sip champagne and roll your 'R's, but does that qualify as being native? Assuredly, anything alien to the local temper, or taste, was likely to be interpreted as Indian. Did this work in their favour?

In varying degrees, most of them were a success. Yet, by the 1980s, they had begun to seek markets in India, which could be a question of legacy (about which later), or a straitening market in the countries of their domicile. Had the mood in those countries changed? Or were dealers and galleries of Indian origin reaching out to them more aggressively than in the past? The rising economic environment in India, and the need to be recognised in the country of their birth, may have triggered the artists' own interest in seeking patronage back home. A fear of mortality is amply evident amongst the creative community which needs to be assured that its legacy will be retained and recognised for generations after. Seen in that context, would you say Raza has been honoured and promoted sufficiently by the French government to make him feel like a French artist (of Indian origin, true, but fellow traveller Pablo Picasso too was not French but Spanish)? Or Ambadas as Norwegian, Qadri as Scandinavian, and Souza as either British or American? Anish Kapoor in UK, and Sujata Bajaj in Dubai and Paris, have obvious overseas buyers, but which nation will claim their inheritance?

I find this interesting for the way it impacts artists' works. With few exceptions, Indian artists appear keen to celebrate their nationality - perhaps as a measure of setting themselves apart as individuals or as a group - and resonance of India's culture manifests itself in their narratives. Today's contemporary artists, whose mediums and interpretations may be global, still seek their subjects and validation amidst local environments, though these manifestations could have resonances that are similar around the world. Which brings me to the questions: As mediums and art become more global, are artists turning increasingly local? Is it artists, or their markets, that are driven by nationality? Given China's current domination of the art market, that should be a pointer to why Indian artists are seeking markets closer to home, even as their promoters are seeking markets away from home.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. 
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