Hugo Weihe, former International Director of Asian Art at Christies recently took over as the CEO of Saffron Art. Good news. But what struck me first was that current international trend that indicates foreigners coming to Indian shores, taking up highly paid jobs, depriving Indian experts of their reputation, opportunity and livelihood at one go. Indians have this perverse satisfaction of keeping the fair skinned foreigners as highly paid servants for the simple reason that they had once subjugated our forefathers as chaprasis and table boys. Okay what if they are paid today in dollars or pounds, after all it is all from an Indian kitty. Foreigners often feign that they come with expertise (as the world has mistaken white skin for excellence, oh dear Lord) and they could hide their shame in openly saying that their countries are facing some economic crunch and there are a lot of downsizing going on in huge firms. This may sound very cynical, especially when coming from me, who has been a stringent critic of Indian contemporary art and its bubbled up market that got burst a few years back for the right reasons.
More than my apparent cynicism what made me glued to this interview of Hugo Weihe, which otherwise I would have neglected for it being yet another piece of bravado, was Weihe’s claim to build the Indian market from the ground up. That’s it, I said to myself. As an Aam Aadmi Party volunteer what I do is exactly the same; start at the ground level and work upwards. Like any other AAP volunteer, I too believe that redemption of India democracy and the establishment of a corruption free society in India starts from the grass root level. Now when I see a foreigner, a white man, saying that Indian art market should be built from the ground up, I sit up and take note. But my democratic elation had a very short life for what I found in the rest of the interview was his ideation around getting Indian antiques up in the market. What’s that, I ask myself. Did he really mean to say what he has just said?
Saffron art is a homemade brand and we should be proud of Minal and Dinesh Wazirani for their efforts in bringing up the prices of Indian contemporary art works through carefully crafted marketing techniques and at times by clear rigging of the market through sophisticated ways. One and half decades old Saffron Art, now has grown into a global brand so that now it could easily invest in Weihe, who had done a lot of things for the Asia section at Christies. It is heartening to see that Weihe really wants to do something for bringing the Indian art market back on track, which had been derailed and left there to rot for the last six years. But I was appalled to see the wordings and the craftiness with which Weihe answered the questions put to him by the reporter. To a question directed to him about his moving from an international brand to a relatively regional branch, Weihe says that he has always been moving towards India as he had put a lot of effort into the Asia section at Christies. I found that it was an answer that has minimum sincerity that too entirely related to a career move.
I have my reasons to suspect Weihe’s claim that he has always been looking at Indian art. He never says that he has been looking at Indian contemporary art. As you read on the interview, you come to know that Weihe is a person who blatantly promotes the idea of grass roots but his grass root has a lot to do with the grass-grass-roots where the works of art from the past flourish rather than the works of the modern and contemporary Indian art. I read the interview with a shock because Weihe does not even address the modern section of Indian art, which in fact has been the main sustenance of the Indian art market during the winter years since the global meltdown. If we go by Weihe’s argument, we are soon to embark on a scenario where there would be no Husains, Razas and Souzas, Gaitondes, Padamsees and Brootas. We are going to face a scenario where modern and contemporary art has no role. That means in the coming days, the market for modern and contemporary art would further collapse. Only one consolation is implied in Weihe’s answers and it is nothing but that Indian modern art market will be free of ‘fakes’ for some time to come. When there is no market for the originals what is the use of producing so many fakes?
(How to make this an antique piece? A Very Hungry God by Subodh Gupta)
If so, what does Mr.Weihe plan to promote? Reading between the lines as well as right from the lines we could see that Weihe has only praise for the latest infatuation of Saffron Art; the folk, tribal, antique, miniatures, decorative and native art. If you add furniture, the scenario becomes all the more clear. Weihe while keeping a tactful silence over the modern and contemporary art, emphatically says that the future market is for tribal and miniature art. He is all praise for the Indian museums like Prince of Wales Musuem in Mumbai where a lot of antiques and miniatures are presented. He is happy that a lot of school children are visiting these exhibitions. His only worry is that there is stringent law in place regarding the exporting of antiques, national treasures, miniatures and so on. Once you work on the relaxation of it, then things will be smooth for the exporters of ‘Indian’ art. Folk and tribal also find a good space in Weihe’s plan of action. Still the question remains: what is the role of our contemporary artists in such a market scenario? I am not asking Mr.Weihe to answer it but the question should be answered by somebody.
It is quite sad to see that Weihe’s interview is shared and celebrated in the social media mostly by the contemporary artists. Without understanding the content of his interview and the intent of his job, these artists celebrate his arrival at the top of Saffron Art establishment. They hope that this man would alleviate them from the present state, in vain. But there are people, very intelligent people, the movers and shakers of Indian art market who had already seen this coming. It was Mr.Anupam Poddar, who withdrew from actively collecting contemporary art a few years back and started putting his energy behind the folk and tribal art. It is said that Ms.Kiran Nadar also has a good stock of traditional art in India. If you see the way many of the galleries have made their course changing, we could see how most of them shifted to tribal and folk art. How they easily shifted their parlance from cutting edge to folk and tribal. Decorative art and art without author also have become the new fad and also traditional furniture takes a lot of space in the art market today. When Shalini Sawhney started her Guild Gallery in Alibaug, she reserved a good space for folk, traditional, tribal, miniature, decorative arts and traditional furniture. As a market sensitive gallerist, I believe it was the right move she did well in advance. May be people like Shalini have already seen it coming and in its crest Mr.Weihe.
(New indications? A work by Jagannath Panda)
I am not really worried about the Indian art market because the Indian middle class take a lot of time from now to understand art or feel the need to collect art. But their apathy will not stop artists from making contemporary art. As we know contemporary artists cannot make folk and tribal art. Nor can they make furniture. They can become tribal in their attire but they cannot make Gond or Warli art. No one explains why Indian art market should move in this direction. Where will then the contemporary artists go in this scenario? Mr. Weihe says that art events like Kochi Muziris Biennale would bring a lot of difference in the Indian art market but he hastens to add that it would promote tourism. What a joke that is. Does he expect folk and tribal art in the Kochi Muziris Biennale? But KMB is not a trail blazer. It is a follower of the market. Hence, I will not be surprised if I find folk and tribal artists in the forthcoming KMB and also a devoted furniture section. This new interest in folk and tribal art also explains why the doyens of Indian contemporary art market like Peter Nagy, left the scene or divested his shares in the art market. Have some Indian contemporary artists been already advised to change the track and bring in some folk and tribal elements in their works? Now the Indian contemporary art galleries need to explain a lot to their artists before they down the shutters or shift to folk and tribal art. May be they need not answer at all. I know many artists will never ask why because they will wait; if the scenario changes for good, why create enemies?