Friday, September 16, 2016

Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal Holding Works of Art Hostage: Artists Form Gallery Fail to Protest

(Indian Marriage)

As an Indian let me use an analogy which is close to my cultural consciousness to underline the relationship between an art gallerist or an art expo organiser and a work of art being sent to him/her/them for exhibition; it is of a marriage in a traditional Indian family. Here the artist is the father/mother of the work of art/daughter whose hand is given in trust. Deeds are written and signed and witnesses are brought in. The whole world is informed of this marriage through a reception ceremony or the wedding function itself with fantastic feasts. As far as works of art are concerned the deeds brokered and signed between the gallerist/organizer and the artist/father/mother. Exhibition opening party is the wedding ceremony and the post-opening is the fabulous feasts thrown to honour the bride and bridegroom as well as the guests. In this whole affair, the role of a curator is that of a marriage broker who cannot be held for anything that follows in the married life of the couple or their relatives for the role of a broker ends once the match is fixed and solemnized, and the stipulated amount for ‘fixing’ the marriage is handed over to the broker/s.

I went into this long preamble drawing an analogy between art exhibitions and the Indian marriages because recently my beloved expatriate artist friend Waswo X Waswo informed me of an ongoing debate/rather a possible legal tussle between the administration of the reputed art organization, Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal and a whole lot of artists from various parts of India, incidentally led by Waswo for all his good intentions (It is to be noted that while most of the Indian artists succumbed to the pressures of the head load workers’ unions in Kerala in 2015 March towards the end of the second edition of the KMB to cough up exorbitant amounts for transporting the works from the sites, it was Waswo who protest by breaking his works of art which in fact sparked off a series of cultural debates in Kerala. In the year 2011, sculptor K.S.Radhakrishnan had taken a similar firm stance towards the trade unions in Trivandrum, Kerala and finally the Labour Department Secretary sent him a letter of apology along with a cheque for the amount that he had paid). Bharat Bhavan was planning to organize the 7th Bharat Bhavan Biennale which was to be held in April 2013. There was entry fee (non-refundable and irrespective of selection) and also it was agreed up on that the returning of the works was the responsibility of the organization. The organization failed to send the works, if at all they sent, they did it in ‘to pay’ mode forcing unsuspecting artists to pay up to the couriers. Aggrieved artists have now come together in a social media platform, Gallery Fail, created by Waswo. A cursory look at the page proves how many skeletons and worms are there in the cupboards and cans of the art organizations.

(Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal)

The story, as evident from the facebook page as well as from our own personal experiences is not new at all. Perhaps, it is a pioneering effort of the artists to raise an issue in a given platform, surprisingly not shying away from naming and shaming the people involved in such acts of ‘betrayal’, means not returning the works of the artists after the use. Now let us analyse this phenomenon and also see how exactly this practice of not returning the works might have originated (perhaps, in any art scene). For an artist, many decades before it became a full time profession which paid, his/her works of art were the love of their creative lives which demanded the places for exposition. Hence, showing the works were along with a brochure was far more important than selling those works and making a living out of it. It had happened not only in the urban areas but also in the town and rural areas. Artists lived, worked and exhibited in all these places. However, when they brought these works to exhibit in urban centres like Lalit Kala Akademi and AIFACS in Delhi or Jehangir Gallery in Mumbai or the Artists’ Centre in Kolkata, they expected some kind of sales and most of the sales happened on the last days of the show, which in turn were not really sales but ‘clearing sales or distress sales’. Artists from the previous generations know what I am talking about (even some of the present generation artists too know this). Dealers, collectors and other art people swoop down during the last days of the show and make hard bargaining with the artists and take the works for one fourth of the quoted prices. Artists, in a highly distressed conditions were forced to make clearance sales or in case of no(n)-sale, they would consign the works with some city based galleries who might have already made their rounds and done some agreement on consignment with the artists. That means, most of the artists left their works either by selling them for throw away prices or leaving them as consignments, trusting the gallerists not only for the money but also for the safe return of them after the consignment period. One could imagine, in those days with snail mail and land phoning as the only ways of communication, most of the artists might have lost track of their works due to the disinterestedness of the gallerists or their sheer disappearance. Yet another lot would think of collecting them in the coming years which perhaps would never come. And still another group would think of those works with a sense of relief feeling that they could clear their small living spaces of these works.

Many art dealers, gallerists and art people have made a little money out those works or in rare chances might have made huge fortunes provided the said artist became a hot property in the later years. In most cases, these works find their ways to the city’s famous (notorious too) second hand markets as junk, when the gallerists themselves clear their spaces and ‘divest the bad stock’. With the arrival of professionalism especially after the globalization process of Indian economy, well spelt contracts have been written and moreover mutual trusts are developed between artists and galleries or art organizations. That means, when the artist gives the works in consignment to an organizer or to a gallery, the legal system of the country is only partially mentioned or the accountability of this deed is limited to the parties who enter into the contract; that means, there is no social contract as in the case of a marriage. When profit is made out of works of art and when it is shared between the organizer/gallerist and the artist/s it is not made into public (only auction houses make the amounts transacted public). Only when the contract is breached and words are not kept, the artists become aggrieved parties. When, the artist knows that the gallery is still power and there is a possibility of it bringing benefits in future, then he/she would keep quite on what happened to their previous contracts. In the case of Bharat Bhavan and Lalit Kala Akademy, they are not profit making organizations nor do they offer a sales profit to the artists (at times they do. In the case of Bharat Bhavan, it is alleged that they have taken Rs.500/- as entry fee. Considering the number of artists applied, it must be a huge amount), they take the courage to express it in public, which we see in Gallery Fail facebook page.

 (Waswo x Waswo)

Had there been no money involved in this transaction between the Bharat Bhavan and the artists, I would not have seen it as a major offence instead I would have thought about it as a bureaucratic callousness which India is famous for. Here, as the organization has promised sending back the works to the artists on its own expenses and also the organization has made huge money in the form of entry fee/application fee, the failure of the organization to return the works to the artists reeks of corruption, which has to be probed legally. I believe that Bharat Bhavan is an autonomous organization yet it is not beyond the laws of the land. There should be a ministerial level probe on to this and it should be immediately brought into the notice of the state authorities and also to the notice of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Public accountability of the galleries and organization is still a thing which is not thought of in our country. Perhaps in the case of establishments like LKA, people have lost interest in them completely and whatever happens none in the artists community even looks at that side (the best example is that the Central LKA galleries are locked up for the last one month and nobody in Delhi art seems to have even taken notice of it). As we lack a clear cultural policy for our country and if at all some policy moves are seen here and there, due to heavy politicking, always such positions of decision making are handled by incompetent political bigwigs or cultural people with political connections.

Here I need to quote Ramachandra Guha extensively. In his latest book titled ‘Democrats and Dissents’ he writes in the already famous chapter, ‘Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression in India’: “I come now to my eighth and final threat to freedom of expression. This is constituted by careerist or ideologically driven writers..... “

“In India tragically, too many writers, scholars, artists and editors identify with a single party or even with a single politician, this association leading to the suppressing of facts or the twisting of opinions. This betrayal-a harsh word that seems entirely justified here-occurs all across the spectrum....”

“Party affiliations also lead to selective outrage, whereby writers and artists focus on some threats to freedom of expression while ignoring others. The left-wing group SAHMAT campaigned vigorously on M.F.Husain’s behalf, but stayed strangely silent on the treatment of Taslima Nasrin by the Left Front Government  in West Bengal....”

“....The Prime Minister himself does not appear to think that intellectuals, writers and artists contribute much to society, and this hostility to independent thinking and thinkers goes right down the line.” (pages 36, 37, 39)

(Ramachandra Guha, Historian and Author)

What Guha says is absolutely is the reason for the callousness shown by the galleries and art organizations that have close affinities with politicians or political parties. When the Prime Minister himself thinks that anybody could head the intellectual organizations, then things cannot be different in this country. Look at the artists who have responded this issue of non-returning works by the organizations. Even for the sake of expressing solidarity, the leading artists in this country have not responded to the issue because if they do their associations with the galleries and the government could be jeopardized. However, I feel that it is pertinent raise this issue in all the possible platforms and eke out a response from the authorities and whoever is responsible for doing such callous act or for the shoddy treatment of the artists and the works of art. The major reason for most of the big wigs keeping off from this issue is mainly because that they feel that the entry to the 7th Bharat Bhavan Biennale was done willingly by the artists and the ensuing problems should be handled individually because the contract is between them and the organizations. They are justified in believing so because their agreement with their galleries and organizations are absolutely professional and they are never cheated or betrayed by the organizations and galleries.

So far, this issue remains the issue of those artists who are not ‘established’ personalities. Anything could be done to these people because nobody is going to hold anybody accountable. The artists are so dispersed in locations and so disparate in tastes that no two artists are going to find a common cause to fight for, the organizations know. This state of things should be changed. There should be some kind of accountability and legal holding for both these artists and the galleries and organisations. Experts should think of it further.

(Gallery Fail in Facebook)

I will close long piece of article by recounting a personal experience regarding the non-return of the works of art. In 2012, I was the Project Director of the now defunct United Art Fair, Delhi. In this high energy program, young artists in India participated as if it was their own Art Fair. They all had entered a personal agreement with the management in which I was not a signatory. Due to many reasons, while the UAF brand was established it could not make a commercial profit. The management failed to send the works back to the artists (by the time I had resigned from the organization). Many young artists accused me of not taking responsibility of giving their works back. Technically and practically it was impossible for me as a person to coax the management to do the needful. The failure of the UAF to live up to the artists expectations as far as their works were concerned damaged the reputation of the UAF and it couldn’t survive a second edition (reasons are many but it is not the occasion to discuss all that). Time and again I have been asked whether it was my duty to send the works back to the artists. I have the works that had come to my shows even fifteen years back. The artists have never demanded them. I never had any reason to keep them with me. But fifteen years back, in the absence of an art market, curator driven shows were done in agreement with the artists who had promised to take the works back personally once the exhibition is done. If at all I have a few old rolls somewhere in my studio, they are all willingly left by the artists.

Let me go back to the marriage analogy. In the case of Bharat Bhavan, it looks like a broken marriage. The mutual trust has been broken. The girl has not come back to the parents’ house. She is languishing somewhere in the limbo in the bridegroom’s house. To make matters worse, the bridegroom’s parents are asking money to send the girl back. It amounts to dowry harassment. It should be tackled legally. Now, what would a marriage broker do in a divorce case?

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