India Art Fair Opens Strong With Major Western Galleries — But Local Art Still Sells Best

Visitantes observam trabalhos de arte na Feira de Arte Indiana 2012
(Cortesia Getty Images)

When you are showing millions of dollars worth of art, it only makes sense to have some muscle around. Even so, the sheer number of firearms present at the 2012 India Art Fair vernissage (the fair runs through January 29th) was a trifle disconcerting. But then this was the year the fair was supposed to step up its game and enter the international league of art events, so the organizers were taking no chances. Reacting to the touchy security situation the administrators surrounded the venue with enough armed personnel to lay siege to a small city.

Over its three previous editions the fair (previously dubbed the India Art Summit) has grown from some 10,000 visitors in its first year to more than 138,000 in 2011. It’s a figure that — as Graham Steele from London’s White Cube gallery remarked — gave the fair a greater head count than Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze combined.

On the back of this impressive turnout the fair’s founder and director Neha Kirpal sold a 49 percent stake in the event to Sandy Argus and Will Ramsay, the co-founders of the wildly successful Art HK, and went on a charm offensive to persuade leading international galleries – like the Britain’s White Cube, Lisson, and Hauser & Wirth as well as Aicon and Paul Kasmin from the U.S. — to take part in this year’s outing. These galleries take their place in a list of 91 exhibitors from 20 countries, a lineup that, although still dominated by local players, can justly lay claim to being truly international.

There was a palpable sense of excitement about the new globalization hanging over the event, and more than one observer noted that Indian galleries seemed to have risen to the heightened challenge. There was certainly no mistaking the quality of the work on display or the engagement of the people who thronged into the large, purpose-built tent housing the fair.

“Passionate” is not a word you normally associate with art fairs, but it’s the right one for the atmosphere at the India Art Fair. Enthusiasm was evident everywhere, even at the Speakers’ Forum lecture series, which has so far confounded low expectations generated by such events in the past by presenting lively and argumentative talks. It was fun to see leading Delhi-based curator Gayatri Sinha expressing her boredom with the idea of post-colonialism as a curatorial framework, and refreshing to see her co-panellist, curator and academic Chaitanya Sambrani, being called out by a vocal member of the audience for a too-rosy view of Chinese-Indian cultural engagement.

Back at the fair itself, the dialogue continued. Every booth was crowded with aspiring collectors quizzing gallerists on the careers, methods, approaches, and prices of their featured artists. A little cultural adjustment was necessary: Indian collectors, deeply versed in their own intricate and wildly creative contemporary scene, proved less familiar with Western marquee names. White Cube had rolled out their big guns for the fair with crowd-pleasing works by Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, and Damien Hirst, but Graham Steele, after repeatedly fielding questions like “Is Damien Hirst English?” and “Is Marc Quinn a man or a woman?” knew he had more work to do. Steele said that his main aim going in was to “start a dialogue” with collectors he would never meet in London, and that if there was ever an art fair where White Cube might expect to do no business at all, this was it. He appears to have been right on the money.

As for how actual sale numbers are faring, that metric is still hard to assess. The caginess of the Indian gallerists (who seemed to be doing brisk business) meant they were disinclined to put out red dots or issue press releases at such an early point in the fair. The Western galleries who looked to be doing well were still in the word-war stage where works were placed on what Galerie Krinzinger’s Manfred Wiplinger vividly described as “strong hold,” rather than actually sold. However, Bangladeshi collector couple Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani were said to have gone on a miniature spending spree at the vernissage, exclusively snapping up Indian contemporary works including pieces by Rashid Rana and Nandalal Bose. Erstwhile collector of Chinese contemporary art and founder of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Baron Guy Ullens, was also seen prowling the aisles, perhaps as a result of his admitted admiration for Indian artist Bharti Ker.

Krinzinger was one of the rare Western galleries not a newcomer to the fair. Their booth was almost entirely devoted to Indian artists, including rising stars Mithu Sen and Sakshi Gupta, alongside the eccentric but highly regarded installation artist Sudarshan Shetty. A work by the latter was on “strong hold” and likely to sell to a non-Indian collector for around €55,000 ($72,000). On their second outing in Delhi, Wiplinger said business was definitely up from last year and the serious collectors were out in force.

One thing that was blessedly absent from the fair was political controversy. After the recent travails of the Jaipur Literature Festival, who lost their star Salman Rushdie to what looks to have been a cooked-up security threat, the India Art Fair might have been forgiven for fearing something similar. At last year’s fair India’s oldest gallery, the Delhi Art Gallery, was forced to temporarily remove works by Indian modern master M.F. Husain after threats from Hindu nationalists who had long campaigned against Husain for his supposedly irreverent portrayals of Hindu deities. This year, with Husain dead, the nationalists have thankfully failed to show and a number of galleries were presenting work by this immensely influential figure.

The India Art Fair continues through Sunday, January 29 at the NSIC Exhibition Grounds, Okhla Industrial Estate in New Delhi.

Click on the slide show for highlights from the vernissage