Made in India: the new Indian contemporary-art scene

 Paris  |  6 February 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

A meeting with “India” lover, art dealer and collector Hervé Perdriolle. With discussion turning around ethnocentrism, vernacular culture, the art market and the Warli tribe…

Hervé Perdriolle is a collector as well as an art critic and exhibition curator. A promoter of Figuration Libre, he participated in the first exhibitions of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Ravinder Reddy in France. Since 1996, he has worked towards raising awareness of the “Other masters of India”, these contemporary artists stemming from tribal and popular art. In September 2009, he opened his collection to the public in his apartment-gallery near the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, where he welcomes art lovers by appointment…


What exactly is “Indian contemporary art”?

India is a country composed of singular histories. A place we find contemporary art stemming from the local cultures, and also contemporary art inscribed in the global culture, the type where we come across artists supported by major international galleries today, with close ties to the art market, this nebula which for me is an artistic and economic haze. I myself believe that culture is about complementarity, about differences that dialogue with one another; this is the richness which has always fascinated me ever since André Breton’s cabinet of curiosities or André Malraux’s imaginary museum. This is also why the global response doesn’t satisfy me. Stuart Davis once said something when he painted the neons in American cities as a prelude to Pop Art: “The universal is offered in local terms. Great art looks to the commonplace to find a meaning pertaining to life as a whole.” Finding the universal in the local: this is something that has always pleased me enormously.

Could you elaborate on this?

I imagine that Jackson Pollock, for example, also turned away from his European influences by drawing the terms of his universality – his dripping technique – from the local, from the dances and sand drawings of the Navajo Indians. Far from being contradictory, the universal and the local are complementary. Both enrich one another, and this is the diversity which makes up culture. Today, we have dropped the uniform of the avant-gardes to adopt the uniform of the art market. We need to go beyond these war machines which tend to homogenise the way we look at things. I like to overturn prejudices. So I consider that Western contemporary art is the true folklore, and not the works from local cultures. One thing that I’ve learned in India is that the idea of creation, as it has operated in contemporary art, is absurd. At the first exhibition which I organised at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, in 1998, I was told that Indian artists only reproduced motifs, always painting the same painting. But I think that interpretation, which is a key idea for me, is an art in itself. Duchamp was only an interpreter, undoubtedly more radical than others, but an interpreter of his cultural score. As for the origins of creation, leave them to whoever has the right to them! So in global contemporary art, there’s an enormous number of folkloric works, which are only interpretations – sometimes quite weak ones – of our cultural score.

Tribal art, vernacular art… Isn’t talking about the Indian identity in these terms a way to keep alterity at a distance?

Already, the term “vernacular” is quite fantastic. It’s the title given by the Devi Art Foundation – the biggest leading private foundation in India, the equivalent of the Fondation Cartier in France – to its major exhibition “Vernacular, in the Contemporary”, in 2010 and 2011. The exhibition showed contemporary artists from the global culture, but for the first time, also showed artists from the local culture, collected by Lekha and Anupam Poddar. If English is the language of International trade, then the vernacular, deriving from popular or tribal-art traditions, refers to the local. In India, you have to remember that tribes represent 8 % of the population, in other words 100 million individuals spread out over 10 % of the territory. The tribes are the first peoples in India, the ones called the adivasi, literally, “the first inhabitants”. Here we’re talking about the Indian aborigines, dating back over 10,000 years B.C., from animist cultures which believe that spirits inhabited nature; cultures far older than those of the dominant sacred arts stemming from Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism.

Do we still have a postcolonial, ethnocentric vision, marked by a certain condescendence, or are attitudes changing? What has changed since the big “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition in 1989 organised by Jean-Hubert Martin?

1989, the “Magiciens de la Terre”… It wasn’t until 2014 that we saw “Modernités plurielles” at the Centre Pompidou. Between the two, nothing was done, or practically nothing, to get out of this cultural ethnocentrism. Of course there was the “Paris-Delhi-Bombay” exhibition in 2011, at Beaubourg once again, and then the Indian Pavilion the same year at the Venice Biennale, or else the Hayward Gallery exhibition in London in 2013… But all this is very slow. It remains a struggle. But I’m observing a genuine change. What is tending to change the way we see things is the cultural curiosity shown by certain players who, for example, are turning towards Outsider Art, an Anglo-Saxon version of art brut which is entirely empirical, gathering these so-called “singular” artists outside the global system.

Can Indian contemporary creation be conceived of outside of European art?

We are gradually managing to, thanks to the boldness of a few collectors – such as Antoine de Galbert, founder of La Maison Rouge – who don’t look at the world through the same focal point. And then, what gives visibility to these art forms are economic cycles, the viewpoints of investors, those who are more excited by profits that they can make from an artwork than by the intellectual advance that the presence of an art brut work can bring to their collection. The economic aspect is important for many. It’s incidentally not by chance if for several years now, we have been looking more towards India or China, two players which are economically very present. Art history is following this curve.

When, historically, did contemporary art begin in India?

First of all, Indian modern art began later than in the West, after 1947 when the country gained independence. At the start of the 1950s, groups emerged in Bombay and Calcutta, made up of artists and intellectuals cutting free from colonialism by looking at tribal art and constructing their own vocabulary. As for Indian contemporary art, the starting point was the early 1990s when the art market became globalised and big international collectors arrived.

Should Indian contemporary art be defended from within to avoid history from once again being written by the West?

Indians are undoubtedly too close to their roots to see them. There are also more complex problems in India. The adivasi, these people from tribes, are still called “backward”, they are outside of the caste system. In the 1970s and 1980s, a few big Indian families started collecting tribal art, for example Lekha Poddar, often with a charity purpose, to support these communities. At the time, given these conditions, collection was undertaken without any critical gaze and without any distance; excellent works could stand alongside other far less good ones. Today, businessman Abhishek Poddar, who belongs to a distant branch of the family and who lives in Bangalore, has gathered a very fine collection of modern and contemporary art, as well as numerous works by Jangarh Singh Shyam. But there are not yet enough collectors in India for contemporary art to be structured like the Chinese market.

In India culture seems to be dominated by private bodies. I’m thinking of the Bharat Bhavan cultural centre, launched in 1982 in Bhopal by painter Jagdish Swaminathan… Has the State withdrawn, without setting a cultural policy?

Yes, we should also mention the KNMA, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, which opened in 2010 and which now plays a very important role. And also the Devi Art Foundation, in Gurgaon. You know, India is made up of federated states; some see the importance of defending contemporary culture, such as Madhya Pradesh which is opening museums, others less so…

Do you see yourself as an intermediary, a style adviser?

The role of the intermediary – André Magnin for African contemporary art also comes to mind – consists in giving visibility to artists, setting up exhibitions and bringing works into collections, which is the case with the Fondation Cartier or the Fonds Agnès b., loaning works as well, to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, for example… Indeed, recognition comes from overseas. This is the feedback effect which tells Indians: “We have something in our culture that we don’t look at enough”.

Mediation is a huge responsibility… Have you ever been criticised for having a European perspective?

I’ve always been against the “good native” myth. India is not a reserve like the United States. Not only this, I’ve always thought that an African mask can be interesting for its own sake, outside of its cultural context. I’m not an ethnographer, I’m interested in contemporary art. I think that the strength of images is greater than dialectics, that the image wields an even greater power than the word.

From what point can we really talk about a hatching of this market?

Very few pieces go onto the secondary market. The only one which really reached a noteworthy price was a work by a historic artist in Indian tribal art, Jangarh Singh Shyam. A painting measuring around 2 metres by 140 cm, presented at Sotheby’s, New York in 2010, which sold for $31,250. There’s a huge difference with Australian aboriginal art if you think about the record set by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, of $2.4 million. In fact, this is why I became a dealer: figures carry more weight than words. Saying good things is no longer enough…

So is validation by the market a key stage in recognition?

Yes, of course, but it isn’t making the million mark that is interesting. If today I wanted to show a retrospective on Jivya Soma Mashe or Jangarh Singh Shyam, it would be practically impossible. We don’t know how to locate the pieces which are scattered around. The day when works bring in more than $10,000, then everything will resurface. Economic recognition is indispensable; without it, we have no vision of the work. And then, you know, in these communities it’s important for there to be elements of pride. Let’s take the example of the Warli tribe, 200 km north of Bombay, 600,000 persons. Warli painting using only two colours – ochre for the background, and white for the subjects – is today an inspiration for fashion designers in India. A Coca-Cola ad from two years ago used a cast of typically Warli characters alongside a very Bollywood young man… Validation from the market enables an identification of the great figures who will emerge tomorrow, among these artists who define themselves as “peasant painters”, filling out their agricultural income by painting.

In India, only four or five galleries structure the market. There are also very few fairs: the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in the state of Kerala, then the Indian Art Fair in New Delhi, a fair in which Art Basel incidentally became a majority shareholder in September… Do you see this as a real lack?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the biggest Bombay gallery, the Chemould – when I say biggest, it must have been about 40 m2, smaller than my apartment – gathered the greatest artists… but without having a market. The gallery showed Tyeb Mehta, Sayed Haider Raza and Maqbool Fida Husain while also presenting Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jivya Soma Mashe at the same time. Few galleries in India show these artists, and not always well. But things are starting to happen, something is stirring. CIMA, a space which opened in 1993 in Calcutta, is renewing the landscape, just like Chatterjee & Lal in Bombay, a really good gallery. In Bombay, alas, the gallery Maskara, which was superb, has unfortunately closed recently. It was a remarkable place with incredible installations, perhaps a bit too gigantic, which only the Pinaults or Arnaults, who didn’t exist over there, could have bought. But the art-market crisis since 2008 has affected Indian contemporary painting. At one time everyone wanted to have an Indian or Chinese work in their collection, or rather, their portfolio… We reached crazy prices: practically one million for works by Subodh Gupta or Bharti Kher. Ever since, investors have disappeared, and only a handful of collectors has remained; the Indian market hasn’t understood that it’s been necessary to cut prices by four, five or six in order to start things up again. At the Christie’s sale on 14 September in New York, about which the press used the term “fallen angels”, Bharti Kher only raised $209,000 for a very large triptych.

What is the typology of today’s collectors in France?

They are collectors of contemporary art and never tribal art. I could mention Daniel and Florence Guerlain, among private individuals, or the Société Générale, among institutions. They are always people who are curious, who aren’t afraid of testing out new territory.




Hervé Perdriolle – Contemporary Indian Art. Apartment-gallery, 51 Rue Gay-Lussac, Paris 75005. Private visits by appointment:


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