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Vernacular Moment: Rethinking Tribal Art

The ethnocentric discourse that has followed Indian vernacular art is making way for a more appropriate and acceptable way of defining the artwork of the “tribal and folk community”, writes Julia Marchand

Julia Marchand  23rd Sep 2012

An untitled work by Madhya Pradesh-based Gond artist Narmada Prasad Tekam

uction house Saffronart recently organised an online auction for Indian Folk & Tribal Art and Objects, showcasing a selection of artworks and artefacts from so-called tribal and folk communities. This first auction of its kind clearly shows who the representatives of this niche market are. The works of Jangarh Singh Shyam — the unknown tribal boy who was trained as an artist at the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal and achieved international recognition before his death in 2001 — were the major sales during the auction. One of them, a painting with a snake in the foreground, with vivid fish-scale patterns on its skin harmoniously blending with the texture of the tree, sold for $17,064.

This auction inspires me to reopen the discussion about the persistence of such a profound term: 'tribal art'. Triggering a debate about 'tribal art' and what it refers to is an endless discussion leading to issues of colonial history and its typological obsession, the hierarchical bourgeois pyramid of taste, which demotes 'tribal and folk art' to the bottom, and the binary distinction between 'rural', 'craft' and 'urban' art.

One cannot gloss over history and its legacy, and neither can one erase 'tribal' from the language. On one hand this term acts as a label and operates as a shortcut. It is a signifier for the worldwide art market: art dealers use this term as a brand, in a sense, a way to appeal to targeted collectors and art lovers. On the other hand, it can also lead to misconceptions, such as that 'tribal' people are deprived of creativity, or that their work can in no way be understood in a contemporary context.

Over the last few years, curatorial undertakings have come up with new ways of tackling these issues. They gave us new parameters to re-define Indian contemporary art, encompassing marginalised art forms. To a certain extent, such exhibitions are contributing to the debate started by the founder-director of the Bharat Bhavan, Jagdish Swaminathan, and former director of the Crafts Museum Dr. Jyotindra Jain, from the 1980's onwards. Both emphasised the term adivasi, the Sanskrit term for 'indigenous people'.

In claiming its diversity and hybridity as part of contemporary art, India not only acknowledges its rich pluralistic existence but also re-configures the definition of contemporary. — Yashodhara Dalmia

In 2009 two Mumbai-based galleries – Chemould Prescott Road and Pundole Art Gallery -- simultaneously put up exhibitions showcasing major protagonists of Gond Art. The label "Gond Art" or "Jangarh Kalam" describes those colourful paintings representing gods and goddesses, animals and beautiful trees. It is a style initiated by the individual and talented artist Jangarh Singh Shyam in the 1980's, before becoming a collective art movement of some impact. Bhuri Bai, Ram Singh Urveti, Ladoo Bai, Narmada Prasad Tekam, who followed in Jangarh's footsteps, all had their work exhibited at Pundole Art Gallery. In the exhibition catalogue, the cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote adds a voice to the debate. In his essay, he avoids the term 'tribal' while seeking to define these works. Rather, he describes them as belonging to "the field of the third artistic production in contemporary India which is neither metropolitan nor rural, neither (post)modernist nor traditional".Image 2nd

Very recently, the selection of Jangarh Singh Shyam for ROUNDTABLE: The 9th Gwangju Biennale – the first Asian contemporary art biennale, which opened on 7th September — is in no way based on its marginalised origins: "He has been chosen as a contemporary artistic position" says Nancy Adajania one of the Co-Artistic Directors of the biennale. "'Positionality' signals the possibility of deploying one's agency in life and art and thereby resisting interpellations [roughly, when the ideology embedded in political and social institutions overcome the identity of individual subjects] such as 'rural', 'tribal,' 'skilled artisan' and all such hoary colonial-anthropological terms".

The two part-exhibition Vernacular, in the Contemporary in 2010/2011 at the Devi Art Foundation has become a landmark in the field. "The foundation began as a space where we could experiment (...) this two part-exhibition allowed an exploration of the 'vernacular' in the contemporary", said the co-founder of DAF Lekha Poddar. Curated by Jackfruit; research and design led by Dr. Annapurna Garimella, this exhibition showcased in-house names from the Lekha Poddar collection (Warli artist Jyvia Soma Mashe, Mithila painter Ganga Devi, Jangarh Singh Shyam and Bhil artist Bhuri Bai, to name a few) alongside newly commissioned pieces of vernacular artists. Vernacular describes the environment of artists working in a rural milieu who extend their traditional visual languages to translate contemporary events. At the time, I spoke with the exhibition's curator Dr. Garimella, and she opened up the debate about where vernacular artists stand in the global art world. She believes that these artists see themselves as belonging to a vernacular world while reflecting on global concerns through their works.

The globe painted by the young Warli artist Amit Mahadev Dombhare illustrated this: while using Warli pictorial language to paint around the world in February the artist shows tumultuous political events such as the 26/11 attack in Mumbai. The contemporary vernacular world is in no doubt "moving towards ever greater connectivity".Image 3rd

Those who went to the India Art Fair this year might have bumped into the combined stand of the French art dealer Hervé Perdriolle and Mumbai-based gallerist Abhay Maskara. Their collaboration, starting in Paris at galerie du jour with (M)other India, resulted in this surprising joined booth where they brought together vernacular artists alongside artists coming from an urban milieu (Priyanka Choudhary, T. Venkanna and Shine Shivan). "There was a sense of emergency to show something different and to extend the dialogue to art forms that are on the margins" confesses Abhay Maskara. For Hervé Perdriolle this exhibition responded to a need to show Indian art outside of an ethnocentric discourse. Moreover, "Those initiatives are in the lineage of Swaminathan and Pupul Jayakar." "It does celebrate and aim to be truthful to the diversity in contemporary Indian art forms".

As far as circulation is concerned, Handicraft and Handloom museums remain an outlet. Lekha Poddar is still a place to meet interesting artists. The young French collector Benjamin Nay noticed the increasing number of art dealers since he started collecting vernacular art in 2009. However, he'd rather deal with the first gallery based in Bhopal he worked with than any of the others: "We built trust over the years". Must Art Gallery and Arts of the Earth in Delhi offer alternatives to craft fairs. Vernacular art masterpieces are kept in substantial collections such as Poddar family, Foundation Cartier, Dr. Jain and Hervé Perdriolle to name a few. Others will be displayed during the 6th edition of the India Art Fair.

It seems that "tribal art" has somehow succumbed to a more appropriate word: vernacular art, a term that best describes the unique and rich diversity of the Indian contemporary art scene. "In claiming its diversity and hybridity as part of contemporary art, India not only acknowledges its rich pluralistic existence but also re-configures the definition of contemporary" (art historian and curator Yashodhara Dalmia.) Re-configuring the notion of contemporaneity in India goes hand-in-hand with its market, and the systematisation of vernacular production, circulation and valuation.

Julia Marchand is a French born, London-based art critic and curator graduated from the Sorbonne University and Goldsmiths College. Since 2010 she has been researching contemporary vernacular art from India.

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