Over a year ago, when art patron Jehangir Nicholson’s collection found a home in a special gallery at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the inaugural exhibition showcased artists who lived and worked in Mumbai. After a long wait – a new display was to be mounted every six months – the second show opens at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery this fortnight. This time, the theme is based on gender. “We had three or four questions around which to develop an exhibition,” said art critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote, a trustee of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation. “We were looking deeply into Jehangir Nicholson’s collecting practice and decided to focus on his long interest in collecting art by women.” An important supporter of Indian art, Nicholson acquired works by women artists from the time he began collecting art and even funded the publication of a 1996 Marg volume on Contemporary Women Artists of India.
The title of the show, Voicing a Presence: Women Artists in the Jehangir Nicholson Collection, is as straightforward as its approach. The exhibition focuses on 25 women artists from the 60 that Nicholson bought when he was acquiring art between 1968 and 2001. For this show, 52 paintings and sculptures will be put on display in the 3,000 square-foot gallery located in the East Wing of the museum. Voicing a Presence includes some of the most important artists of the country such as Zarina Hashmi, Nasreen Mohammedi, Arpita Singh, Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Madhvi Parekh, Anjolie Ela Menon, Rekha Rodwittiya and Anju Dodiya. There are other lesser-known names – Tina Bopiah, Jayshree Chakravarty, Shakuntala Kulkarni, Sunita Shreshta and Vasudha Thozur – that point towards the wide range of Nicholson’s collecting practice. Though all the works are made by women they aren’t picked from any overt feminist concerns. However, most of the paintings and sculptures do dwell on the feminine, especially through the use of female protagonists in works by artists like Menon, Singh, Parekh and Rodwittiya.
Through its selection, particularly of artists who gained prominence in the 1970s and ’80s, Voicing a Presence hopes to highlight the historical intersection between the time when Nicholson was acquiring work by women artists and when their presence began to grow in the Indian art world. “It was only in the 1970s, with the flourishing of feminist politics across the country, and the rise of the narrative-allegorical movement in Baroda, that women became a significant presence in the art scene,” states a concept note on the show. “The exhibition attempts to convey the struggle of these courageous Indian women artists, their interrogation of social conventions, their reinterpretation of myth, fantasy and archetype, and their engagement with the creation of powerful new symbols.”
Indeed, Malani, Parekh, Singh and Sheikh, who established their practices during the era, and who organised the travelling exhibition, Through the Looking Glass, from 1986 to 1989, are known for their involvement in the collaboration among women artists of that time to display their work. But the exhibition doesn’t devote much attention to these artists, focusing instead on works from the 1990s by artists of subsequent generations. Among them is Dodiya, whose work though rife with female subjects isn’t about being a woman. “I cannot escape my gender but my work isn’t about the concerns of a woman or a woman artist,” she said. “It is about being an artist.”
In an age where artists reject restrictive labels, is it still relevant to segregate works based on gender without a specific historical context? When Dodiya began working, the problems she faced had more to do with the lack of a real art market than with being a woman artist, she said. “It was common in the 1980s to talk about women artists,” said Dodiya, but now “this tag is unnecessary and I would’ve liked to get rid of it from the title of the show.”
Dodiya’s generation and the ones that followed haven’t faced the same difficulties that their predecessors had in getting their work exhibited. With the mushrooming of galleries across the country, the conditions became more conducive for artists – women artists benefited too. Still, while the situation has improved, female and male artists are still not equal, said Malani. “If you look at auction records, women are not on par with men,” she said. “And this happens everywhere in the world. Women artists don’t get bought and sold as much as male artists.”
By Zeenat Nagree on April 27 2012 4.30am