“Looking back at the past decade up to now, it certainly feels like India is at a tipping point”, says Jagdip Jagpal, the director of India Art Fair (IAF) in New Delhi, which opened its 12th edition today.
Indeed, this year's IAF—South Asias largest fair, consistently described as the “barometer” for the Indian art market—appears more polished and confident than ever. Eighty-one exhibitors (six more than last year) are participating in the event, which also hosts a performance programme including works by the Lagos-based Jellili Atiku and Indian-born Piyali Ghosh, who performed at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
While Jagpal remains tight-lipped as to what she has up her sleeve for next year—the first under new management by Sandy Angus who purchased MCHs majority share of the fair last year—it is certain that the new decade also presents a new frontier for South Asian art.
Girjesh Kumar Singh's The Stained Robe (2020), made from the rubble of demolished brick walls, is selling at Rukshaan Art Gallery for around £35,000 Courtesy of India Art Fair. Photo: Jeetin Sharma
The fairs diversity of price points—ranging from £60 to £1m for an undisclosed Indian Master painting—is just one example of how IAF plays a part in maintaining a “balanced Indian art ecosystem”. This, Jagpal adds, in turn ensures that IAF is not affected by the “peaks and troughs” that face the wider Indian art market, which in the past few years has faced challenges brought on by governmental policies such as the Goods and Service Tax (GST) and banknote demonetisation in 2016. The preview day brought strong but not outstanding sales for Indias largest galleries, which are clustered by the fairs main entrance; many six-figure works are still “under negotiation”.
Works under £30,000, however, moved quickly in the opening hours. New Delhi's Nature Morte brought Bharti Khers Mother (2019) priced at around £100,000; but by the end of the VIP day, it was several works for around £25,00 that had sold, including Tanya Goels Mechanisms 8 (2020). Meanwhile, Chaterjee & Lal from Mumbai had sold just over half of its booth by the end of the preview day, including a 1980s Nasreen Mohaimedi graphite and ink-on-paper-work for around £25,000.
Still in play is IAFs most important rule dictating that 70% of the fair's floor space is given to Indian galleries selling South Asian art. This offers an opportunity for galleries in Indias secondary cities, such as Gallery White in the western city of Vardodara, to access the subcontinents full scope of collectors. The gallerys founder Vinit Nair says that by the end of the preview day, he had sold nearly all the work in his booth, including three-quarters of a new series of 120 photographs by Dayanita Singh. Per the artists request, the gallery only allowed one work to be purchased per person, with each piece priced at a highly affordable £180.
This year still saw a strong international contingent in attendance, the majority of whom were returning for the second or third time, keen to use the fair as a base to establish themselves with South Asian collectors. Although Pakistans galleries are unable to participate for logistical reasons stemming from the historic tensions between the countries, work by a number of Pakistani artists is on offer, including Rasheed Ashraen at Aicon Contemporary. Moreover, emerging markets from the region also get the opportunity to participate. Saskia Fernando Gallery, new to IAF this year, is the first Sri Lankan gallery to show at the fair.
From further afield, fair newcomers PSM from Berlin sold their booths largest and most expensive work—a painting by Daniel Lergon €15,000—to a Delhi-based buyer. Their director, Sabine Schmidt, attributes the sale in part to the gestural works focus on “materiality”, which she claims “resonates with South Asian customers, in contrast to the typical German buyer who is concerned far more about the works conceptuality”.
PSM is not the only international gallery whose strategy seems to involve appealing to the idea of "Indian taste". Showing at the fair for a third consecutive year, David Zwirner brought a series of blue watercolour-on-paper works by Marcel Dzama inspired by Bollywood movies. Specially commissioned for the fair and ranging from $15,000-$50,000, they were presented on a matching eye-catching mural, also by Dzama, painted on the gallerys booth.
According to Jagpal, it is important that international galleries ensure a commitment to the fair, rather than coming for just one year, gaining regional contacts and then leaving. It would seem that Zwirners continued faith has paid off, with the gallery reporting a successful first day of sales, including a 2017-2018 painting by Oscar Murillo for $350,000 within the first two hours. Notably, all sales, including works by Wolfgang Tillmans and Harold Ancart, went to regional collectors.
David Zwirner's booth featured a specially commissioned mural by the Canadian artist Marcel Dzuma Courtesy of India Art Fair. Photo: Jeetin Sharma
Consecutive returns by major international galleries certainly provide a sign of continued faith in South Asias art market, which last year moved from ninth to sixth place in ArtTactics global outlook rankings. However, moods have since shifted with recent reports of an economic slowdown, with the International Monetary Fund giving India its worst gross domestic product growth projection since the 2009 recession, due in part to a decline in private consumption.
This projection also follows a decline in overall art purchases as recorded in the public domain according to Artery Indias 2019 Indian art market report, which recorded the turnover of Indian art sales between January-December 2019 to have dropped to INR 559.6 crores (£59.6m) from 2018s recording of INR 704 crores (£75m)—a decrease of INR 144.4 crores (around £7.5m).