'Khoj' for fine art

Being Radical

'Khoj' for fine art

Poised to redefine what is simplistically called ‘public art' with a new calendar replete with international art residencies, site-specific exhibitions and workshops, Khoj is on a new-high this year. A 680-page book titled The KhojBook (1997-2007) published by HarperCollins that was released in the capital recently has the art fraternity — even diehard Khoj critics, making a mad scramble to include the lavishly illustrated publication in their enviable book collection. But then, being radical comes easy to those at Khoj.
After all, Khoj International Artists’ Association itself began as a gift of an idea when Robert Loder,  the visionary founder of UK’s Triangle Arts Trust motivated a group of like-minded and young practitioners of art to create an open-ended, experimental space for themselves on their own terms; a space where they could make art independent of formal academic and cultural institutions and outside the constraints of the commercial gallery.

Artist revelations

Artist-led, it was an initiative for artists, by artists, with the only exception being Pooja Sood, who began her journey as a founding member and coordinator, and now spearheads the Khoj movement in India and South Asia as the organisation’s artistic director. Says Pooja Sood, Editor, The KhojBook, “The book was born with a desire to mark the first ten years of Khoj International Artists’ Association. What began as a celebratory impulse has, however, shifted into a consolidated reflection of art practice in India from 1997-2007. It has taken us three years to put together thought-provoking and insightful essays that situate and critique Khoj itself within a wider art historical context. What’s surely going to delight readers are the 101 interviews of leading artists of our times.”

These interviews are in fact, conversations, which are frank, revealing and insightful, moving far beyond the artist’s craft and moving into their backgrounds, inspiration, methods and philosophies. For instance, Indian contemporary art’s poster boy Subodh Gupta reveals in an interview to Jitish Kallat, “My life changed because I met Bharti (Kher); she came from abroad;  I couldn’t speak in English to her and she couldn’t converse in Hindi with me. Somehow, we fell in love with each other and she started telling me that I was making bad paintings. I thought, ‘She is right; let me think about what a good painting is’, and I began to change my work.”

 The artist admits being “broke for the most part” in early 90s, which makes the genesis of his trademark utensils (that now fetch crores) even more poignant. “When I first worked with utensils, I thought these are the only objects that connect with normal people. Also, they depict many things, such as life and death because we eat food using them and of course, we can’t live without food.”

Bharti Kher reveals her own tribulations as an artist when she articulates that as someone born and brought up in Britain, she had “Never been so confronted with myself as a woman on a day to day basis as I was in India.” She, however, chose to find parody within a feminist foregrounding of her works and remembers her initial reaction to a snake-like bindi on a woman’s forehead, which she took to be a sperm; the comedy and pathos of which was to later culminate in a solo called ‘Spit and Swallow’ in 1996.

Lighter moments of artists’ lives are also revealed through these chatty interviews when Sudharshan Shetty confesses he “spends time doing nothing” and needs deadlines to keep working. Arun Kumar H G reveals his fondness for Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian and Gigi Scaria for Agatha Christie novels! Pushpamala N admits that by using self portraiture, she utilises the element of humour as a device and as a philosophical content in her work while Sheba Chhachhi voices her concern about the commodification of photographs, both in media and art space.

All these artists and the remaining of 101 who have passed through the doors at Khoj over a decade share similar insights and anecdotes, each looking back at their relationship with the organisation with warmth and gratitude. 

The India of 1997 when Khoj began was a very different place. In 1997, India’s encounter with international art was limited to exhibitions brought in by the cultural arms of foreign embassies or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and opportunities to travel abroad came only via personal invitations or scholarships offered by the Inlaks Foundation and Charles Wallace Trust.

Public museums were apathetic and the few commercial galleries that existed — extremely conservative. Within this milieu, Khoj as an ‘idea’ was made tangible by the first workshop held in Modinagar on the outskirts of New Delhi for two weeks in 1997. The gathering of 24 mid-career artists — half local, half international, resulted in experimentation, stimulated conversations, threw up discomforts and differences, but nevertheless, forged contacts that extended well beyond the limits of time and place. Over the next four years, artists from across the world participated in this annual workshop at Modinagar.

Shares Geeta Kapur in her essay ‘A phenomenology of encounters at Khoj’, “Khoj has been especially conducive to site-specific works. In the generally conservative art scene of India, Khoj opened up a space for ‘irresponsible experimentation’.” As an example, she talks about her first glimpse of gay artist Tejal Shah in the winter of 2004, who hung upside down at a height of 15 metres against the wall of Khoj studios “looking like a homeless tramp.”

The initial euphoria over the success of the first workshop, however, was to soon wear off. Writes Pooja Sood in her opening article in the book, “We lost our administrative space and some of the working group were too exhausted to continue with their responsibilities. We learnt how to organise workshops on slim budgets, but fund-raising was a central concern. The working group produced a limited edition portfolio of silkscreen prints for sale — a fund-raising strategy that we have used ever since.”
The first breather came when in 2000,  through the good offices of Triangle, Khoj received its first three-year grant from Hivos, a development NGO in the Netherlands that was keen to encourage similar initiatives across South Asia. That year, they followed up the workshop with a pilot residency project with one Indian and two international artists in the borrowed warehouse of a generous photographer friend.

Writes anthropologist Rahul Srivatasava in his article in the book titled The Unbearable Confusion Around the Idea of Institutions, “When I stumbled upon Khoj, I was struck by its methodology of using residencies as a space in which the historical and social contexts of artists could be exchanged, facilitating new art practices.”

Challenging stereotypes

From the start, Khoj has worked towards the empowerment of so-called ‘third world’ artists. It was within such workshops that Fuji Hiroshi spent a week cleaning a sewer to enable goldfish to live, Simon Callery used the shifting sunlight to create an imagined painting on a boundary wall, Michael Shaonawasai cross-dressed at a local beauty parlour, Sheba Chhachhi excavated the personal stories of abandoned mill workers in Modinagar, Tania Bruguera collected the workshop’s used tea bags, imbuing them with memory and history, Peter Isuge made sculptures of trash, Anita Dube’s use of human bones became a crisis of belief for the Australian indigenous artist! Stereotypes were challenged and cultural differences prised open.

Writes Nancy Adajania, in her article ‘Probing the Khojness of Khoj’, “The achievement of the Khoj model is that it has transformed the lives and work of its practitioners. Regions such as Sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia, which Indian artists had virtually ignored under the influence of Western ascendancy, now became part of their active world picture.” Adds Pooja Sood, “Looking back, these workshops were perhaps the embryonic beginnings of a network of artist-run spaces in India — spaces with similar values and beliefs which, over time could develop different operating models and approaches to presenting practice.”

Even today, when the largest permanent collection of contemporary art from South Asia is housed at the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi, when exhibitions of Pakistani artists at leading art galleries in India are no longer exceptional, when a South Asian journal of visual culture with an editorial board from across the region is edited from Colombo, when artists regularly crisscross borders to teach, exhibit, mingle and celebrate, and abiding friendships (even marriages) exist across borders, those at Khoj believe that their attempt at connecting the erstwhile ‘zones of silence’ has reached a tipping point — the point when small things begin to make a big difference.

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