Artesign is not a real word. At least not yet. Of course being (presumably) a literate urbanite of some kind or another, you must have already known that. Were this another kind of column, I might have tried to pass ‘Artesign’ off as an emergent high-concept thing within the greater art world in the hopes that all of you readers would go out and start using it as though it meant something enormously intellectual and avant garde and whatnot. Happily for you (and for me) this is not going to be that kind of column.
What we’re going to do here is a little bit different. Artesign, I’d like to think, combines two distinct but connected disciplines in a simple, elegant and practical way (particularly as it helps me slim down my word count). For many people, the worlds of art and design are both peculiarly appealing and peculiarly alienating. Something about those wine-and-cheese gallery openings.
Something about words like ‘expressionism’ and ‘transversal’ and ‘rupture’ (when used to mean something other than what happens when a thing breaks open). Something about those forbiddingly well-dressed artists and wondering how they can afford to look so good when everyone knows that artists are supposed to be starving. Something about all of this stuff combined can make it all feel off-limits and far away. But it isn’t all that far away, and it certainly shouldn’t feel off-limits.
Because Artesign (get used to it, this word’s going to be everywhere), like just about everything else, is made by and for people, and I think the most interesting way of talking about it is through those very people. So on a Saturday afternoon in my own Artesign City, Mumbai, I gathered a cross-section of young, interesting figures from the city’s many different worlds of art and design to talk candidly about what’s wrong, what’s right and what’s exciting in the city we call home.
Of the people who joined me for the round table discussion (or technically a rectangular-table discussion, but anyway), just two grew up here in Bombay. Like so many in this city, the rest came by choice. Shahid Datawala — a photographer, collector and designer who seems to pick up and master a new medium each week — said at the very beginning of our chat, ‘Bombay called me’.
Cities do that, whether we’re talking about established art centres like New York and Tokyo, or new design boomtowns like Bangalore and Kochi — they call people. Bollywood director and born Mumbaikar Ayan Mukherjee, whose second film Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani became one of the highest grossing film in Bollywood history last year (not bad for a 30-year-old), describes the feeling as ‘attraction, affinity’ for his hometown.
For a lot of us, attraction is all about opportunity. I returned from New York because I felt that here I might have an opportunity to create a voice for myself, which, as you can tell by reading this, has turned out to be quite literally true. Sita Wadhwani, digital editor for Vogue India and one of my favourite voices in Indian fashion, put it well, “Work and freedom come together when we talk about Bombay. Here I can be my most natural self.”
When I asked Elise F.V.E., a private curator and director of the Asia Arts Project, she enthused simply, but accurately, ‘There’s so much to do here’. After living for years in Paris, Elise feels, “I can really add value here. Paris isn’t that bothered whether I’m there or not, whereas in Mumbai there are certain things that I feel do affect people.” The others immediately chimed in, “We all feel that.”
“We can be relevant here in some way,” Ayan added. Indeed we can.
But that sense of relevance brought us to another important question, a question that relates directly to what I’m doing sitting here writing this column: Relevance for whom?
While most of us talking that day manage to hit the galleries with some frequency, we also recognise that most people simply haven’t the time. “There’s a very small community of people who actually can travel around Bombay without a problem,” Shahid pointed out. Sita nodded vigorously.
Some of my interlocutors admitted that they rarely felt they had access to the gallery scene. Ayan, who perhaps falls somewhat outside the mainstream conception of the ‘art world’, noted two events as the only highlights in the previous year’s art calendar: OTLO, a Design Week event I co-curated in Bandra, and Anurag Kashyap’s Barfi! Both things, he pointed out, were widely accessible, one thanks to its placement in the suburbs, the other thanks to its placement... well, basically everywhere.
Shilpa Gupta, whose work has appeared in prominent museums and galleries around the world, most recently gracing the Carter Road Promenade and the courtyard at Phoenix Mills, sees Mumbai’s art world as too segregated from the vast majority of Mumbaikars. “Even if a gallery were in Malad,” she says, “if it were close to a mall, I’m sure people would go.”
Byculla’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum, as Elise points out, sits nearer a raucous vegetable market than to the core gallery district, and yet thanks to the zoo that sits alongside it, that museum attracts enormous numbers of footfalls, many of them from people who might not even know that Mumbai has an art scene.
But lots of people in Mumbai — people, for instance, like you — do know about the city’s art scene, yet even those of us who live it can at times feel cut off — just ask Ayan, whose working hours have made it virtually impossible for him to drop into a gallery in years. And yet for most people the distance that separates them from the art world is less physical or temporal than (forgive me for being briefly jargony) metaphysical.
Many people feel that art, especially contemporary art, is over-their-heads, that they don’t ‘get it’ (if you are one of those people, rest assured we all are at times). More to the point, the people writing about art tend simply to write for one another. “How do you make writing about art interesting?” Sita asked (rhetorically, I suppose). “How do you make it less serious in a way that’s not so reverential and heavy?”
That, I hope, is where Artesign comes in. I want for this easy, perhaps even slightly silly, word to represent a simpler, more entertaining language for art and design, a way to bring DNA readers across India that much closer to the pulse of art and design on the subcontinent.
Over the next 12 months, my weekly column will give you the scoop on 12 Artesign cities, seen through the lens of the people and spaces that make them special. You can look forward to glimpses of inspiring homes and galleries, to conversations with prominent artists across South Asia and glimpses of the art world’s future as they see it. You’ll get the inside scoop on what’s happening now and what’s coming next. You’ll have excursions to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. At the end of 2013, we’ll even offer up our very own awards for the year’s best and worst in art and design.
Wherever the galleries may be, and wherever you may live, every Sunday I’ll do my best to bring the best of Artesign directly to you right in these pages.
So this first column is, in a sense, my own little gallery opening, with the best guest list in town. Another Spoiler: You’re on it.