Issue 20

Living Art on the Streets of Assam: Interview With Street Artist Neelim Mahanta

In October 2020, the most popular Assamese singer, Zubeen Garg released a song on YouTube called “SILAA”. A surprising cast in the video of the song was a lesser-known street artist from Guwahati, Neelim Mahanta, whose work Garg’s song appeared to celebrate. Mahanta’s paintings on the walls of public spaces have become a common sight for residents of Guwahati, and many other small towns and villages of Assam. Speaking to us over a call from the riverine island of Majuli where he was celebrating  the ‘Aali-Aye-Ligang’ festivities of the Mishing community, Mahanta opened up about his beginnings, his work, and his thoughts on art and life.

“I was connected to art from a very young age. I was always painting things, and ideas were developing within me subconsciously. My interests would vary but painting was always a constant,” the 30-year old artist claimed.  

He created his first street art in 2012 on the wall of a neighbourhood grocery called ‘Rajkhowa’s store’, a place where he would participate in “adda”, a colloquial term for long outdoor hang-out sessions with friends. Friends and community have always been integral to his art  “I would just buy some paint and start painting on my own. And my friends and people around would pick paint brushes too and something would come out of it.”

After completing his schooling Mahanta joined the Guwahati College of Architecture for three years, after which he took admission in the Delhi College of Arts in 2013. “Studying architecture taught me how to look at space in different ways. In Delhi I learned the finer technical aspects, and was exposed to artistic creations of other people,” he recalls.

By 2016 Mahanta admits to having become bored of academics. He dropped out in the third year of the four-year course at Delhi College of Arts. “Not getting a degree did not matter much to me. I started painting on my own and in fact, began to learn better.” Mahanta stayed back in Delhi for another year, exploring spaces and painting wherever he could. After that, he worked with an organisation named “Street Art India Foundation” in Hyderabad. By the end of 2016, he had decided to return to Guwahati.

“When I returned to Guwahati there was no mainstream street art here. We had dirty public walls with paan stains, and no one imagined art in public spaces. I started painting and some others joined in my efforts. Soon we started travelling to rural areas and painting on public walls, especially schools.” Mahanta and fellow artists who assisted him decided to collaborate under the banner of “Living Art”, envisioned as a creative movement of independent artists. Living Art emerged both as a creative philosophy and an attempt to organise artists. It evolved as an idea that explored the possibility of art beyond paint and walls.

“We envision Living Art as a journey of life. The idea is to connect art as much as possible to the process of living. Through art, we want to give life to all things that exist. We want to offer new perspectives, such that every wall that we paint on, every space we explore will demand different artistic expressions. For us, the process is to comprehend a space or an object and analyse its experiences and surroundings. An artwork and our creative expressions emerge after that,” Mahanta explains.

For Mahanta painting is a universal language. He believes that in a world where different languages are spoken, painting and visual art are vital for global communication. Explaining the themes that he likes to explore in his work, Mahanta said; “My main subject of analysis is light. Light is a natural phenomenon that we represent in art through colours. Through colours, our expressions change depending on time and space. I do not wish to be bound by one concept but I am bounded by colours, lines, and shapes. Through colours, lines, and shapes, I want to connect with everyone. Be it a professor, or a boatman, be it in a city or a village, I want my art to assimilate with everything and everyone.”

Growing up, Neelim Mahanta’s greatest inspiration was Albert Einstein. It was not Einstein’s scientific genius, but it was the simplistic ways in which the Nobel Laureate used to communicate complex concepts is where admiration arose. “Einstein might have been a physicist, but he had an extremely creative way of expressing himself,” Mahanta says. Apart from Einstein, Mahanta claims to be greatly influenced by impressionism, an artistic movement of 19th century Europe. However, he did not believe art could serve its purpose by being inaccessible, a reason why he was attracted to street art.

“Why should paintings be confined to galleries? Why should only a class of rich people have access to it?” Mahanta asks emphatically. “The answer was to bring art to the streets. Across the world, artists started painting on the walls and streets of urban spaces. But we questioned why the same couldn’t happen in villages too? Hence through Living Art started travelling to rural Assam to create street paintings and promote art,” Mahanta says.

Mahanta’s painting of the then jailed anti-CAA activist Akhil Gogoi

In December of 2019, many parts of Assam erupted in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Like many other artists, Mahanta registered his protest through street art. By the virtue of being a visual language, Mahanta believes art is inseparable from politics. “After all we are all political beings, and creative protests can never be suppressed. I believe protests should always be creative. It should be a mobilisation of ideas, of poetry, of colour. Collective power always comes from creative expressions. Creative protests are also the only way to prevent violence in protests,” Mahanta believes.  

Mahanta’s work is now recognised by people across the state. Apart from Zubeen Garg’s song, in 2021 the Government of Assam reached out to Mahanta and the Living Art group to paint the walls of the newly constructed flyover in Dispur. Lakhs of commuters daily pass by that flyover, driving through Mahanta’s paintings. However, he believes it was a painting of Zubeen Garg in Lakhimpur which remains his most popular work.

“People started taking selfies around the painting, and it became really popular on social media. People started recognising the beauty of street art after that. I was also able to connect with Zubeen Garg after that, and SILAA happened subsequently. Now the area around that painting has become a recreational spot, people come to take photographs, and meet friends. A Dhaba has also come up nearby,” says Mahanta.

Over the past few years, Neelim Mahanta’s paintings have gained considerable attention in the creative landscape of Assam. His street art has contributed to a re-imagination of public spaces in the state with many more young artists exploring public walls. “Artists have to keep their eyes open and keep their mind free. An artists’ talent may know no bounds, but unless it is utilised for some social good, it is of no use. The attempt should always be to connect art and life,” Mahanta says. 

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics.

Picture Credits: Instagram: mahanta_livingart, Facebook: Neelim Mahanta 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 19

Art Is Personal, the Personal Is Political, They Are Social and to Most Ephemeral

The solar system known to man has one sun. All the planets in spite of being individual entities, revolve around this fireball, and it dictates when days start and end, where, when and why shadows fall if at all, across these planets. The world of art too works along similar lines.  Though marked by various ‘isms’, it finds itself in a state of the ‘contemporary’ unregulated by any one visible entity but regulated by many that aren’t visible to the layman. The art that is visible on the hallowed walls of institutions committed to ‘encouraging’, ‘preserving’,  ‘promoting’ and ‘teaching’ art, function as peepholes. They cease to be passive observatories,  for these institutions are functioning within a community that lets very few cross from the fringes to the inner world.  

Art, often understood as the application or expression of human creative skill and/or imagination, would lead us to question whether imagination works within the defined, or does it instead navigate its way around what is known and negotiate a new understanding by creating something that isn’t. While art has been written about through the lens of practises and periodisation in abundance, it continues to remain a phenomena that eludes many. By virtue of its scope to permeate the various categories we live within to compartmentalise life,  it is personal, the personal is political, they are social and to most ephemeral. If art in itself conjures up this thesaurus marked by subjectivity, then what is contemporary art? How is it connected and altered to the larger idea of economics, and where do institutions come into this large network of connections, while attempting to decode this phenomena? 

Contemporary Art refers to specific conditions of artistic production that have flourished under the latest phase of global capitalism, also known as Neo-Liberalism in some areas. This segment of artistic production insofar is maintained by a global network of art institutions. 

Contemporary Art, thus as we know it today can be seen as a product of post-socialist transition. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1991, was seen as the fall of one of the superpowers,  the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but more importantly the failure of the ideology it represented, Socialism. This political event rooted in history becomes an important place to find the initial beginnings of Contemporary Art, in the margins of the Western World. The manifestation of the institutionalisation of contemporary art took place at its own pace in the  Western world, but did so more clearly in Eastern Europe, where the transition of political regimes were taking place from socialist to capitalist. This has also been dubbed as  ‘Capitalism by Design’

It is thus visible, how the inception of contemporary art, one that altered artistic behaviours across an entire region, modelled after the Western world was heavily rooted in the idea of capitalism, thus being directly related to economics, and politics. 

Museums, both privately and publicly funded, galleries, university departments etc present an image of ‘art’ to the viewer with a sense of authority. An educated gaze might raise questions, but more often than not, the layman will absorb this as the definition of what art is in present times. Thus, altering the present narrative of this world, and its functions. After jumping down this rabbit hole, I further started linking these institutions to the larger understanding of economics. The art world too is affected by it, as can be seen by what we know as the ‘boom’ periods, when art sales sky-rocketed, this too cannot be devoid of the collectors and their collections, for they fall at the heart of this economic marriage, but how big a role does economics have, is a question I am nurturing. The Soros Centre for  Contemporary Art network (SCCA) for example, played a huge role in establishing what contemporary art was in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This was a philanthropic model 

which was implemented throughout the 1990s’ in eighteen post-socialist countries. Its activities created a series of changes that led to a managerial revolution in the arts. The main outcome of this revolution was the eclipse of the patron, and the rise of philanthropic initiatives. 

This can be seen as one of the many ways institutions that ‘facilitate’ art, alter the artistic behaviours and the language of contemporary art on a whole. One of the manifestations that represents the poignancy of how the period of ‘transition’ for these nation-states affected art can be seen with the help of Documenta as an example. The history and the name of  Documenta – a or perhaps one of the most influential spaces for contemporary art. Its history is connected to the ‘transition’ period as well as the institutionalisation that took place in the aftermath of World War II, in West Germany. Its early artistic objectives were intricately related to documenting the advance of democracy and the spread of the ‘free market’  ideology, it in a way mapped West Germany’s break with its authoritarian past. 7 

In light of how the change of political and economic ideologies changed the nature of these institutions, it is important to note the interaction they have with the world at large. While the role of ‘contemporary art’ has been influenced by larger forces, it has shaped these forces in turn. Contemporary Art and its supporting structures thus become important tools in cultural diplomacy. They have the ability to represent through the means of an artwork or an artist’s concern, alternatives to a larger question. 

These linkages thus hold merit in my eyes, as an artist and academic. In light of the connections one makes, it gives Barthes’ analogy of the ‘Death of the Author’ a new meaning. It questions the free will and the choices that exist behind these manifestations and decisions, is the artist being created, or is the artist creating out of free will? The very conception of contemporary art was political, and its growth ever since has only intensified its ties to the forces of economics and the politics of the globe. It would not be premature to recognise art as something that goes beyond the idea of a vocation, but as powerful collateral to negotiate and mediate the world at large. 

Vishnupriya Rajgarhia is a Levett Scholar from the University of Oxford, and represented the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She is currently the youngest Assistant Professor at Anant National University, previously having taught at Ashoka University as Visiting Faculty.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 19

Art on the Gram: 4 Art Pages We Love Right Now

  1. It’s Nice That

An editorial platform founded in 2007 that champions artists, photographers, and magazines. Consider the platform a one-stop-shop for everything creative and currently trending.

  1. Nancy Spector

A curator, art historian, and author, Nancy is the chief curator at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Her stunning Instagram is a perfect window into the galleries of America and other parts of the world. 

  1. Art Basel

An international fair staged across Miami, Hong Kong, and Basel, the fair’s official Instagram page is a treat to the eyes for all lovers of art and beauty. 

  1. KEIN magazine

A magazine based in Istanbul, KEIN’s Instagram page is perfect for fans of provocative art. From pop culture to photoshop, the magazine features a diverse blend of different art forms. 

(P.S: If you love political artwork, this account is for you!)

Jaidev Pant is a third-year student of Psychology and Media at Ashoka University. He is interested in popular culture and its intersections with politics, gender, and behaviour.

Picture Credits: Social Cut

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 19

India Art Fair 2022: Director Jaya Asokan On What to Expect This Year

The India Art Fair is the leading platform to discover modern and contemporary art in South Asia. In anticipation of its upcoming 13th edition – taking place in New Delhi from 28 April till 1 May 2022 – Jaidev Pant has an insightful conversation with Jaya Asokan, the Fair Director.


The India Art Fair has become a trademark exhibition for modern art, with people from all over the country looking forward to the event. What can one expect this year? What should audiences watch out for?

The upcoming edition of the India Art Fair will be first and foremost a celebration of the strength and resilience of artists from India and South Asia. From the monumental fair facade being designed by the young Indian artist Anshuka Mahapatra, our pick from an open call we led in partnership with The Gujral Foundation, to a long and diverse list of names being shown within our exhibition halls for the first time, the aim is to give a platform to new talent and to present the bright future of South Asian art. 

Along with the stellar list of 60+ galleries from India and abroad presenting at the fair, an exciting new dimension of this year’s fair will be the unprecedented number of non-profit art institutions, museums and artist collectives. From a large-scale mural celebrating gender and creative expression by Bangalore based transartist collective Aravani Art Project supported by Saffronart Foundation, spotlighting grant-winning projects of Serendipity Art Foundation and Space 118 to incredible presentations by legacy arts organizations such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Kochi Muziris Biennale, Chennai Photo Biennale and many others, we hope we bring the crucial work being done at the grassroots level in India into focus.

At the same time, we will have an eye to the region’s rich art history, with a newly revamped ‘Platform’ section being led by curator Amit Kumar Jain, and including a selection of masterpieces of Indian living traditions, including Madhubani paintings, primitive bhuta masks and bronze sculptures. We believe in the dynamic cultural scene of India today, the binary classification of folk and contemporary art simply does not hold, and we are pushing to place both at a level playing field.

You can also expect to see important and iconic works by India’s most loved modernist artists from Amrita Sher-Gil to M.F. Husain –– a perfect gateway into understanding and appreciating our art history. At the same time, our public programme of talks, performances, outdoor art projects and artist-led workshops will show off the contemporary voices and presentations, giving audiences an opportunity to participate and take a closer look at the variety of works on display. 

Do you think the rise of NFTs and technology in art has changed what kind of art and artists sell in the market? Will the fair be incorporating the NFT currency or conversations around it in any form? 

The fair is a place to reflect on and give shape to contemporary art world trends. For the 2022 edition, we have invited, a pioneer in this field in India, to present digital and NFT works by young Indian artists like Amrit Pal Singh, Khyati Trehan and Laya Mathikshara in a dedicated space at the fair. We will also have a talk around NFTs through which we hope to shed some light on the blockchain model and how artists are using it. 

I feel modes of circulating and selling art are always changing, and whether it is art that goes through traditional routes or NFTs, ultimately the story and work put into the piece will always be most important, along with the community of people it inspires. We are looking to NFTs as an exciting possibility, the full potential of which has not yet been fully explored, and are keen to lead the discussion in this space. 

Do you think with the pandemic and the consequent shift to mostly virtual art exhibitions and viewings, more diverse audiences are becoming interested in the art world? Or has the digital divide in India further limited who can access art-related events? 

For sure! Digital has allowed art to flourish beyond the big cities, where most galleries are located, as well as become an important means for both collectors and creatives to discover and follow the works and careers of their favourite artists. Although it can never fairly replace seeing and experiencing art in flesh and in person, the power and potential of the online cannot be understated.

Social media especially has become a major medium for sharing and consuming art, and from a market perspective too, it’s having an incredible impact on the art world. Art can be shared, admired and bought all on a smartphone. In very concrete terms, the result is that we are seeing millennials and young buyers buying art online and on social media, without ever having to visit a physical gallery, art fair or auction house.

Galleries have been quick to jump on board too and are using social media and other digital platforms to expand their presence, publish prices and increase exposure for their artists. And both galleries and artists are seeing a growth in art transactions originating online, even among their more traditional “offline buyers”.

I also see digital spaces and communication as an opportunity for knowledge sharing and cross-boundary collaboration. In fact, we recently held a fully virtual international symposium on the future of South Asian art titled ‘Staging the Contemporary’ with Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai, with tremendous results. Artists and practitioners from all across the region from Mizoram and Assam, Delhi, Colombo, Karachi and Kabul were able to come together with a global audience — a feat that is only possible online.

As per you, what kind of art is more popular in the country currently? Are people gravitating towards more traditional artworks and artists or has the modern art space with emerging artists taken over the scene?

Even though there is an active and growing interest in digital art, photography, performance art and so on, the buying we are seeing currently largely remains in the domain of more traditional art forms like painting, prints and sculpture. The fair is the perfect place to discover art, across a range of mediums, styles and price points. Wherever possible, we attempt to push these boundaries and bring in new visions of what art can be to our audiences.

What vision do you have for the Art Fair 5 years from now? Where do you think the art world will be in terms of artists, gallery owners, and consumers?

India’s art market is dynamic with strong domestic demand. The market has been resilient and the pandemic year sales recorded an increase of 57% from the previous fiscal year sales of ₹560 crore / US$ 75 million. 

We’ve seen greater collaboration and curiosity amongst art world players to learn, experiment and adapt to changing audience needs, whether it’s galleries coming together under collaborative digital efforts such as South-South, InTouch and TAP India to sell works, or engaging local audiences under Mumbai Gallery Weekend and Delhi Contemporary Art Week. Auction houses have upped their digital games and artists too, with online sales initiatives such as Art Chain India, and supporting each other through the challenging times. 

As a fair, we are striving to take this upward trajectory further, in terms of continuously bringing not just fresh new artists but also nurturing new and young collectors. The art world can be daunting and opaque, and a big aim of the fair is to open access, whether through the strength of our editorial and social media voice or year-round programming to give local and international audiences an insight into India’s dynamic arts scene. 

Moreover, the boundaries of art are certainly blurring, and we welcome it. A big aim for the future is to build more and more bridges with other creative fields such as design, fashion and architecture — continuously welcoming people into the world of visual art from neighbouring territories and renewing our idea of what art can be. 

Finally, I believe the future of art will be incredibly diverse. I really hope we’re able to broaden our horizons and champion artists across different backgrounds, genders, age groups and abilities. 

Jaya Asokan is Fair Director at India Art Fair, where she is responsible for the strategic and curatorial enhancement of the fair, and increasing its footprint in India and internationally. Bringing over 20 years of experience in numerous creative industries including arts, culture, design, fashion and luxury, Jaya has played an important role in repositioning the fair whilst spearheading international gallery and institutional participation along with overseeing the partnerships and production.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 19

From Strolling to Scrolling through Galleries: How Has the Art World Changed?

According to a 2021 survey, social media users form 57% of the world’s population. Over the last decade, art and culture on social media have journeyed through several aesthetics and ideals. A canvas has been replaced by a screen, a paintbrush by a smartpen and the intricacies of brushstrokes and handmade forms are waning. User-generated content has become the primary focus. Artists’ styles are fueled by the need to please the audience, as what appeals to them is what will get noticed. Appreciation is now marked by ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ versus technique and skill. 

These broadened digital platforms gave birth to new genres, like experiential art where the piece relies on its ability to be captured by a phone and deemed Instagram worthy. Success is measured by reposts, comments and the audience’s ability to repurpose a piece for their personal social media, falling prey to a consumer-oriented approach. Yayoi Kusama, pioneering Instagram art sensation, has developed several such immersive experiences, attracting global audiences. While such installations have been a huge success worldwide, with millions of trending hashtags, are they only working to fit consumer ideals and seek engagement ? Can Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirror’ rooms be compared to Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’? Are his immersive pieces mere attempts to appease the masses?

A recent study traces through these shifts in art spaces, audiences and aesthetics, where researchers Lachlan Macdowall and Kylie Budge say: 

Instagram shifts the spaces, scale, speed, and terms of visual culture. It generates new terms (#instaframe) and forms (the selfie) and creates and organizes new audiences. Overall, Instagram affects the institutions of the art world.” 

The boons and banes of social media in the art world are a tipping scale, the unspoken impact of which remains in the nature of creating and experiencing art. The limitations of Instagram’s square grid, curated exposure through algorithms, and repetitive styles restrict accessibility and dilute creativity. Artists design pieces to fit the 1:1 dimensions of an Instagram post, using it as a basis to create, consequently limiting the scope of their ideas. In fact, consumers are only shown what an algorithm chooses to expose them to, based on their previous engagement. This limited exposure tempts artists to design within a niche aesthetic, which receives the most views, giving way to monotony.

While the media has given people an equal and accessible medium to engage with art, the digital divides remain. Boosting posts on Instagram requires significant payments, while promotion and management are now the job and expense of the artist. They are required to spend anything between a few hundred to forty thousand rupees daily to promote each post for a menial financial return, making it a luxury only some can afford. In fact, with the increasing need to create and market art digitally by using technological tools like Apple Procreate and other software, is the art industry still retaining its “elitist” roots? 

Increased accessibility also enabled the commercialisation of art, and an entrepreneurial mindset among artists who now sell and commission artwork for brands in advertising and marketing gigs, making them more of a commodity than before. Social media feeds act as portfolios, thus putting a tremendous emphasis on not merely the physical piece but its social media appearance.

Social media has been taking the art world by storm for over a decade now. NFTs  (non-fungible tokens) however, made their mark in 2021 with sales valued at approximately 25 billion.  In several instances, artists have been hesitant to upload artwork online due to a lack of protection against piracy, theft and copyrights. NFTs by providing bonds of authenticity acts as a solution but is now being wrongly equated with art. 

Everything ranging from a tweet to a selfie to a hand-painted canvas is sold for millions of dollars. Everyone is a creator, right from your next-door neighbour who posts pictures of her cat every day to a famous artist uploading their painting. The exclusivity of art has been overshadowed by the agency of online media.

Social media and NFTs together have created a clutter of content online, with no filters or screening system but much rather an abundance. This commodification has undermined the uniqueness and scarcity of creations, stealing away the very roots of purchase; demand.  

This begs the question- why will a consumer pay millions of dollars to purchase a piece of art, which can be downloaded, shared or printed for free? 

The rising hype around NFTs only increases the impending threat on physical artwork. Pushing the boundaries of artistic trade, they continue to endanger museums and galleries. While sceptics have held their ground, globally NFTs have snuck their way into auctions, art fairs and online marketplaces including social media. 

NFTs continue to sanitize and hamper the creativity and aesthetics of art. Auctions like the Gobardhan Ash collection in Prinseps Mumbai sold both physical and blockchain versions of pieces. Celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan have launched collections, businessmen have created NFT exclusive marketplaces like Wazirx all furthering the extinction of natural art forms. NFTs cater to consumers’ laziness, and the growing demand for online retail by providing an easy way to purchase assets like art, without the need for storage.
Social media and NFTs align on their agenda of agency and access of art to all. Platforms like Twitter have allowed NFTs as profile pictures, Youtube distributed them to key influencers and Reddit is in the process of doing the same. Artists have eagerly joined the NFT craze adopting a commercial lens towards art. Higher rates of return and surety of financial gains have caught artists attention. The slowly fading presence of innovation-driven artwork will accelerate once social media platforms also start selling NFTs, reducing them to mere means of monetary gain and not displays of unique talent.

Maahira Jain is a third-year student at Ashoka University studying Psychology and Media studies. She is a movie buff and is extremely passionate about writing and travelling.

Picture Credit: Unsplash

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 17

Photos: What’s Stopping You From Rediscovering the Natural World Near You?

Nature yearns to be noticed and appreciated. The lockdown has made us cherish its ceaseless charm and hear its overwhelming cry for help before it’s too late.

Photo Credits: Aditi Singh

Photo Credits: Maitreyi Sreenivas

The gift of nature photography is that it explores nature, the backdrop to our being that we often gloss over. What’s stopping you from rediscovering the world?

Photo Credits: Vijayaditya Singh Rathore

Photo Credits: Udayan Mehra

These photos first appeared on Caperture’s Instagram page. They have been republished with the permission of Caperture, Tarang and the photographers.

Issue 17

Kapur & Miyazaki: Wild celluloid connections from the 7th Century CE to 2022

Yet another Kapoor in film? 

At about the time, a second generation of the Kapoors were becoming a hit in Hindi cinema, animation films were getting packed movie halls in Japan for the first time. The oil from a camphor tree, was being used to make film stock. All three from the 1950s.

Camphor, from the kapur family was a key ingredient in the making of celluloid. So yes, yet another kapur is in film.

Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Hailed by some as the first industrial plastic in the late 19th century. Early still photographers and filmmakers through the 1920s to the 50s, found it extremely moldable. Until acetate replaced it. 

While the jury is still out on which is better, Indians have known about the natural and artificial version of camphor, for several centuries. The 7th century Ayurveda work, Mādhava Cikitsā, advocates its natural variety for treating fever. Egyptians embalmed their dead in it. Both civilizational lands continue to value its fragrance. As Karpura in Sanskrit, Hindi and several Indian languages. 

In colloquial North Indian use, some shorthand it to kapur. This slow growing tree is a Taiwanese and Japanese native, with many species of its evergreen variety found from India to Egypt, Mongolia to Vietnam and China to Southern United States.

Camphor, actually references the species, Camphora. For the chemical in the oil, found in the tissue of the tree. Used by modern organic chemistry eventually, to also make film. The East Asian avatar is still used to make both insecticide and perfume. Indians currently find it handy for moth-free cupboards, while many cultures still treat it a like noxious weed.

In Japan though, it remains pretty sacred. An 1890 article in the Scientific American, reminds us that some of the best camphor exported to the rest of the western world back then, came from Southern Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, film director and co-founder, Studio Ghibli, featured it like a body guardian presence in his 1988 anime, My Neighbor Totoro.

Isabel Stevens, writing in the November 2021 issue of the film magazine, Sight & Sound, evokes this connection, “Miyazaki’s film is true to life in acting like a guardian to the girls, whose mother is in hospital, just as it does to shrines across Japan. Throughout the film, the tree is tenderly observed in many different shades of watercolor. All manner of green by day, ink black, grey and purple by night, and dappled with yellows at sunrise.” Stevens also points out that the oldest version of this tree still alive in Japan, is said to be 1500 years old. Another one, she speaks of, survived the atomic bombing at a Nagasaki shrine.

Resilience, clearly a quality of this tree also surfaces in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films, through a variety of protagonists. Who navigate uncertainty or change. Young girls go on adventures and come of age in some significant or quirky way. While creatures drawn from Japanese myth, simply help pause or protect. Shape-shifting, between the supernatural and the wild. 

Take Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, when it released in 2001. It had a mountain witch and part of the film’s name in Japanese, implied a hidden deity, kamikakushi. A folk tale reference there. Where when a girl was lost, the Japanese were prone to suggesting, she has gone to the kamikakushi. This is invoked in the film’s story as well. 

Miyazaki’s fantasy, as a comfort food offering also speaks to his own youth. When Japan began modernizing quickly in the 50s, his placement of protagonists in rural settings, protected by folklore, was as much to connect the young, as a touch of staying rooted. Himself.

After all, Japan has worn its own past-continuous animistic tryst with nature and spirit life, like a second skin. Be it Japanese literary references of ghost foxes, going all the way back to the 11th century work, Genji Monogatari. Or the more zombie-in-a village-graveyard anime hit, Jujutsu Kaisen, in the Japan of 2021. 

While Indians can watch both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away on Netflix. Miyazaki’s own tripping the light fantastic has created an enduring following, both at home and abroad. This September, when the Academy of Motion Pictures finally opened USA’s first proper Museum of Film, they celebrated with a Miyazaki retrospective.

In another American hat tip to a wider and younger Japanese anime creativity, nature and film touched base in a new way. Seven of Japan’s anime studios got their hands on some unexpected material. To reimagine the Star Wars connections.

On an open invite from the US franchise. The New York Times pointed to this landmark east-west sharing. ‘It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise.

Each anime studio worked its own style and story. Making a rock opera, a family centric reflection and an ecological tale. Nine shorts by nine individual directors. All of them available on Disney Hotstar as a collection called Star Wars: Visions.

In fact in a curious case, the one US state to get the first Disney hotel dedicated to Star Wars in 2022, is Florida. Where camphor also happens to be a native tree. The hotel conceived apparently like an immersive spaceship experience, speaks to a younger Miyazaki. Whose early sketches were not of humans in anime. But planes in flight. 

Now readying to feed the fantasy of a different OTT generation, navigating uncertainty and change in a pandemic. Who perhaps use celluloid as a shorthand for film itself, like some Indians do kapur?

Tisha Srivastav teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 9

Democratizing Art: How the Pandemic Has Transformed Art Spaces

While excitingly going through the crown jewels in The Met Museum’s American Wing, I wonder if I could get a look at the souvenirs in the gift shop to take something back with me. I unfortunately cannot. I am met with the same experience while exploring the British Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. The experience of looking at paintings and artefacts from my computer screen in pyjamas rather seems impersonal. The enthusiasm of dressing up to explore the majesty of Art Institutions gets lost when one has to do so sitting on their sofas at home. Things are near and yet so far.

For an industry that thrives on in-person connection and networking, the lockdown has been especially hard-hitting on both Artists and Institutions. Virtual Tours, prior to the lockdown were created by many Institutes to allow better in-person access and experience of the galleries. However, during the lockdown, virtual tours became the only means of experience that people could have access to. Several Institutions designed their own virtual tours, giving a 360° view of the most visited sections of their galleries, while smaller institutions relied upon Google’s Street View, to make their experience available virtually. These tours were considered far more useful than paper maps, during in-person experiences, however, with a worldwide pandemic, can virtual experience and tours replace the experience itself. 

Any analysis of whether the experience of galleries and museums would yield an affirmative response. The exploration of these spaces are sensory experiences that stimulate individuals’ hearing, sight and smell. For when one is exploring New York Botanical Garden’s Spring Bloom, they not only look at the flora but also smell it in the air, while hearing the chatter of the fauna it coexists with. The murmurs of the people make the whole event a collective one. However, with virtual tours in place, it is only the sight that gets to partake in the process, making it terribly one-dimensional. For an experience that was created to help people tackle the isolation of being at home, the Virtual Tours are dreadfully isolating and lonely, due to persisting images of empty halls of the galleries, corridors and gardens available to the visitors. They take away the intimacy of being in a space and experiencing its physicality. Moreover, the paintings, artwork, artefacts in a virtual tour, become mere objects that one gets to see or know about. You do not get to understand the intricacies of each and every artwork, like the purpose of the painting, the placement of it in a particular collection and so on.

The Louvre, Paris, France.

Virtual Tours and Experiences have made Museums and Galleries a more democratic space, opening doors to people all around the globe, to explore the history that they could not have done earlier due to economical, social and cultural gaps. However, simultaneously it has also raised questions about the ‘commodification’ of historical artwork and artefacts. Does art need to be confined to the four walls of the museum? Should some people have to pay to participate in the process of experiencing history, that should be equally accessible to everyone? 

It is rather the ‘fetishization’ of the exhibition that museums and galleries bank upon. The increasing tendency to sell the place, rather than to experience the artwork, has also allowed Institutions to charge a high entry fee. This is also exaggerated through aggressive marketing campaigns about the grandiosity of the collections that the places are exhibiting. With things going virtual, people from all walks of life are getting to participate in the experience, which has raised the question, whether the experience of art should be sold as commodities in exchange for monetary value when the intent behind these creations has never been, financial benefit. Art is considered to be an extension of the self, an expression of one’s emotions, desires and inhibitions. Thus, when these artworks are displayed in exhibitions for consumption especially against a price, they are reduced to mere objects. Most people do not visit the Louvre to learn about the history of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the mysteries that underlie the process of her creation, but rather to gain bragging rights of having seen and experienced the painting in person.

The attitude of the majority of the people towards artwork is what has given Museums and Galleries a leeway into selling experiences as commodities. This has also facilitated some museums, with resources to climb up the ladder of popularity by conducting annual charity events with celebrities for advertisement. The virtual tours, therefore, are not only a threat to the revenue that these places generate but also to the exclusivity that these places create by including only economically and culturally niche groups of people.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Looking at the capitalist approach that Museums, Galleries and Art Institutes are taking, is there any scope for understanding the reason behind it. When analysing the financial position of these Museums during the pandemic, it is revealed that several museums have incurred heavy losses due to the lockdown. The Met Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Duomo, to name a few were expected to incur losses of over 150 million dollars in 2020. Money is required by these Institutions not only to maintain the space but also to pay a large number of employees, from restoration artists to museum guides to the general support staff that would otherwise be laid off. Moreover, since each painting and artefact is unique, they require special care and maintenance which require a huge financial investment. However, this cannot justify the expansive commodification of experiences. The need is to create a more inclusive and democratic space so that people get to experience the same things in person that they did sitting at their desktops in pyjamas. Virtual Tours have opened up the field of Art History to the larger population, however, what lies ahead this road is Museums’ efforts in continuing to do so.

Muskaan Kanodia is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Can Banksy Bring Dadaism Back To Life?

The explosion of different street art movements comes from the combined effort of various artists who practise hybrid forms of graffiti to make a mark by any means possible. But if there is one player who grabs the spotlight beyond the art world, it’s Banksy. 

A professional prankster, Banksy is a street graffiti artist and a global sensation. Banksy’s flair for street art combined with the proclivity for mystery, drama and danger ensures that every new Banksy piece ends up making headlines. Banksy’s work, ranging from Kissing Coppers and Unwelcome Intervention to Hammer Boy and Girl with a Balloon, embraces social commentary through provocative visual depictions. But the true essence, the philosophy behind his art is often related to the 20th-century art movement, dadaism. 

Dadaism or the Dada art movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in the mid-1910s. In pre-war Europe, the movement emerged as a form of protest art with congregations of artists, intellectuals and writers expressing different forms of subversion in the wake of World War I. The European avant-garde movement aimed to ridicule modern life, apply absurdity to art and question the values held by the bourgeois. 

The movement was based on some key ideas. Elaborately explained by thoughtco., three ideas were basic to the Dada movement—spontaneity, negation, and absurdity—and those three ideas were expressed in a vast array of creative chaos.

Spontaneity was an appeal to individuality and a violent cry against the system. Even the best art is an imitation; even the best artists are dependent on others, they said. Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) wrote that literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.

To a Dadaist, negation meant sweeping and cleaning away the art establishment by spreading demoralization. Morality, they said, has given us charity and pity; morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all. Good is no better than bad; a cigarette butt and an umbrella are as exalted as God. Everything has illusory importance; man is nothing, everything is of equal unimportance; everything is irrelevant, nothing is relevant. 

And in the end, everything is absurd. Everything is paradoxical; everything opposes harmony.

A pioneer of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp, incorporated these ideas of the movement to critique establishments that decided what art ought to be and how it ought to be created. In doing so, he combined spontaneity, negation and absurdity and came up with what some consider the first piece of conceptual art ever created, Fountain

Fountain is a standard white urinal that was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’ in black. It is a part of Duchamp’s series of work called readymades where ordinary objects would be designated as works of art. Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and a classic example of dada. By submitting an object like a urinal that is bought in the plumber’s shop as an entry for an art exhibition, he intended to test what people thought of as art. He wanted to change the idea of what was conventionally considered art and assert that the artistic expression was of greater significance than the object of art created. Thus, the dada movement was one of the first art movements that challenged the foundations of art. 

Although the movement did not represent particular styles of art, it favoured collaboration, spontaneity and chance in the process of creation. As traditional dadaists intended to reject traditional forms of artistic expression like painting and sculpting, they worked on ready-made objects, created photomontage and made use of non-conventional mediums. 

While the lifespan of the dada movement was known to be short-lived, Banksy’s creations and artistic stunts have brought this movement back to life. In one particular stunt, Banksy made use of an invention of the dada movement, auto-destructive art. The dada notion behind auto-destructive art comes from the idea that it aims to either redefine art or ridicule it.

In a 2018 Sotheby’s art auction in London, Banksy’s famous image Girl with a Balloon, which depicts the image of a girl reaching out for a red, heart-shaped balloon, was sold for $1.4 million. A few moments later, the picture started shredding and sliding down in strips. Sotheby’s claimed that it had been “Banksy’d” through the use of a hidden shredder in the photo frame. The act is viewed as a dada act because it was an attempt to critique the pretentiousness of the art world and show how easy it was to transform what people considered precious art into strips of paper. 

From critiquing consumerism and capitalism to calling out social absurdities, the elusive graffiti artist is often critiqued for falling prey to the cultural system. The stunt of shredding the image Girl with a Balloon led to its increase in value in the art market. Thus, a stunt of provocation ended up being co-opted into an exhibition. While past movements have influenced the future trajectory of art, it is important to remember that cultural sensibilities and audience interaction with art are as important as the art itself. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Black Artists on Instagram

Art is a powerful tool of expression. Not only does it appeal to the visual senses but it also consolidates powerful pictures. It brings to life realities that we often hear about. To celebrate Black History Month and keep alive the spirit of the Black Lives Matter, here are a few black artists you should follow on Instagram:

  1. Lauren Harris: @loharris_art
Image Credits: Instagram @loharris_art

Lauren Harris is a Brooklyn based digital artist, who specializes in illustration and motion design. She uses bright and vibrant palettes to create artwork that embodies kindness, joy, confidence and humanity. Her artwork revolves around the everyday life of women, with a special focus on the lives of African-American people. Through her artwork, Harris also aims to contribute to various social justice initiatives.

2. Nikkolas Smith @nikkolas_smith

Image Credits: Instagram @nikkolas_smith

Nikkolas Smith is a native of Houston, Texas. His speciality lies in children’s books illustrations, movie poster design and digital painting characters. After working on several film posters, and authoring children’s illustration books, Smith has been interested in Artivism that is Activism through Art. As a person of colour, he wants to create artwork that initiates important conversations around social justice and brings about a meaningful change in the world.