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Beyond Frontiers | Here and Now 1: Amal Ghosh in conversation with Sajid Rizvi

Excerpted from the book, Beyond Frontiers. Table of contents

Sajid Rizvi. Four decades have passed since you came to Britain. The period has been marked by great change both in Britain and South Asia. What has changed for the better, or worse?

Amal Ghosh. I feel that the passion that used to be there is not much in evidence even though more Asian artists are on the scene. Recognition, funding and patronage of art by people of Asian descent remains somewhat lopsided. The people who take Asian issues on board, I feel, are often mostly those who feel they cannot ignore these issues. As for funders and sponsors, artists from ethnic minorities still have to meet certain expectations, somehow represent the minority they come from

Representation in art education still raises questions. From the 1970s there was a scramble to get some black teachers into art colleges. When I came to Britain in 1959 for a postgraduate course at the Central School of Art and then began to teach there was an unmistakable sense of being there not because of my abilities but because of my Asian origin.

Of course I had already graduated from the art college in Calcutta, where the academic standard was very high, but when at St Martins I had to start from drawing and then slowly move up to the position of section head. Later on, to address the whole issue of the representation of minority teachers, the college chose to appoint a ‘Coordinator.’ So the college had teachers who were black, while I was given to understand the job I had actually was meant for a white person — a singular honour! Much has changed since those days, but not in many essentials.

SR. You came to St Martins with a solid background in art. How did you use it in your early teaching career?

AG. With difficulty, because in those days I really had to work hard to convince people that our students deserved exposure to other cultures. Aside from an inverted kind of racism I referred to earlier, I had to cope with people shedding a lot of crocodile tears but doing little to make amends. My early efforts to introduce Indian painting to the college is a case in point. I had done a lot of research on Kalighat painting and naturally felt we could do a programme of lectures based on this work. But I was overruled, the answer being that it would have nothing to do with the course structure. Yet, when I retired after 35 years of teaching at St Martins and proposed a similar project to V & A Education they took it up and it was very successful.

SR. Would you say that art educational institutions in India or Asia at large are more open than those in the West?

AG. I wouldn’t say they are open, they are more biased towards Europe, which is truly anachronistic. I’m visiting professor for my old college, the Government Art College in Calcutta. When I go there the whole attitude still unfortunately seems biased towards Europe, while everyone seems to be trumpeting internationalism. This is not internationalism. Yes, there is a need to be part of the world, not to be consigned forever to the ‘Third World.’ But even as I keep advocating, ‘Don’t emulate Europe, we have done enough emulating Europe, you have to evolve from what you’ve got.’ There is this enormous bias towards Europe which I find odd and hard to come to terms with.

SR. OK, here’s what I would like to understand. When a country like India with its rich tradition and contemporary practice looks towards Europe, what is it looking for and what is it that it actually wants to emulate?

AG. I think the main issue is acceptance. It’s not money, because Indian artists are earning far more than my colleagues and friends here. It’s not wealth, it’s the way we have been rejected continuously and the awareness that in the past we have had no place. It is a quest, if you like, for a kind of forum where we can find acceptance and have a voice. That I believe is the criterion and not the search for financial reward.

SR. So, for the artists and art educators in India, Europe still is the benchmark?

AG. Yes.

SR. But if they stopped looking towards Europe and just became part of the international stage like others it wouldn’t really matter, would it?

AG. No, it wouldn’t and that’s what I keep telling them. There is a lot of change happening in visual arts on a global scale. I say to them: let it happen and wait for the results. We cannot go on emulating Europe: their experience is not ours. It just cannot be. Artists in India cannot work like, say, Matisse or Moore. This is the problem that I keep pointing out. And it’s not just European influences, it’s American art too.

The last time I was in Calcutta in early 1999 everyone was talking about Jackson Pollock. During a talk at the British Council I pointed out that the Jackson Pollock phenomenon was singular to the United States, that it could only happen there. To think that that kind of work would come to India and be accepted in India is very far fetched. Politically, emotionally, nationwide there is an enormous yearning to be accepted by Europeans or westerners at large. Now there are quite a few artists who are reacting to this; they don’t want to fall into the old trap. People like Jogen Chowdhury, a very good artist, he is looking east, towards Japan, for new ideas. There is a move not to look west and I think that’s going to happen more.

SR. How is that different from looking west? Isn’t that still looking somewhere else rather than looking within?

AG. After centuries of a habit of accepting European values as the norm, looking elsewhere is a step towards widening understanding of other influences and individual values. Japan and China have a link of tradition and of religion. Buddhism has been a core link. No art can be totally exclusive, and European art has helped itself to a wide range of largely unacknowledged influences from Africa and Asia. It will take a very long time to generate a sense of validity with one’s own heritage, but it needs to evolve as a central focus.

SR. What about contemporary representations of Asia in Asian art? The exhibition Cities on the Move attracted the criticism that, although highly stimulating and diverse, it was more chaos than art and that it failed to do justice to the wealth of artistic practice in Asia today.

AG. Yes, I thought it was very interesting and good, but somehow it didn’t work as well as it should have. You can see the concept and the way it could have been done, but the way it was realised it somehow didn’t work.

There was also the challenge of trying to do the whole of Asia in a single exhibition, which is just as problematic as trying to do the whole of Europe in a single exhibition.

You can’t do that. Somebody there was telling me about India where he had spent two months. Well, India is as big as Europe. To try to really get the rhythm of it in two months — try doing that in Europe and see what happens. India has a rich ancient history and then from that history you have to deduce and come back to what is happening now. India is a huge country with an enormous time scale.

SR. How do you see the artistic interaction between South Asia and Britain? What kind of influences do you see flowing towards the West, especially as this relates to British Asian artists? Are there any trends coming in this direction — any areas that command attention?

AG. I think there are two areas on which we need to focus. One is skill-based. The other is concept-based. Indian artists are very skill-based. That skill for the first time has been challenged. Previously it was not just thought of in academic terms but also in terms of tradition, such as Indian miniature painting. Consequently most of the Indian painters have had an enormous amount of skill-based training compared to Europe. What has set them back, however, when compared to Europe is an absence of questioning and articulation of ideas. And, of course, the focus of patronage.

SR. Patronage in India has for years been confined to palaces and temples, more equivalent to Europe in the Middle Ages. Contemporary European patronage has become more wide ranging and largely secular.

AG. India is now moving into this situation. The middle class, which is mostly urban, is becoming the chief patron. Not surprisingly a lot of new art is urban in themes, or full of nostalgia. It’s almost a romantic way of looking at history. Very few artists are looking at today’s problems, the squalor or deprivation of modern times. Art is still very much about relaxing and enjoyment. Art is an ornament for the wall, a decoration. It is almost like Matisse, after the Second World War, saying that his art should be like a comfortable armchair. Very few artists talk about pain, problems or issues. Yet, that seems to be the main impetus of contemporary work in Europe.

A few artists like Arpana Kaur are addressing issues around women and their problems. But there is still very little that addresses problems of the society, as if art still is there only to help you forget. One has to accept that that can be part of art’s function, and there is a resurgence of this approach among many contemporary European artists. So, although some of contemporary Indian art is indeed about day to day problems and social issues, there is no reflection of a process where there is movement and development comparable to the European experience. Whereas, there are processes and trends which have almost been halted and ignored in recent and contemporary Indian art history.

Some young artists are attempting to develop contemporary trends in European art effectively within an Indian context. This is not a one-way process. In Europe one recent trend is about how India is reflected by artists of European origin who have been moved by it. This a different situation from European artists incorporating images and ideas from the East and Africa, usually without acknowledgement, a reflection of colonialism. One example is Ken Kiff. One of his paintings in a recent Kapil Jariwala Gallery exhibition in London features the goddess Kali. She is naked, she is screaming and blood is pouring, and the actual power of the painting is incredible. Ken in this painting has just got the essence of poverty and deprivation of a popular goddess, but it would have been difficult for an Indian artist to see it that way.

SR. Most artists are still sensitive about offending the popular sensibilities?

AG. Yes, Indian artists still tend to be tender, perhaps frightened, too, about upsetting any social sensibilities. There is a commercial aspect to this as well.

SR. It’s less iconoclastic?

AG. Yes, and less honest. There still seems to be a desire to create something that is acceptable to everybody. I don’t know how long that will go on, but that’s one of the main issues at the moment. Many of the works being created are still ‘tasteful’ if that’s the word, perhaps a wrong word but something close to it.

SR. Other risks, some similar and some not, await young British artists of Asian origin who are born and brought up here and are going back for the first time, experiencing India — or Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, depending on their background. They have heard about ‘back home’ from their parents or read about in books and magazines. Many of them are on a kind of Grand Tour full of surprises. A lot of what they are experiencing and producing is inevitably still the understanding of contemporary British art college product.

AG. It is a phase, just as contemporary Indian art is going through a phase. In fact, it is an enormous search. Last year in Calcutta there was a big conference about installation art and the placing and relevance of installation art in contemporary India. At the conference there were two camps in evidence, one maintaining that Indian installation art was already in India — in the bazaars and marketplaces, in food stalls and merchandise stores — and the other maintaining that installation art as we know it has no place in India. Only the rich can afford the luxury, and the artists who are involved with installation art in India are mostly rich or well established. In India, which has no funding body such as the Arts Council, having installation art for a few days and then being left with just a few photographs as its evidence is simply dangerous, because then it becomes just a kind of indulgence, whereas it has real potential in the long run for development.

SR. So the installation artists in India are doing it just for their own ends?

AG. Well, it’s a kind of expression, and the artists who can afford it are practising installation art in India. Vivan Sundaram is one of them, an established artist who also has the background and the support of the government. He came from Delhi to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Calcutta and organised a major installation on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. He changed the Victoria and Albert Museum, a colonial palace with mainly colonial objects on display, into something radically different. He brought in jute and bamboo and other indigenous materials that are the backbone of the local economy. Intellectually it’s absolutely fine; visually too it’s beautiful, though when you talk to ordinary people they don’t get it. Even other artists have problems understanding it. People are a long way from absorbing this form of art. So installation art in India will take some time to earn recognition. But there is a lively battle going on.

SR. Do you think the gallery system plays a similar role in India to that in Europe in determining what is or isn’t acceptable?

AG. Very much so. What’s more, there’s a kind of gulf appearing between Indian or Asian artists who are abroad and artists at home. The prevailing idea being that artists who had left and made their careers abroad do not deserve any support when they return home. When I go to India my main concern is not to exhibit or make an extra effort to secure an exhibition unless it is offered to me. Of course i recognise that the kind of exhibition I could have in India I would never be able to have in Britain. But my main motivation is that I come to work, not to exhibit, also teach, mostly free of charge. So I try to be part of the whole. However if someone goes from here and wants simply to show the work without giving anything in return, that’s more difficult. We really have been out of India for a long time. We need to build other bridges.

SR. So the artists who came out and made good in the sixties and seventies were looked upon with envy, but artists today are subjected to a certain amount of arrogance?

AG. Arrogance is the word!

SR. Which boils down to artists being told that ‘you still need us, you still need a native accolade, to validate yourselves.’

AG. Which is partially true. But what one misses there, of course, is expertise. There is a gap, another kind of gulf of ideas, where artists in India and artists who come from abroad often have difficulty coming to terms with each other. The same thing happens in reverse over here, when you cannot speak seriously about Indian art or Japanese art. People’s attitudes as artists are still very narrow, while they should be as broad as possible to encompass the social milieu. Attitudes are very bourgeois, although I don’t feel anger is appropriate. But I do want to see it changed.

We went to Bangladesh with 15 Bengali artists and 30 Bangladeshi artists for a workshop. The attitudes in Bangladesh are different. After all, they have been through war to assert their Bengali identity. They are not so blasé as the Bengali artists about their identity. There was a lot of soul-searching going on and because they are Muslim their pictorial imagery was mostly abstract. We had long talks about how Islam comes in. They are very reluctant to accept that it is religion that has made it easy for them to have a very abstract language. It’s an issue, but I felt that most of their work was sincere. This is another issue that I keep coming back to while I’m in Calcutta. Most artists based there are very skilled. They are doing nice things and they are selling well, and that’s it. The criteria often is commercial success, which leads artists to conclude: why change if what we produce sells? I find that very problematic.

SR. However, being at the centre stage of South Asia, India stands to gain most from the location of culture. On the whole there is more travel to India and more attention paid to India than its South Asian neighbours, and there are more ready buyers for Indian paintings than for art from elsewhere in the region. Is that still the case?

AG. Economy is the main issue. The moment Sotheby’s and Christie’s started selling in India and abroad, things changed. Museums in the West now have this awareness that contemporary art exists in India.

But the same problem existed until recently where the Japanese collectors consistently ignored contemporary Japanese art until outsiders, mostly westerners, started paying attention to it.

It’s also to do with people having confidence in certain things, or certain trends. Some serious collectors have started buying, and not just for investment.

I cannot see change occurring overnight but the change is taking place. Collectors and artists are both gaining more confidence. There is a lot of excitement. Quite a lot of paintings are going out of India and that has given the artists confidence that their work is not second rate. Over here, however, a lot more has to change. Most galleries in Britain would be unlikely to jump to attention if you offered them a collection of Indian paintings. The Arts Council might react differently but the galleries’ reaction would be predictable and mostly negative. That has to change.

SR. Do you still see Asian artists in Britain as a distinct group of people who are working within a circle?

AG. Yes, I think so.

SR. Is that good or bad?

AG. I don’t think it’s either good or bad. It’s a fact. Because there is such a thing as Asian experience. Even if you have come a long way from Asia the family ties are there, you cannot forget Asia. The equation is always there; you are always comparing what you have here with what you left behind.

SR. Asian artists in Britain are also distinct in the way they use nostalgia — collective, personal or induced — as a kind of subject matter.

AG. Yes, either nostalgia, or romance. It would be interesting here to talk about Anish Kapoor. In a way he has broken that barrier — he is now doing things which he wanted to do. He has got validity on his ground, he doesn’t need clichés; and I think if it was possible for most of Indian artists to do that maybe things will change. It’s not about issues, but about the work of individual artists, which is often subject to hostility.

SR. The interesting thing about Anish Kapoor is that although from the very beginning he was quite wary of being associated with any kind of Indianness it is precisely his Indian influences — if you recall his Tate show with indigenous pigments and familiar symbols — that set him on course. It was a very important show for him because that really pushed him.

AG. Yes, that’s very true.

SR. Which raises the question: how many artists in this country or born in this country can really push that Indianness or Asianness to a point where it helps them succeed and get attention?

AG. It’s very difficult. What Anish did was an abstraction of symbolism. With that there is a possibility. The excitement of it was the colours and very simple shapes. Both were very exciting.

SR. And the sexuality?

AG. Yes, indeed, although that has been done, as in Avinash Chandra and Souza. Chandra particularly was involved with sexuality in his work. So was Souza. But that has become a cliché. The area I look at and believe in is spirituality. It’s really something which I feel as an Asian you should look at. That’s an area where we have a certain claim, and it’s an area the whole art world is frightened of. As if that’s something which is exotic. It’s not the Indianness of it but the spirituality itself which is accessible to everybody.

SR. It’s almost a taboo, an unknown dimension for many.

AG. It’s something most people don’t want to talk about, while I do. I find that in a way it’s good that I have another venue like India to go to and to show what I’m doing. I would have had a problem if I had just stayed here and not had an alternative place to show my work. It’s my way of saying that it’s my kind of inherited belief and ideas.

SR. Do you think western art has a specific problem with spirituality due to the way art developed in the West, which is not the same way it evolved in India, China or Japan? There was from the start a love-hate relationship between the establishment/church and the artists and also a considerable amount of censorship, which was not the case in India?

AG. It also relates to sexuality, which is again rooted in that early relationship with the church. In India open sex, every connotation of it, was seen as a way of reaching God, while here sex has all the time been condemned as merely lustful. The first word in Sanskrit is that you are son of god so you cannot do anything wrong. Sexuality is taken as part of that value, while in Europe you are a sinner first. These are two different positions, two different approaches. Indian philosophy accepted sex as an assertion of love of life.

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