According to a recent Art Review, Nature Morte‘s Peter Nagy is one of the 100 most powerful people in the world of art and now, he’s dipping his toes in the European art market by opening up a Nature Morte gallery in Berlin. Bodhi Berlin has company. Indian housewives in the city should start practising their samosa-making skills because if Indian galleries are setting up shop, can openings with mini samosas be far behind? They might serve paté for their dos in Mumbai, but on foreign shores ethno chic is the way to go. Especially when the gallery isn’t simply an art gallery but one whose mandate is to showcase art with a pronounced, noticeable Indian bent.
For it’s opening show, Nature Morte Berlin is opening with a show of photographs by Dayanita Singh. Singh is perhaps one of the most respected art photographers India has produced. One of the old faithfuls, she still produces on silver gelatin prints and through her lens, black and white can become much more than two solid colours. While she has, in the past, done some work with the not-so-pretty side of India (most famously perhaps, she brought out the book Myself Mona Ahmed), what Singh is known for are her superbly-framed photographs of a sophisticated world. In Singh’s photographs, there’s grandeur in crumbling walls; the women are always elegant; the creases in fabric are perfect even when they fall imperfectly; empty rooms are full of good taste. Her India isn’t one of tumult and excess. She captures in the compact space of her chosen format the whispers and quietness of the places she photographs. It’s an India that feels bygone until you look at the photograph and see it was taken in 2004 or something like that. Yet, when it came to deciding which of her works would be on display in Berlin, Nagy and Dayanita Singh decided upon her portfolio on “marginalised communities”, which sounds fashionable, sellable and completely disjunct with what Singh has captured so beautifully in her best photographs.
This isn’t Singh’s first exposure to foreign audiences. The alumnus of International Centre for Photography (New York) has, over the years, had an exhibition of her work at Frith Street Galleries; the exquisite Chairs collection was shown in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; she has participated in festivals like last year’s Les Rencontres des Arles and so on. Singh is far from unknown. For most part, she has not been concerned with establishing her identity as an Indian or a woman but rather as a photographer with an eye for that which we tend to miss. That could be the tapering line of a shadow melting into bright light or Gunter Grasse standing at Kolkata’s Howrah Bridge, with his back turned to the camera. So why would someone want her to photograph marginalised communities, especially since this woman radiates privilege both in her person and her photography? Because that’s the India which is easier to sell.
Not that Nagy can be blamed. With this meltdown and the impending world-wide recession, the only thing that is sure to sell is something that has already established itself. India depicted through its photogenically represented minorities is one subject that has proven appeal and among those who have been part of this image-making project, Singh is one of the subtler artists. This means many of the photographs should make for great viewing, even if their themes feel hackneyed. The next show at the gallery continues the odyssey into Indian exotica with paintings inspired by Indian classical music and philosophy by Stephen Mueller. Hopefully, these shows will find Nagy the European buyers he’s looking for. Attempting to be international didn’t seem to work too well for Bodhi Berlin. Their tryst with curator Shaheen Merali began amidst much hope because it was hoped Merali’s connections with European artists would help catapult Bodhi out of the India niche but with the curator having left Bodhi overnight (or so it seems), things clearly weren’t all happy-happy-joy-joy. By the gallery’s own admission to The Art Newspaper, its buyer base hasn’t widened much despite showing young hotshot Shilpa Gupta who does her damndest to not flaunt her ethnicity (perhaps in an effort to be truly international). So perhaps Nagy’s decision to stick to the tried and tested Incredible India campaign is a smarter move. It’s just a touch saddening to think that the man who has promoted some of the most quixotic, experimental stuff at home seems to have decided to take a starkly different stance when taking on the role of a European gallerist.