Western Influences on Indian Sculpture

We often think of international trade and cross cultural influences as relatively modern phenomenon, boosted dramatically by the new sea routes between Western Europe and Asia in the early modern period. This, somehow, is particularly true with India – we British almost seem to think of ourselves as the first to ‘discover’ Indian culture in the nineteenth century, when the extensive operations of the East India Company bought great interaction between the two nations. However, trade (and colonial tensions) between Asia and Europe stretches back into the ancient world, with the armies of Alexander the Great reaching India in 327–326 BC. This early interaction between India and the Classical world resulted in the sophisticated school of Gandharan sculpture, which drew inspiration from the remarkable naturalism of contemporary Greek works. This example, an elegant Atlas figure, offered by Luc Decruyenaere, Brussels, shows how subject as well as style travelled from Europe to Asia. Not only do the sensitive modelling of the torso and the naturalistic calm of the face suggest a link with Ancient Greece, the idea of anthropomorphic figures supporting architectural elements is also decidedly classical.P1070877

Even in the modern era the British were not the first to establish colonies in India, with the Portuguese first arriving in Goa at the tail end of the fifteenth century, over a hundred years before the first British boats reached the region. Although the Portuguese were primarily interested in the large profits of the spice trade, they also had a secondary interest in converting the population. As a result, local sculptors were called upon to create items for Christian worship, which drew upon established European models. This exquisite ivory carved figure of Christ, offered by Ben Janssens at this year’s TEFAF, belongs to this tradition. The form is instantly recognisable as a piece of Christian iconography, but the style, with the delicate, almond-shaped eyes, and stylised, curling beard betrays it’s more Eastern origin.

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Maya Lin’s Here and There at Pace London

Follow the link for my review of Maya Lin’s new exhibition at Pace London. Best known for her groundbreaking and controversial (though now much-loved) Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Lin is an artist who has never shied away from the political. Her latest exhibition is part of her ambitious What is Missing? series of works, which explore mankind’s impact on the environment. Here she offers exquisite, sculptural monuments to the earth’s waterways, from carved marble depictions of disappearing bodies of water, to supple silver sculptures recreating the flow of some of Europe’s best known rivers.

Until 11th May at Pace London.

Kota Reliquary Figure

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Kota Reliquary Figure

Whilst at TEFAF in Maastricht I came across this striking 19th century Kota reliquary figure, offered by Entwistle Gallery. Like Christian reliquaries these figures were associated with the worship of venerated human remains – in this instance the bones and other relics of the Kota people’s ancestors. In the Christian tradition reliquary sculptures are best understood as referring directly to the saint in question, as the ornate, anthropomorphic cases often relate closely to particular body parts – with pieces of skull encased in the head of a reliquary bust, or arm bones displayed in a rock crystal ‘arm,’ for example. However, these African reliquaries are not representative of the ancestors themselves, and are better understood as guardian figures, keeping watch over the precious relics. Although reliquary figures are found in many tribal cultures in this part of Western Africa, the Kota ‘mbulu ngulu’ are unique for their combination of wood and hammered metal. This is particularly interesting as the metal was not manufactured locally, but fashioned out of brass and copper pots bought to the region through networks of international trade. Just as Catholics elevate the status of relics through their elaborate cases of rich gold and imported jewels, the Kota people used these exotic materials to enrich their religious art, assimilating these foreign materials into their local traditions.

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Social Fabric: African Textiles Today

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Follow the link for my review of Social Fabric: African Textiles Today at the British Museum. It’s only a small, free exhibition (in the galleries by the 4th floor print room) but it’s a fascinating topic, and one that deserves more attention in academic circles. On display are a number of kanga, capulana and shweshwe – all types of textiles that have a central part in Africa’s rich and varied material culture. Particularly fascinating is the breadth of topics that have inspired textile designs, from freedom fighters and major political events to the life and times of Michael Jackson.

Treasures of the Royal Court: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars

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Here’s my review of Treasures of the Royal Court at the V&A. It’s a great exploration of the material culture and vocabulary of power at the Tudor and Stuart courts. Full of butch posturing, rampant beasts and courtly bling, there are some fabulous pieces on display, from exquisite embroidered fashions to a monumental collection of silver. It’s just a pity that so little is made of life at the Russian courts – it would have been wonderful to see what court life was like beyond Western Europe.

 

Art13 – a new international addition to London’s art scene?

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Last weekend saw the launch of Art13 London, a new annual modern and contemporary art fair at Kensington’s Olympia. Bringing together over 120 galleries from across the world, the promoters hoped to create a fair with a truly global perspective. Galleries from 29 countries participated, from cities as diverse as São Paulo, Budapest, Tel Aviv and Seoul.

Within this East Asian artists and galleries seemed to dominate – perhaps reflecting the previous achievements of founders Tim Etchells and Sandy Angus, who helped initiate ART HK, Hong Kong’s leading contemporary art fair. There were six galleries from South Korea alone, with representatives from Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai also present. Even the European galleries seemed to be following the trend, with many offering works by Asian artists.

Somewhat inevitably, many at the fair were drawing comparisons with other events, and in particular that behemoth of London’s contemporary art scene, Frieze. Many of the biggest Frieze names were notably absent from Art13’s line-up, with galleries like White Cube, Gagosian and Victoria Miro perhaps reluctant to take a chance on this relative newcomer. Whilst Art13 may not yet have quite the prestige of its Regent’s Park rival, it perhaps had more to offer in terms of commercially viable art. There were few of the headline-grabbing, sensationalist works which seem to dominate coverage of Frieze. In their place were pieces that managed to tread that fine line between thought-provoking and pleasing to look at – photography and paintings abounded, and there were plenty of works that would fit comfortably into the domestic space.

Even without the shock tactics of Frieze, the fair certainly seemed to pull in the crowds, attracting large numbers for the opening night reception and over Saturday and Sunday. There was plenty for visitors to see and do, with a curated schedule of performance pieces and instillations running alongside the pieces offered by the individual galleries. Families were well catered for, with free tickets for children and a Family Trail designed by artist Nina Magalanayagam in conjunction with the Zabludowicz Collection.

For the galleries involved the important factor was not visitor numbers but sales, and in this area results were pretty mixed. Some gallerists that I spoke to reported great returns, whilst others had struggled, failing even to make connections with any serious new clients. Perhaps this disparity was a reflection of the variety within the galleries themselves – in a fair where commercial, hangable works dominated, finding collectors for unwieldy instillation pieces was always going to be difficult.

Despite this, the reaction was largely positive, with many of the foreign galleries in particular describing the fair as a great introduction to London’s art scene. With the promoters going all out to attract these international clients, it seems that they are on their way to building a successful annual fair and even a global brand. With Art14 already confirmed and on the horizon, the real test will be in the years to come.