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NFTs to offline shows: How 2021 marked a turning point for India’s post-COVID art world

If the rediscovery of love and friendship was a theme of pandemic-influenced art, so were the return of the physical exhibition and the rise of NFTs… here are the highlights of the art industry for 2021

“The pandemic has been very productive for the reinvention of the art space,” says Myna Mukherjee, co-curator of Hub India: Maximum Minimum, a show that presented over 300 works of Indian gallerists, institutions and contemporary artists at Artissima 2021 in Turin, Italy, in November.

According to Myna, the developments in 2021 ranged from artists producing more, growth of a new art market, the impact of technology on art to pandemic-related visualisation in artworks.

“The pandemic brought people across the globe closer emotionally; we are facing a common enemy. People supported the artists in many ways and that is reflected in the art market,” she says adding that Sotheby’s recently surpassed its previous auction prices and declared NFT (non-fungible token) sales had reached $100 million in 2021. “This is true for the domestic art market too.”

India can look forward to the country’s first NFT auction (by an Indian auction house rather than an NFT marketplace) to be conducted by Mumbai-based Prinseps in January 2022. It will not only be testing the market but also make more collectors familiar with the metaverse. The auction will include works of Gobardhan Ash from the 1950s; a buyer can buy either a physical version or an NFT of the same work.

Return of the offline exhibition

Closer home, Lokame Tharavadu (The World Is One) at Alappuzha in Kerala marked a determined resolve to return to the physical art show. One of the first and the largest exhibitions in the world to be staged physically in 2021, it managed to operate smoothly within COVID-19 protocols.

Also Read | How India’s artist community collaborated offline to empower the industry during the pandemic

Spread out over seven venues in the seaside town, it overcame several hiccups such as the sudden change of launch dates due to the imposition of lockdown and delay in arrival of art works. It showcased 3,000 works of 267 artists from Kerala.

Void Gate, Acrylic on Canvas, by NS Harsha | Photo Credit: Mallikarjun Katakol

The one positive that emerged from the pandemic, says curator Bose Krishnamachari, is “a realisation of how important IRL (in real life) art experiences are. Physicality is one of the most important elements of visual art.”

He points out that before digital technology came into the picture over the last 30 years or so, people experienced art physically and in person. “Today audiences have a range of tools and mediums with which they can access exhibitions and artworks but there is nothing like being in the physical presence of people and art works. That is why the public have been flocking to ‘Lokame Tharavadu’. I hope it becomes a regular feature in the Alappuzha cultural scene.”

For artist NS Harsha, such physical exhibitions are a good example of the collective human pursuit to ‘face’ the given situation and react. “Now that the world has experienced the levels of isolation, I hope we start valuing the preciousness of physical interactions even more now.”

Pandemic-influenced iconography

2021 was a year when love and friendship were rediscovered and sought out like never before. This is the underlying theme of ‘This is Why we cannot title an exhibition after Love’, a show by artist and curator Prabhakar Kamble in Mumbai’s Gallery Art & Soul. “We realised what we lost in the pandemic and what we desire the most in life: love and friendship. It was found when people were in trouble,” says Prabhakar who organised the supply of art materials and goods to artists holed up in their homes in rural Maharashtra and Mumbai.

Last year, Prabhakar had evocatively presented the dire condition of migrants, in an online show called Broken Foot at Mojarto.com. “Compared to 2020,” he says, “there is more optimism in 2021.”

Also Read | How the Spanish-made Covid Art Museum conveys the emotive consequences of the pandemic

The fears triggered by the spread of the coronavirus wracked Mumbai-based artist Lakshmi Madhavan. Her questions, “Will I ever see my grandmother again? Is it safe to visit her?” resulted in ‘Hanging by a Thread’ (Ammammayude Mundu Veshti), an installation that invokes her deep connect with the traditional hand-woven cream and gold fabric of Kerala that her grandmother wears.

‘Lokame Tharavadu’ (The World is One) was one of the largest and earliest offline exhibitions of art (April – December 2021) showcasing the works of 267 artists in seven venues at Alappuzha in Kerala, India | Photo Credit: Swanoop John

On show at Port Museum, one of the venues of Lokame Tharavadu, the installation is a significant indicator of how much COVID-19 seeped into the artist’s expressions. “All of us experienced the pandemic in one way or another. The stimulus may not have crept in very obviously but it definitely was present at a subliminal level,” says Lakshmi pointing to the fact that artists worked on smaller canvases, as many were not working from studios.

Harsha believes that the response to a given life situation is subjective. “One can bring in the images offered by living experiences or consciously turn away to look at a flower. Even the gesture of turning away is an artistic statement, isn’t it?”

The rise of NFT

“Since Christie’s auction earlier this year made headline news, there has been an approximated $2.5 billion worth of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) that have been bought and sold,” says Ameya Dias who leads an art consultancy firm based in Mumbai. “In comparison, the current activity is limited and though there are some front runners such as Nature Morte gallery and Prinseps auction house, the overall market in India is just about starting to get familiar with the concept of NFTs.”

Also Read | How NFT art has evolved the role of the ‘artist’

‘See Saw Seen’ by Lakshmi Madhavan at Kashi Art Cafe 

Lakshmi’s ‘See, Saw, Seen’, a work on show at Kashi Art Café in Fort Kochi, was created for the Kochi Art Week, organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation. Six of the 47 frames were digital works for the NFT market.

Lakshmi says, she opted for digital art because of the hours she spends before the screen. “One can experience my work even without coming in front of it. Now there is talk of Metaverse; technology will allow us to experience snow in a hot clime. Art has to adapt.”

The Age of Machines by Anantha Nadamel 

In the future, she feels, the art world will operate on a hybrid model. “NFT is there. We have the economics of it; the paintings are selling,” says Lakshmi. A positive aspect of NFT, she says, is democratisation of art. “High-end art can have a lot of gatekeeping but, when it comes to NFT, it is more transparent and the artist gains with every sale.”

Also Read | Keen on going into NFT art? Here’s what you should know, according to the experts

Artist Joseph Chakola, who minted a few NFTs, says the second lockdown saw NFT being hotly discussed in Clubhouse internationally. “A group called NFT Malayali was born out of it.” Explaining it as a proof of ownership of a digital asset, he adds, “Though these are still early days, it is definitely going to be a significant part of the art world from now on.”

Anantha Nadamel, who founded NFT Malayali in April 2021, says it was formed mainly to educate artists about this new mode of transaction. He sold his first art work for 0.165 Eth (Ethereum) and now commands a floor price of 1 Eth (approximately ₹3 lakh.)

India held its first NFT conference called NFT Kochi on December 18, in which 400 art-related stakeholders participated. “The tickets were sold within days of its announcement,” says Anantha adding that it is only a matter of time that it will become mainstream.

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