New Emissary

Missing Art Coverage?

High-profile Asian artists and their pricey works make the biggest international art news headlines. Is this a bad thing?

Last month, veteran journalist Madhu Jain wrote an article for the Daily News & Analysis in which she suggested there’s a ‘quiet, fledgling, but sure emergence of Indian artists…on the European contemporary art scene.’ She made the comments following the showing of a $2.8 million giant sculpture by high-profile Mumbai-born artist Anish Kapoor at the recently wrapped up Foire Internationale d’art contemporain, or FIAC—a Paris-based contemporary art fair that this year featured works from 195 art galleries across 24 countries.

According to Jain, more Indian artists will soon be joining the ranks of the world-renowned Kapoor, with collectors now ‘beginning to zoom in on other Indian artists.’ (2010’s FIAC included one gallery from India, Mumbai-based Chemould Prescott Road, which featured works by artists Mithu Sen, Jitesh Kallat, Aditi Singh, Hema Upadhyay and Desmond Lazaro.)

This all reminded me of a conversation I recently had with Parminder Bhachu, author of Dangerous Designs: Asian Women Fashion the Diaspora Economies for my upcoming arts and culture series that will focus on the topic of ‘Asianness’ in global fashion.

Bhachu is a specialist in diasporic movements and we spoke about the mainstreaming of Asian culture in the West. She told me that in many cases in which something traditionally Asian is really picked up by the West, such as Indian cuisine in Britain (‘it has overtaken roast beef’), it needs to first have a certain groundwork laid down by early generations of immigrants for later generations to build on, or ‘tweak’.

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She illustrated this with the example of the now widely embraced and accepted salwar kameez, a very traditional South Asian outfit, which was something that in the 1960s was often frowned upon in Britain, with wearers taunted by locals for wearing ‘pajamas.’ She told me that it was only ‘thanks to earlier generations of Indian immigrants, who fought to keep their traditions alive and instil these rituals and forms in their children,’ that it was able to become accepted as a part of contemporary British fashion culture. It was the following generations who adapted the traditional forms they knew to their new surroundings and culture, making such products popular in the West.

Sadly, these struggles, or ‘assertions of ethnic identity,’ by immigrants—that sometimes eventually lead to the creation of something beautiful and irresistible being produced—don’t seem to be so prominent in international coverage of art.

Rather, it’s often artists from more privileged backgrounds who can study in prestigious overseas art schools and adapt to contemporary Western ideals of art, who are making the biggest headlines with big-ticket works. Kapoor himself, though born in Mumbai, has been living and working in London since the early 1970s.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the increasingly globalized world we live in—but it seems limiting to the many aspiring artists across different countries and classes who struggle and aspire to make a living from their work.