Times of taboo
Art depicting love and eroticism between same sex couples or queer sexuality and identity has often been something hidden or taboo. In India, queer artists have been attacked or censored. A case in point being Balbir Krishan who had to finally migrate to the US with his partner after several attacks from political extremists beginning in 2013. Queer photographer Sunil Gupta’s show was brought down from its display at the Alliance Française de Delhi Centre in 2017. New York-based curator Myna Mukherjee received death-threats and was mercilessly trolled online for her exhibition at the American Centre in 2014 that featured several queer artists. To her credit, Mukherjee did not bring down the show and stuck her ground. Renowned artist Bhupen Khakhar’s posthumous retrospective in 2003 was censored at the National Gallery in Mumbai where the more explicit work was hung at the top floor so it was hardly visible and eventually excluded from the show.
A new record for Bhupen
It was a true vindication for Khakhar when his work, Two Men in Benares (1982) established a new record for the artist at £2.54 million/$3.2 million (£450,000-600,000). The painting sold at the Sotheby’s auction on June 3, 2019 by more than double of the previous benchmark of £1.1 million set by De-Luxe Tailors (1972) at Sotheby’s London auction of Howard Hodgkin’s collection in 2017. The powerful message relayed through queer art has only gotten stronger despite censorship. Khakhar’s record price just one year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India is an example of how far we have come and how far we still need to go.
“Two Men in Benares has long been recognised as one of Bhupen Khakhar’s most important paintings but because of the subject matter, it was heavily censored and sparingly displayed. It is truly a historic work in art history and especially Indian art history as a confessional and autobiographical work by the artist who came out in his mid-life,” says Yamini Mehta, Deputy Chairman India and South Asian Art at Sotheby’s.
The rise of queer artists and art
Call it the effect of Pride month, celebrated all of June globally, or the symptom of a larger buying trend, where great works 'in the closet' are now coming to the fore, but Sotheby’s also saw another well-known international gay artist, Francis Bacon, hit top lot in their Contemporary Sale held in London on June 26, 2019. The top billing was a 1975 untitled self-portrait by Francis Bacon - the artist’s face caught in a swirling blur atop a purple background - that went for £16.5 million ($21 million), just above its low estimate of £15 million ($19 million), a figure that is calculated sans premium.
Unlike Bacon's paintings that are all marked by a grotesque and distorted style, which is reflective of the Post-World War II period in London, Khakhar’s painting is a very tender depiction of the artist with multi-layered references to Sienese Renaissance painting and Indian classical devotional art. He draws upon the larger narrative of sakhi bhaav that is peculiar to India where same sex friends are demonstrative of love and physical intimacy that need not always be sexual. This painting, however, is quite frank in its open and candid declaration of love and sexuality.
“The way Khakhar and his young lover are depicted at almost life-size, both inside and outside the frame, they were both inside and outside the norms of their society. They are hiding and yet in plain sight. The fact that they are illuminated in a manner like icons and depicted in the holy city of Benares further underscores the sense of divinity that emanates from the act of love where the sexual and the sacred are intertwined,” says Mehta.
The work was auctioned from the collectors Guy and Helen Barbier, from the ‘coups de coeur’ section. The Barbiers are known to passionately collect and seek out exceptional examples of Indian art at a time when few others thought to it. Arun Vadehra agrees that work such as Bhupen’s, which is, “blatantly homosexual, is bound to have an impact. The art market is one of uniqueness and this work has a unique appeal.”
Desi New Yorker
Myna Mukherjee observes that when she came to India about nine years ago in 2010, and held her first human rights exhibition at her Shahpur Jat gallery, it was hard to come across queer artists willing to show in India. “I had just come from New York after the successful premiering of our multi-disciplinary exhibition Parda at the Lincoln Centre, so I was quite surprised to see how hard it was to mount a show on gender and sexuality, in a metropolis like Delhi,” she recalls. However, in 2018, Mukherjee was commissioned to host an exhibition along with 32 embassies of the European Union, that came together to sign a declaration in support of queer rights for International Pride Month. She was overwhelmed by the number of queer artists stepping out of the closet. “Our exhibition Me We at the American Centre was packed with entries. There has been a significant amount of advancement in the area of queer rights. Artists are no longer reticent to acknowledge their location as queer in the spectrum of identities,” avers Mukherjee.
Through a Gay lens
Shraddha Nair is currently curating an upcoming exhibition for DDIRART's maiden project owned by Dominic Dubey that brings queer art to a new gallery space in Bengaluru. The show is meant to uncover new voices, uniqueness and character, in the work curated. The works are experimental, undefined, unseen, provocative and intriguing. An epiphany for its viewers, DDIRART brings in work of any form, nature, dimension, shunning norms and societal traditions, typology or styles; fearless stories created purely to invoke the mind and conscience.
The works look deeply into the human soul. “This series of 12 portraits is designed to see beyond gender, sex and appearance. Natural light, tight frames revealing 12 characters who dare to stand tall. The story unfurls in the décor, the stance but not in the sexuality. Femininity and masculinity combine as fluid strokes - sometimes finding a balance and sometimes not. The meeting of the two is - frontal, abrupt and real,” says Magali Couffon De Trevros, a French photographer.
Meanwhile, New York-based artist Chitra Ganesh is being featured as one of the important South Asian artists at the exhibition Stonewall 50 that is celebrating queer artists and their work 50 years after the Stonewall riots, a famous catalyst of the gay rights movement. In fact, a number of museums and galleries across the U.S. are mounting commemorative shows, looking for perspective and maybe inspiring more activism in a realm where so much has changed and yet so much has not. “It’s a great honour to have my wall-drawing installation as part of the Stonewall 50 exhibit at CAMH (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) and I hope that many people will have a chance to see the show. Congratulations to Dean Daderko for putting together this great exhibition,” says Ganesh.
“We’re in a state that still wants to legislate which bathroom you can use, and where it’s still legal to fire someone for being queer,” says Dean Daderko, the curator of Stonewall 50 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.
As Pride month unfolds in the US, Mexico and other parts of the world, one can hope to see much colourful art, performances, immersive films, projections and photography that brings us the flavour of celebration as the LGBTIQ community make visible their victories over Pride month and hopefully all through the year.