In late January or early February each year, artists, gallerists, curators, art collectors and general visitors interested to see art swoop in on New Delhi. They often come for the India Art Fair, and stay on to attend the multiple collateral events and art exhibitions that run in sync with the fair. This year, a new event positioned itself as an alternative to the art fair.
The idea for it was seeded about four months ago, in late 2017, when Anant Ahuja moved from Mumbai to Delhi to start Bridge Studio. In Mumbai, Ahuja had been part of Taxi Fabric, which used taxi seats as a canvas to take art into a very accessible, very public space, and Design Fabric, a platform for dialogue and events. In Delhi, Ahuja, along with artist Tarini Sethi, wanted to organise an arts event in Delhi that would give a leg-up to young artists, of course, but which would also try to forge a young arts community. Their idea took the shape of an anti-art fair – The Irregulars Art Fair. For the venue, they chose Studio Khirki, a warehouse linked to a leather factory till a few weeks ago.
Ahuja drew in his sketchpad the logo that would eventually go on the website and the invite for The Irregular Arts Fair. Once the poster was ready, Ahuja and Sethi used social media to call for entries from artists who wanted to participate in their anti-art fair. E-zines like Homegrown and Little Black Book shared the call, as did Khoj Artists’ Association.
“Within two days, we had 200 entries,” Ahuja said. He and Sethi sifted the entries. “For this year, we picked works that made sense for the space and for us. For subsequent editions, we will have a selection jury.”
The project grew organically and fast. A friend visiting from Australia helped build the website in about 24 hours. As more people in the creative industries heard about the anti-art fair, more of them came forward to pitch in. For example, Harpreet Rana of Karyakrum, which organises music events, came forward to handle the musical performances at the fair.
In the end, the anti-art fair would represent young artists who didn’t yet have a gallery showing their work. It would showcase work spanning painting, sculpture, photography, digital art, as well as film and performance art.
In a nutshell
The Irregulars Art Fair, organised by Bridge Studios and Studio Khirki, represented works by 50 artists over three days, from February 9 to February 11 (the 2018 India Art Fair was on from February 9 to February 12). Like the India Art Fair, it charged a gate fee and made a commission on works sold. Unlike the India Art Fair, though, most of the artists it represented were little known outside their circles.
The line-up included self-taught artists and those who had studied at internationally-renowned schools like Goldsmiths in London and Pratt Institute in New York. Some of the work on show at The Irregulars Art Fair was fun and experimental. A terracotta clay and mixed media work by Mirdoddi Rohit depicted fantastic underwater creatures that drew on Indian mythologies and was decidedly irreverent (one terracotta head had a cigarette hanging loosely from its mouth). Another artwork by Azad Ashim Sharma comprised topical poetry about the conflict in Afghanistan and Syria on the one hand and his own identity as part Muslim and part Hindu on the other:
“Sympathy is an Aegean soup bowl
and the vitriol on the tip of your tongue
the right’s discharge resurfaced as normal
After all it is so unreasonable that an adult could just be
a refugee and not a hidden killer.”
Sharma’s poems, sometimes as short as four lines, were printed simply on white tiles and arranged in a grid.
Yet other works spoke to women’s rights, city traffic, lost homes, the modern family, eutopias, reflections on art, the complexity of the internet, anorexia and contemporary fashions and body image. The media? Film, computer code, textiles, music, dance, ink-on-paper, oil paint, wood, words, and mixed media including a ceramic bathtub.
In terms of its design, The Irregulars Art Fair defied attempts at easy navigation, or categorisation. Artworks peeped out of corners, pillars and even the ceiling.
In its first iteration (Ahuja said he planned to make it an annual or biannual affair), The Irregulars Art Fair drew at least 1,400 visitors. Some like Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta have been known to support new experimental works at Khoj Studios. Others like well-known contemporary artist Jitish Kallat came to experience something new – “There’s definitely something going on here. I am not talking about the quality of individual works or the caliber of artists in the show. But there is a festive celebration of artistic peerdom and the charming exuberance of youth.”
The anti-ness of it
“We aren’t the first; there are anti-arts fairs around the world, like the one in Brooklyn, US,” explained Ahuja over coffee. “We are not anti-India Art Fair either. We are an art fair, too, because the works are for sale. The difference is we were representing artists who don’t have the connections in the art community or haven’t been shown by a gallery.”
To be sure, the India Art Fair, like a lot of art fairs and summits around the world, has always had a component that isn’t driven by sales. For example, performance artist Princess Pea had a presentation in the fair this year called Rehearsing in Acts – Many She’s & One 1. It comprised a sort of play in three acts, where the artist explored the formation of identity.
Also this year, Jiten Thukral and Samir Tagra of artist duo Thukral & Tagra used a large booth at the India Art Fair for an experiment they called Collection Bureau: A Pollinator Project.
Thukral & Tagra’s project ran similar to The Irregulars Art Fair in one key respect: they too called for entries online. Completely unknown artists could send in photos or videos of their works for the selection process. The idea was to allow the viewing public to be the jury and select works, and to examine set notions of what makes some art valuable.
Interestingly, one of the artists who entered both the Irregulars Art Fair and Thukral & Tagra’s Pollinator project was selected by both. Result: A photo of Svojas Chari’s HOPETest was showing at the India Art Fair around the same time that the actual digital and poster art work was on show at The Irregulars Art Fair.
What was new about The Irregulars Art Fair was that it had a rawness. An energy. An improvizational streak that was exciting because the end-result is uncertain, and because it signalled the arrival of an arts community, a new culture and attitude to make things happen.