Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Opens The Matter Within. New Contemporary Art of India

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India an exhibition of photography, sculpture and video, on view October 15, 2011–January 29, 2012, by artists of India living inside the country as well as in the diaspora. Inspired by material culture, literature, spirituality and social and political aspects of the history of the South Asian region, the exhibition is organized around three thematic threads that resonate from contemporary India—embodiment, the politics of communicative bodies and the imaginary. Of particular interest are the artistic practices that either incorporate these concepts or operate within a gap between these rich thematic categories. Whereas sculpture and painting have a long history within both sacred and secular traditions of Indian art in recent years, photography and video have emerged as significant media as well.

Nikhil Chopra, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing VI (16:00), 2010 — credit: courtesy of the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai, India

“We decided to create an exhibition of contemporary art of India to coincide with the presentation of the Maharaja exhibition that will be on view in the fall at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum,” said the exhibition’s curator Betti-Sue Hertz, YBCA’s director of visual arts. “Our exhibition will give San Francisco and Bay Area audiences an opportunity to see a range of current artistic practices. And while it was not designed to be directly related to the works in the Maharaja exhibition, I think it will trigger comparisons between the old and the new. I certainly see some artists mining the colonial past, including Nikhil Chopra and Rina Banerjee. At this moment, with Indian contemporary art gaining ground within the continent and with growing awareness internationally, it is very exciting to present established and mid-career artists in a dialogue with much younger artists, as a way to communicate the artistic and thematic trajectories most actively sought out by artists of India.”

Until very recently, contemporary Indian photography has had little exposure in the United States. With a focus on “straight” and “staged” approaches, the photographic works utilize either reality-based settings such as the informal street shoot or a formal portrait, or constructed realities and imaginary personas. These photographs merge the vision of the artist with the social dynamics of India’s vast cultural landscape to create a revealing narrative of contemporary life in an ever globalizing world.

Photographer Tejal Shah (Mumbai) recently turned to relational performance as a form most suited to her interest in alternative gender and sexual identities; Sunil Gupta (London and New Delhi) alternates between the imaginary and the reality of gay life styles and the AIDS/HIV epidemic; Anup Matthew Thomas (Bangalore) captures images of India in a characteristically seductive aesthetic while presenting a subtle critique of the validity of society’s lawmakers and moral ambassadors; Pushpamala N. (Bangalore and New Delhi) inhabits various female characters including icons from Indian sacred traditions and French painting and photography; Nikhil Chopra (Mumbai) embodies multiple personae from the colonial era to explore and document, in large scale drawings, spaces undergoing change, communicating a sense of nostalgia for a past era and of adventure in the seizing of the future; Dhruv Malhotra (New York and New Delhi) rediscovers India’s streets through the personal and intimate lens of people sleeping, in turn unveiling a private space within a very public one; Bharat Sikka (New Delhi) documents contemporary visions of India in the faces and forms of people and spaces that harbor an inherent sense of calm and solitude, presenting an alternative to traditional images of India steeped in vibrant color and activity; and Gauri Gill’s (New Delhi) intensive relationship with one village family in Rajasthan yields a large body of work that reveals the intimacy of family bonds and friendships.

Sculpture has a long tradition within both sacred and secular art of India, and its rich legacy of materiality and iconography have had an impact on contemporary art. Human and animal bodies continue to play an important role in new perspectives on nationhood as well as ancient pasts. This is evident in an adherence to traditional forms as well as in expanded imagery and physical forms signaling the future.
Sculptors include Thukral & Tagra (New Delhi), who focus on the globalization of the art market and its repercussions; Sudarshan Shetty (Mumbai), who combines pop sensibilities with Hindu ritual; Shilpa Gupta (Mumbai), whose politically forthright work is set within an elegant conceptual and linguistic framework; Anita Dube (New Delhi), whose deep relationship with materials, feminism and the politics of social upheaval push sexual metaphor to the brink of violence; Rina Banerjee (New York), whose fantastical sculptures constructed of found objects that typify eras and spaces throughout history, reclaim specific colonial concepts from the perspective of complex diasporic experiences; Srestha Premnath (New York and Bangalore), who combines an interest in historical icons with the avant-garde’s adherence to aesthetic formalism; and Siddhartha Kararwal (Baroda), whose mutated figures mark a new, more relaxed attitude towards form making and permanence when considering the politics of materiality and the embodiment of unnameable forces.

Some of the single channel videos provide a unique window into the lives of ordinary people. The artists are able to extract poignant and powerful narratives from complex situations, providing opportunities for alternative forms of storytelling. Video also provides an opportunity for shaping multi-referential narratives examining contemporary conditions such as displacement and community formation, unlikely personages and lost artistic legacies, often against the backdrop of colonialism and other forms of occupation.

Video artist Ayisha Abraham (Bangalore) tells stories about Bangfalore through the appropriation of old Super 8 footage to recast history in terms of recent migration and immigration; the Raqs Media Collective (Delhi) blends poetics with archival footage to forge a new philosophy about progressive global cultures from the Indian perspective; CAMP (Mumbai) is working with underrepresented populations in a variety of countries that form a cross-cultural compendium of the impact of religious fractiousness on daily life within urban villages; and The Otolith Group (London) uses archival footage to doggedly investigate temporal slips and Utopian dreams of the past.

Working with ideas that are both highly personal and representative of the shifts and changes taking place in the global sphere, these artists are navigating the complex routes between the historical past and the present, new and old identities or fact and fiction during a period of societal flux. As India begins to play a more central role on the world economic stage, the work of its artists will become even more widely acknowledged vehicles for expressing new ways of being that are hard to convey outside the terms that art provides. This exhibition hopes to further this potential by contributing to a better and deeper understanding of current shifts, and their emotional, intellectual and spiritual effects on the artists and their communities, as well as the potential for representing new aspirations.

The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India is organized around YBCA’s Big Idea SOAR: The search for meaning.

Participating artists are Ayisha Abraham, Rina Banerjee, CAMP, Nikhil Chopra, Anita Dube, Gauri Gill, Shilpa Gupta, Sunil Gupta, Siddhartha Kararwal, Dhruv Malhotra, The Otolith Group, Sreshta Premnath, Pushpamala N., Raqs Media Collective, Tejal Shah, Sudarhan Shetty, Bharat Sikka, Anup Mathew Thomas, and Thukral and Tagra.

An accompanying catalogue will be published with essays by Nancy Adajania, Parul Dave Mukherjee and Abhay Sardesai.

The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India will be on view simultaneously with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s presentation of the Maharaja exhibition touring from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, on view in San Francisco from October 21, 2011 until April 8, 2012.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), located in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena cultural district, is one of the nation’s leading multidisciplinary contemporary arts centers. With a belief that contemporary art is at the heart of community life, YBCA brings audiences and artists of all backgrounds together to express and experience creativity. The organization is known for nurturing emerging artists at the forefront of their fields and presenting works that blend art forms and explore the events and ideas of our time. As part of its commitment to the San Francisco Bay Area, YBCA supports the local arts community and reflects the region’s diversity of people and thought through its arts and public programming.

YBCA programs around four Big Ideas to organize its wide-ranging programs and provide a context with which to engage the art. The Big Ideas are: ENCOUNTER: Engaging the social context; SOAR: The search for meaning; REFLECT: Considering the personal; and DARE: Innovations in art, action, audience. These ideas, which encompass art from all disciplines, are designed to focus an investigation of contemporary art and its relationship to the larger world. Using the Big Ideas as portals, YBCA has established a framework of thought that invites exploration and risk-taking, quiet reflection and active engagement.

Performing arts, visual arts and film/video programs are curated thematically around Big Ideas which illustrate the connections and associations between the works. Public programs and Big Idea Nights, YBCA’s popular free open house series, are dedicated to establishing a deeper understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. YBCA presents programming year-round in the Forum, Screening Room, Galleries and Novellus Theater. For tickets and information, call 415.978.ARTS (2787) or visit

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