Indian Indigenous art makes a stop at the Surrey Art Gallery

Swarna Chitrakar. Tsunami, 2005. Fabric paint on canvas.| Photo courtesy of Sneha Ganguly.

This month the Surrey Art Gallery will showcase an art collection featuring Indigenous Indian art rarely seen in North America. Curated by Drs. Aurogeeta Das and David Szanton with assistance from curating consultant Jeffrey Wechsler, the exhibition’s stop at the Surrey Art Gallery is the only one in Canada. The exhibition runs Jan. 20–Mar. 25.

The exhibition, Many Visions, Many Versions: Art from Indigenous Communities in India, was curated by invitation from Sunanda and Umesh Gaur, who have been active collectors of Indian art for over two decades. The Gaur’s BINDU modern collection forms the core of the exhibition, but other works from collections in France, India and the U.S. are also featured.

Four artistic traditions

Manisha Jha. The Jackfruit Tree (Tree of Life series), 2012. Acrylic and ink
on canvas.| Photo courtesy of Sneha Ganguly.

The artwork has been separated into four major artistic traditions: the Gond community of Central India, The Warli community of Western India, the Mithila region of Bihar, and the narrative scroll painters of West Bengal. Approximately 80 works from 24 artists will be featured.

The Gond traditionally painted on walls and floors during weddings and festivals while the Warli were known for their use of red, brown and white pigments.

According to Das, the Warli traditionally used a paste made from rice flour as paint, on a base of mud paste or cow dung or a mixture of the two. Nowadays, the rice paste is frequently replaced by acrylic white and mixed with Fevicol, an Indian brand of glue that acts as a binder to improve the longevity of the paint.

Historically, mural and floor-drawing traditions practiced in homes across India would not have been studied because they were created predominantly by women and in the domestic space. The women in Mithila also practiced wall painting and traditionally created art for domestic rituals. Their contemporary work has included critiques of patriarchy and gender inequality amongst other socio-political issues.

The scroll painters of West Bengal were known as Chitrakar and they would travel from village to village to tell stories in song. These stories were depicted on the scrolls known as pats. The scrolls were traditionally made of pieces of paper stitched together with cotton thread and pasted onto old cotton sarees. In modern times, Das says that the scrolls are still made this way but in a more practical length and this also makes them easier to display.

These artistic traditions have been around for centuries but researchers are unsure exactly how old they are.

“It is extremely hard to accurately date them, principally because they were ephemeral (with the exception of Chitrakar scrolls),” says Das.

Jamuna Devi. Raja Salhesh with his two brothers and three flower maidens, c. 2000. Natural dyes on paper.| Photo courtesy of Sneha Ganguly.

A rare opportunity

Das says Indigenous Indian art is a largely unknown field in the USA and Canada but is also under-appreciated in India as well.

“Historically, foreign patronage – including North American patronage – has significantly advanced appreciation of this genre, so in that sense, we are following a well-established precedent despite this large-scale show being the first of its kind in both countries,” says Das.

The works will also be separated into four themes: Myth and Cosmology, Nature – Real and Imagined, Village Life, and Contemporary Explorations.

“Some paintings may express an artist’s vision of nature; some may be a portrayal of rural life; others may comment on modern life; and yet others may visually recount a more traditional story that may or may not be mythological,” says Das.

Jordan Strom, the local curator at the Surrey Art Gallery, says that they are very excited to have this opportunity to be the only venue in Canada to show this work and for the chance to compare and contrast the different Indigenous arts and traditions.

“We are really thrilled to be able to present this not only to our Lower Mainland community but also to people who are quite excited and coming from across the border as well,” says Strom.


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