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The new hubs of art collecting- India and China - look to build bridges
As the world’s top auction houses swing into action for their fall art sales, it is expected that Chinese collectors will give a boost to the market, likely to raise their paddles for big-ticket works, in spite of persisting global economic turmoil. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s point to the fact that Asian buyers, especially those from India and China, have become a major force in recent years. Interestingly, though the warring Asian superpowers might not see eye to eye in diplomatic spheres, boundary disputes and security matters, one common thread that binds them is their mutual appreciation and admiration of each other’s traditions, histories and cultures, bringing them closer. The development is significant for the evolving Asian art scene.

The global marketplace is getting reshaped by the tastes and demands of Chinese collectors, who are making informed decisions driven by their own cultural lineage rather than blindly taking a cue from the West, as the Features section essay of this edition emphasizes. Importantly, there is now a wider interest in Indian art among the Chinese collectors even though they are more passionate about their ‘home-grown’ art. They are equally keen to check where Indian art stands vis-a-vis Chinese art. Senior specialist (Asian contemporary art) at Christie’s Hong Kong, Ingrid Dudek, reveals: “We’ve witnessed an increasing amount of cross-fertilization and pan-Asian bidding and buying over the last several seasons.”

According to the expert, Chinese buyers have shown particular interest since 2006, when the auction house started to include top pieces from Indian artists alongside work from their contemporaries across Asia. For them, contemporary Indian art probably is of significance because of the comparable circumstances artists from both the countries face today, like cultural and aesthetic history coupled with the fast modernization, leading to an intense search for a distinct artistic identity and vision within that realm. Incidentally, prices of contemporary Chinese art have zoomed up in comparison to Indian art.

Arario Beijing was probably the first commercial gallery in China to host a major group show of contemporary Indian art (‘Hungry God’; 2006) in response to the growing demand for Indian works from clients in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It then managed to sell three works for roughly $200,000 to Beijing collectors, whereas, it sold not less than 30 works to Chinese buyers worth $2.5 million in three solos for artists Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta and Nalini Malani, in 2007-08. In the ACRO Madrid, Abir Karmarkar’s work interested a Chinese collector, and a buyer from Hong Kong was keen to acquire a piece by Sarika Mehta. Clearly, China seems to be a new unexplored market for Indian art, where spending on art is not as unthinkable as other badly hit economies of the world.

The museum show at MoCA, Shanghai (2009) was one of the largest ever contemporary Indian art collection ever displayed in China, including top names like Jitish Kallat, Reena Saini-Kallat, T V Santhosh, Subodh Gupta, Hema Upadhyay, Riyas Komu, Jagannath Panda, Anju Dodiya, Justin Ponmany, Schandra Singh, Suhasini Kejriwal, Chitra Ganesh and Suryakant Lokhande. ‘India Xianzai’ (India Now) touched upon the topic of cultural assimilation concerning not only India, but also many expanding Asian countries. ‘The Silk Road’, a show of artists from the Asian subcontinent last year courtesy The Saatchi, alluded to the ancient trade routes established between Europe and Asia that linked in particular China as well as the Middle East via India as early as from the 2nd century BC. The exhibit offered an overview of the most recent artistic production from the three regions, drawing attention of the international art world.

To further enhance the cultural collaboration, the Shanghai Biennale initiated an elaborate project in order to make the people of China view India with a fresh eye and perspective. The aim of ‘West Heavens’ was to reshape their imagination about India. From Mumbai to Shanghai via Sardar Sarovar and The Three Gorges was a journey Tushar Joag embarked upon on a motorcycle. He named it ‘Rocinante’, after Don Quixote’s horse. Atul Bhalla opted to connect recent historical sites on the verge of being forgotten, within site of inner Shanghai, as a ‘Listener’: to water, to streams, harbors, rivers, canals, wells etc. Anant Joshi’s work was based on cultural icons and architectural monuments like the Gateway of India in Mumbai, or the Zhengyangmen in Beijing. Gigi Scaria’s installation included two parallel projections - selected archival images about Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Zedong. Simultaneously, a series of lecture-forums engaged renowned Indian and Chinese scholars in a dialogue.

With the nation’s economy thriving, Chinese collectors have become a growingly powerful force in the art market, exhibiting a palpable interest in both Western and Asian art including that from India. Chinese auction houses are apparently offering works of art at a pace and zest that was associated with those in New York and London formerly. “We have observed exponential growth especially by mainland Chinese buyers brought up during the Cultural Revolution. These are successful businessmen having huge amounts of money at their disposal,” stated Sotheby’s vice chairman (Asian art), Henry Howard-Sneyd.

Among younger generation of new art buyers in Asia, 47 percent are from mainland China, and they’ve only recently started to focus on the Chinese contemporary art scene. With more education and awareness, experts believe, the proportion of buyers with a genuine appreciation of the artworks will only grow. The market is still very young, and with China’s strong history and more knowledge about the contemporary trends, they will eventually learn to appreciate art. In this context, it is heartening to notice the trend of increasing visibility and prominence of Indian art in this new, powerful hub of art collecting. More conscious and coordinated efforts are needed though, to gain from the rising power of Chinese collectors.