Changing contemporary art landscape: Large scale art events in south Asia

Mulk Raj Anand conceived the triennale, Triennale India, in 1968 to present an international contemporary art exhibition in India. It was an attempt to put India on the world map when Venice Biennale and Sao Paulo Biennale were the only two major international art events. With the aim of global positioning of India to build cultural infrastructure, the triennale was met with widespread criticism in India soon after its launch, dissolving its ability to have any impact on global art discourse[i]. It has several other reasons for not having any impact in the global discourse including the backward approach of the triennale and its inability of creating new models. In the current landscape of contemporary art, many biennales and art fairs have come up in south Asia in the last ten years and a few new entries will be seen in 2016 and 2017. Inadvertently the south Asia art landscape seems to position itself in realising a vision that the Triennale India was set out for. There are signs that we are in the process of affirming a new cultural and intellectual endeavour as a consequence of the poor representation of this region in Euro-American fairs and biennales. A consolidation of private individuals and institutions have enabled the creation of these large scale art events.

Claiming a space in the contemporary art discourse and positioning the contemporary arts from the region in a larger global context, has been the motivation of these large scale art events in the subcontinent. According to Anoli Perera, artist and member of the Artistic Advisory Board of Colombo Art Biennale, “Sri Lankan art and artists have been on the global scene in the past two decades but the vastness of the international art community does not allow individual attempts of artists to make an impression.  Along with individual artists taking part in the global art events it is necessary for other institutional structures and events to present the contemporary Sri Lankan as a portfolio to a larger informed audience locally as well as internationally.”[ii] Some might point to this development as maturing of the art scene in the subcontinent. Neha Kirpal, Founder Director and Partner, India Art Fair, talks about her inspiration to initiate India Art Fair in 2008, “The variety and the accessibility (of the art related events that I encountered while pursuing my Masters in London) inspired me to think about the lack of opportunities for people to engage with art in India and the untapped potential in the cultural space which was hugely exciting.”[iii] The forthcoming biennales, Lahore Biennale and Karachi Biennale in 2016 and 2017 respectively, are looking to place Pakistan on a global map. “Lahore Biennale Foundation is looking to create a platform that caters to the growing strength of Pakistani art internationally but also to the regional publics.”[iv], says Qudsia Rahim, Executive Director of Lahore Biennale Foundation. The intriguing case of two biennales in Pakistan is clarified by Niilofur Farrukh, founder of NuktaArt magazine, “Since Karachi and Lahore have different sensibilities and concerns, the biennales cannot but be different. The biennale in different cities will give an opportunity to project the vibrant diversity within the art scene of Pakistan.”[v]

This piece was written for Critical Collective (, September, 2015. The complete version can be accessed here.


[i] Nancy Adajania, ‘Globalism before Globalization: The Ambivalent fate of Triennale India’, in Shanay Jhaveri ed. Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design, The Shoestring Publisher, 2013

[ii] In an email conversation with the writer on 15th August, 2015.

[iii] In an email conversation with the writer on 25th August, 2015.

[iv] In an email conversation with the writer on 14th August, 2015.

[v] In an email conversation with the writer on 31st August, 2015.

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