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.

Installation shot of Colombo Art Biennale, 2014 Image Courtesy:
Installation shot of Colombo Art Biennale, 2014
Image Courtesy:

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]

From Asian Art Biennale that started in 1981 by Bangladesh Shilpkala Academy to the most recent entrant, Karachi Biennale (to be launched in 2017), we are increasingly witnessing an overlap in the programmes and function of art fairs and biennales. Traditionally, the organisation and function of art biennales, fairs and festivals are different.[vi] But now art fairs are adopting a small scale biennale model. With an artistic director at its helm, the art fairs include talks, discussions, curated walks, special exhibitions and off site events. Kirpal believes that the format of India Art Fairs has “grown organically” and evolved to reach out to larger audiences. “The vision for the fair was always to make art more accessible and less intimidating to a wider pool of people and we continue to work closely with museums, galleries, artists and students to make this a reality…the main tenets remain the same, for instance, while the majority of the space is taken up by commercial galleries every year we have spaces for non-profit art projects and educational aspects such as the Speakers’ Forum, curated walks and a book store. Every year we also have a VIP Programme of exclusive events and a city wide collateral events calendar around the fair”, says Kirpal. The biennale too is using the model of art fairs at least in terms of sponsorships. Kochi Biennale is largely supported by galleries who sponsor their artists to create new works for the biennale. The biennales are increasingly a place to showcase artwork that subsequently enter the art market. Dhaka Art Summit (DAS), that has a unique model where a few galleries from the region are invited to show their artists as well as several curated exhibitions are on display in addition to the slew of activities like talks and curated walks. Art Chennai takes over the entire city. It enlivens different parts of the city with exhibitions, murals, public art projects and talks. These different models work well towards audience building where each of the big events in the subcontinent has been successfully attended by huge number of people including non-art audience. Artist Mithu Sen, who has participated in India Art Fair, Art Chennai and Dhaka Art Summit, observes that the art fairs specially provide a converging platform where different kinds of works and artists come together. “A painting of Krishna can be seen next to an installation by Raqs. This might not be approved by art elites, but it is great for the audience who can view different kinds of work under one roof.”[vii]

Rana Begum’s 'No. 473' in Dhaka Art Summit in 2014 Image Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Rana Begum’s ‘No. 473’ in Dhaka Art Summit in 2014
Image Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation


Shahzia Sikander’s 'Parallax' (2013) in Dhaka Art Summit in 2014 Image Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Shahzia Sikander’s ‘Parallax’ (2013) in Dhaka Art Summit in 2014
Image Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation

Most of the events, fairs, biennales, summits and festivals, are driven by private institutions/individuals, with little or no support from the government. They are large scale art events emulating the Euro-American scene in different regions of the subcontinent. Kochi Muziris Biennale is situated in the history of Kochi and the mythical city of Muziris. Colombo Biennale emerged out of the need to show the vibrant contemporary art scene of Sri Lanka when the perception of Sri Lanka was not more than a beautiful country torn by civil war. The first Colombo Art Biennale in 2009 was conceptualised under the theme of ‘Imaging Peace’. It was the same year that the civil war came to an end. “In a way CAB came about as a response to an artists’ need of the moment where a country recovering from an intensely violent period looking to pick up its pieces and move forward.”, says Perera.

Situating these large scale events in histories of various regions is not enough; it is important for them to talk to each other also. Addressing the local conditions and models of art production and discourse, we need to innovate models of the art fairs and biennales. The biennale and fair organisers must consider abandoning the old systems and models conforming to certain standards and “talk back and more importantly, among the non Euro-American positions”[viii]. Lahore Biennale Foundation collaborated with Theertha International Artists Collective in Sri Lanka on a seminar on performing arts and an upcoming artist in residency programme. Last edition of Dhaka Art Summit in 2014 focussed on south Asian contemporary art where contemporary artists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal and Maldives were presented by curators from the south Asia region. In the next edition of Dhaka Art Summit in 2016, seven curators from institutions like Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim and Tate Modern will be presenting exhibitions that include modernists and contemporary artists of this region.

In a bid to include all the stakeholders of a contemporary art scene, the art events include several activities. Writing workshops, film screenings, public art projects to children’s biennale, can the art fairs and biennales compensate for the lack that exists in this region? Several areas like art education, art appreciation and audiences, have to be addressed by state and private museums and institutions. The function of museums and institutions in a society cannot be replaced by biennales and art fairs. It cannot take over the task and responsibilities of the museums. Museums have a larger role to play in the dissemination of cultural inheritance. Professor Parul Dave Mukherji comments, “While it is commendable that some private art galleries and institutions like the KNMA are aspiring to fulfill the role of documenting modern and contemporary art and reaching out to the public to educate them about these art forms, a role which ideally institutions like Lalit Kala both in Delhi and different states should perform, it is difficult to see their role as fully neutral and objective.”[ix] In south Asian countries there is not only a lack of state support but also private spaces. In some regions, there are hardly any galleries to support the artists. Nadia Samdani, Co-founder and President of Samdani and Art Foundation, thinks of Dhaka Art Summit as a “pop-up museum”. She adds, “One of the major challenge for South Asia is the under-developed art infrastructure. Other than ten-fifteen galleries in India and one or two galleries in Pakistan, none of the galleries in South Asia represent any artist and neither do they participate in any art fairs, so it becomes quite difficult for the rest of the world to learn about them.”[x]  Not only to provide a platform to contemporary artists, these art events are important as they encourage critical thinking, another function that the state completely relieves itself of. Prof. Mukherji adds, “In a developing society like India, art pedagogy in particular and humanities in general are not considered important enough, the state cannot easily absolve itself of the crucial role it can play in offering a ‘free’ space for critical thinking and dialogue. As a result, currently, the onus is on few educational academies where such a space can be realized.”

There have been very few initiatives in contemporary art that have helped in binding the south Asian region. South Asian Network for the Art (SANA), spearheaded by Khoj in 2004 was one of the first. It was a network of artists run spaces in four countries: Britto (Bangladesh), Vasl (Pakistan), Theertha (Sri Lanka) and Khoj (India). The network (2004-2011) was a support structure that allowed greater mobility of artists in the region for residencies, workshops and projects and sharing of resources and interacting with each other. The contribution of such initiatives can be felt in todays expanding contemporary art scene that extends beyond biennales and art fairs. The most awaited and significant space in the contemporary art landscape of south Asia is occupied by the large scale art events like biennales and fairs. They should be viewed as an important support structure in the larger ecosystem of art that encourages art production, artistic and aesthetic engagements. They can lead the way in presenting innovative models of stronger connection and engagement within the south Asian region. Here biennales and private institutions have to be experimental and risk taking. They should not be subsumed by the larger global exchange and several types of programmes that can distract from the real concerns of the biennale and art fairs.


The two biggest events in India are the India Art Fair, formerly known as the India Art Summit started in 2008, and Kochi Biennale that was launched in 2012. In addition to these, there are many other festivals and events. Jaipur Art Festival, launched in 2013, is mainly for artists and art students. There are master classes with established and upcoming artists. The participating artists have to produce artworks that are exhibited. Seminars and photography competition are also the highlights of this festival. Delhi International Art Festival (DIAF) is an annual festival, started in 2007, that brings together photography, sculpture, painting, puppetry, dance and music. Pune Biennale, launched in 2013, is a collaboration between Pune Municipal Corporation and Bharti Vidyapeeth. It includes visual arts, architecture and photography. Delhi Photo Festival, positioned as a biennale, started in 2011. Art Chennai, in addition to the main exhibition, brings together different galleries and institutions in Chennai for exhibitions, events, public art projects. Started in 2011 as an annual event, it also schedules talks and exhibitions by invited galleries outside Chennai. Another annual event, India Art Festival was also started in 2011. The festival proposes a model of dialogue between the artists, art galleries and buyers and is held in both Delhi and Mumbai. It invites major and mid-level galleries and artists from around the country in the pavilion and hosts a major two day seminar. Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, one of the oldest festivals, was started in Mumbai in 1999. Since then it has grown in popularity and includes music, dance, cinema, literature, heritage walks and visual art. Recently architecture and urban design have also been included.

The duration of these events range from 3 days to over a month. Meanwhile, couple of years ago, talks of Patna Biennale faded away after the state government turned its back on the project. Delhi biennale in the middle of 2000s never took off even though it was excellently backed up by eminent art historians, curators and artists.

On the other hand, the neighbours of India are not quite far behind. Chobi Mela, one of the first photography festivals in Asia, was first held in 1999/2000. It is a biennale that holds exhibitions in Bangladesh Shilpkala Academy and a few other places in Dhaka. Dhaka Art Summit, a bi-annual event, was launched in 2011 and since then has gained massive international repute.

The biggest art event in Sri Lanka is the Colombo Art Biennale (CAB). Its first edition was in  2009/2010 and since then amplified its activities from just exhibitions to talks, curated walks, performance and educational programmes.  Kala Pola has been organised in Sri Lanka for the last 21 years. It is an art fair that provides Sri Lankan artists the opportunity to show their works in an open air art gallery. Colomboscope, started in 2013, is a multidisciplinary platform that includes literature and music along with visual arts.

Pakistan is the latest entrant in art biennales in the region, festivals and events. Lahore Biennale will be launched in 2016, while Karachi Biennale will take place in 2017. Lahore Biennale has already created ripples by a string of collaborations with organisations in Pakistan for public art projects and Theertha in Sri Lanka for seminars and residencies. The Biennale Foundation has also started research fellowships.

End Notes

[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.

[vi] An art biennale, like a large scale art exhibition, is organised around a strong curatorial concept. At least theoretically, it encompasses all nationalities and is a true representation of global art movement and discourse. Not a place to buy and sell art, the biennale includes discourse broadcasted through talks, curated walks, special exhibitions and events. Art fairs are centred around the commercial angle of the arts. As any other global industry the circulation of capital is an important condition. Art fairs allow a wide spread access to buyers from various parts of the world. Festivals are generally a coming together of different kinds of arts including music, dance and literature other than visual arts. They are aimed at creating awareness about arts and targets a wide range of local audiences. Art fairs used to be for collectors and dealers as they don’t present a curated exhibition, but show the artists that galleries represent.

[vii] In a conversation with the writer on 27th August, 2015.

[viii] Francesco Bonami and Charles Esche, ‘Debate: Biennales’, Frieze, Issue 92, June-August, 2005.

[ix] In an email conversation with the writer on 26th August, 2015.

[x] In an email conversation with the writer on 12th August, 2015.


This piece was written for Critical Collective (, September 2015.