In a survey exhibition at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, five contemporary Indian artists create works that talk with the artifacts they sit next to.

“Phantoms of Asia – Contemporary Awakens the Past”, which opened on 18 May 2012, aims to examine contemporary art by juxtaposing it with traditional artifacts. The show includes five Indian artists whose innovative styles are profiled below.


Raqib Shaw 'Absence of God VII' 2008, acrylic, glitter, enamel and rhinestones on board. © Raqib-Shaw. Image courtesy White Cube London. Photo Todd White Art Photography.

Asian contemporary talks with artifacts

Phantoms of Asia” was curated by Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, in collaboration with Allison Harding, assistant curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum.

The exhibition contains 140 artworks from the past and present, including more than sixty works by 31 contemporary Asian artists. It is based on the philosophy that “Asia is not a timeless construct”, but rather an ever-evolving concept that can “awaken a new awareness of our existence in this world”.

San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has approximately 17,000 works of art and artifacts from all major Asian countries and traditions, some of which are as old as 6000 years. Harding considers how their collection connects to art of Asia today and how “these traditional and contemporary objects can reveal new aspects of each other”.

To express these points of view, regional artists’ works are situated among traditional objects in the Museum’s region-specific galleries, as Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu explains.

The show, called “Phantoms of Asia – Contemporary Awakens the Past”, helps one to use a contemporary perspective to look at ancient art and enjoy a new understanding, as well as using [an] ancient perspective look at a contemporary art [object] to see how our contemporary artists are inspired and influenced by the traditions of their upbringing.

5 Indian artists reflect on past

There are five Indian artists featured in the exhibition: Raqib Shaw, Jagannath Panda, Varunika Saraf, Prabhavathi Meppayil and N S Harsha. Their work not only references traditional styles and craftsmanship, but also taps into Indian spirituality to reflect on their society and the world at large.

Raqib Shaw

Raqib Shaw is a British-Indian artist featured in the exhibition. A well-known artist from Calcutta, Shaw grew up in Kashmir, where he was influenced by its distinctive amalgamation of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian cultures. Since 1998, he has lived and worked in London, where his love for the visual and poetic cultures of East and West continues to influence his art.

Shaw’s hedonistic, dreamlike canvases depict another world, a fantastical reality that is both beautiful and grotesque. They are juxtaposed against the thousand year old works in the South Asian galleries of the Museum. Allison Harding comments, “His meticulous application of materials and use of detailed imagery, which borrows from both his Kashmiri heritage as well as from Western painting traditions, draws the viewer into his phantasmagoria of colour and form.”

Jagannath Panda

The exhibition also features Jagannath Panda. India-West describes him as “a painter and sculptor from Gurgaon, who presents a complex and not-all-flattering portrait of modern India in his works in the show, such as the 2012 painting The Cult of Appearance III. In the mixed media painting, Panda juxtaposes the never-ending construction seen around Gurgaon and Delhi with the building of the Bridge to Lanka as portrayed in the Ramayana.”

According to Harding, Jagannath’s works are relevant to the exhibition as he “references traditional myths and symbols to explore present-day concerns. Specifically, Panda’s work responds to the rapid development of his hometown, Gurgaon, and reminds us that symbols and their meanings, like life itself, constantly change.”

This was echoed by Director Jay Xu when asked about the Asian understanding of death as important to life and how contemporary artists convey this idea.

A part of Asian spirituality is about renewal, renewal in the physical and renewal in spiritual sense. Whether it takes different form of reincarnation, life in one way or another continues. … Art is very much about ignite, questioning, conversation and dialogue.

Jagannath Panda, 'The Cult of Survival II', 2011, plastic pipe, auto paint, acrylic, fabric, glue, rexine and plastic flowers. © Jagannath Panda. Image courtesy Nature Morte, New Delhi and Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern, San Francisco.

Varunika Saraf

Another Indian artist featured is Varunika Saraf. Born in Hyderabad, India, Saraf has a BFA in painting from the JNTU College of Fine Arts and an MFA in painting from the Sarojini Naidu School of Fine Arts at the University of Hyderabad.

Inspired by the Mughal miniature painting tradition, Varunika recasts subjects from mythology and nature as players in an imagined, otherworldly cosmos that also draws from her own subconscious. As Harding explains,

Subtle patterns emerge from Varunika Saraf’s paintings, which mix found textiles, rice paper and meticulously painted forms. Amid subjects from Indian mythology and nature, Saraf’s compositions include allusions to well-known works of art from all over the world, many of which conjure a sense of mythological surrealism.


Some of her works include floating eyes reminiscent of a ‘third eye’ of meditation (dhyana) that is capable of transporting the viewer into an inner-realm of higher consciousness.

Varunika Saraf, 'Island', 2011, watercolour on rice paper and cotton cloth. © Varunika Saraf. Image courtesy Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, India.

Varunika Saraf, 'Untitled', 2010, Watercolour on rice paper overlaid on canvas. © Varunika Saraf. Image courtesy Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, Mumbai, India.

Prabhavathi Meppayil

Indian artist Prabhavathi Meppayil comes from a family of goldsmiths. Meditation and precision are central to her work. Process for her is the memory of hands. Using traditional goldsmith techniques, she creates compositions incorporating delicate metallic strands embedded into lime gesso.

In her artist commentary, Harding explains that “Prabhavathi Meppayil uses traditional Indian goldsmiths’ tools to embed copper wire with ritualistic precision into the surfaces of panels. To see her subtle use of colour and material, the viewer must move close to the surfaces, allowing forms to slowly emerge. Her compositions shift between line and material, presence and absence, initiating a meditative interaction with the viewer”.

Prabhavathi Meppayil, 'Untitled-CU3-2011', 201, copper wire embedded in lime gesso panel. © Prabhavathi Meppayil. Image courtesy the artist. Photo Manoj Sudhakaran.

N S Harsha

Mysore-based N S Harsha uses a variety of media, including painting, drawing, and installations incorporating wood, mud, powder, photography and rice. His featured artworks Distress call from Jupiter’s neighborhood and Distress call from Saturn’s neighborhood tap into his logic that the material used in his works have their own story to tell.

Harding observes, “N S Harsha celebrates collective human existence in the cosmos, highlighting its often absurd nature. Hundreds of heads link as a single garland, dancing among eggplants, accompanied by a drum that symbolically unites the figures in a single rhythm to summon cosmic forces.”

N S Harsha, 'Distress call from Jupiter's neighborhood', 2011. © N S Harsha, Courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

Pleases most, disappoints some

“Phantoms of Asia” runs through to 2 September 2012 at the Asian Art Museum. Overall, the exhibition has been well covered and well received.

Daily Serving, an international publication for contemporary art, writes, “the 150 works cover such a broad range of media and time that it is hard to not be impressed by the fluidity between the pieces.”

According to the Bay Area Reporter, “In the past, the curators have appeared more sure-footed in the ancient world, but the contemporary works here by a crop of 31 youngish artists are stronger and more interesting than those in the Shanghai exhibitions.”

After falling on hard financial times in 2011, the Museum made a decision to show more contemporary work. However, some believe that the old artifacts of the Museum and contemporary pieces do not complement each other as well as anticipated.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, “The largely anonymous craft brilliance and spiritual ardour imbuing the antiquities leave the contemporary artists’ efforts – with some outstanding exceptions – looking contrived or as if straining for effect.”


Related Topics:  Indian artists, museum shows, museum collections, curatorial practice

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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