Venkatappa Art Gallery: Apathy of the State
As is well known, starting 2016, for two years, many artists from Karnataka, joined hands to passionately engage and strategize the fight for saving VAG from the hands of – ‘MAP and a conniving government.’ Post that, we lapsed into a period of lazy patience and passive hope for the government to act. The pandemic further pushed us into our homes, into digital worlds and into being reclusive artists.
Paramesh Jolad’s first show in the month of September was an exhibition of dark sarcasm on us. It ridiculed not just the Government for its apathy but also the artists who visited it. The intention in getting each visitor to cut the ribbon of a dark cavernous and dysfunctional gallery with a ‘Housefull’ board inside was obvious and in the face. It mocked the ‘chief guests’ – the artists who had been part of the protest campaign undertaken so creatively a few years ago. I was miffed at this jibe!
But it did what it intended to – it brought us to the Venkatappa gallery, to experience the extent of its shocking neglect: The garden had not been tended for more than 4 years (the gardener’s post has remained unfilled). The moat was high with ‘bull rushes’ dwarfing the lotuses that once bloomed in the waters. There were piles of garbage all around the building. The façade had leaks and cracks all over with trees taking root in its crags. From the front door itself the walls were covered with green mold from the ceiling to the ground. The closed auditorium reeked of mold and dampness everywhere. The first-floor terrace, an opening event hosting space, had broken rain pipes hanging precariously.
In our ‘absence’, the Tourism department has also firmly rooted itself into most of the rooms in the building. The officials – Director included – perhaps have special blinders to make the rot invisible at their workplace – they seem to be untouched by its glaring neglect!
Another dark show by Paramesh Jolad brings us to Venkatappa again. MAP is built and triumphant in its opening. We are not grudging it. In fact, we see it as our triumph too. Afterall, we have pushed and redirected its founders to their very own premises across the street to establish their own brand-new museum in Bangalore. We need many more museums to be set up in a big city like Bangalore but we have sent the message out clearly – do not appropriate what belongs to the Art community for your own personal agenda.
Reportedly, the new Commissioner of Archaeology and Museums was shocked to see the state of the State Museum and has asked for a list of repair and estimate. In the meantime, a review of Jolad’s despairing first show in the Bangalore Mirror has had some results. A prominent realtor who read it has shown interest to help repair the building! The surroundings are manicured and cleaner. But the bull rushes still swamp the moat, the toilet still stinks, the mold is as resplendent as ever, the roots are digging deeper, splitting walls. As for the garbage piles – they were simply burnt wherever they were in close proximity to the building housing precious art works!
Jolad’s present show exemplifies art as protest. And again, the darkness of the gallery interior is a statement in itself. In order to see in the dimness, you are handed a lamp. One feels like the quintessential watchman in an old Indian movie guiding a spooked guest into an isolated guest house on a stormy night. A broken plier and a trowel made into big sculptures hang on the sides. In the center laid out on the floor lies a gigantic black coat, barely visible. It is a coat that is emblematic of Venkatappa’s attire that Jolad has handstitched in a performative act, over the 4 days that he has occupied the gallery. The sarcasm and the dark irony of it all is obvious. Artistically his work is well executed, displayed sensitively and conceptually mature.
Jolad’s persistent effort to focus our attention, to what we fought for 6 years ago is laudatory and we need to wake up from our individual preoccupations. This time around the political climate has worsened. All protests are criminalized. Political and ideological differences at a larger scale makes the relatively smaller causes hard to negotiate between friends and artists. This time around we don’t have a MAP to fight against. We have to fight the apathy of the government. We have to list what artists need. We have to make them understand what contemporary artists and art need. We need to strategize and find ways. We have to become visible to the Government once again.
Sheela Gowda studied painting at Ken School of Art, Bangalore, India (1979), pursued a postgraduate diploma at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India (1982), and earned an MA in painting from the Royal College of Art, London (1986).
Gowda has had solo exhibitions at Venkatappa Art Gallery, Bangalore (1987 and 1993); Gallery 7, Mumbai (1989); Gallery Chemould, Mumbai (1993); GALLERYSKE, Bangalore (2004, 2008, and 2011); Bose Pacia Gallery, New York (2006); Museum Gouda, Netherlands (2008); Office for Contemporary Art, Oslo (2010); Iniva, London (2011); and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands (2013). Notable group exhibitions include How Latitudes Become Form, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2003); Documenta 12 (2007), Indian Highway, Serpentine Gallery, London (2008); Making Worlds, Venice Biennale (2009); Provisions, Sharjah Biennial (2009); Paris-Delhi-Bombay, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2011); and Garden of Learning, Busan Biennial (2012). She was a finalist for the 2014 Hugo Boss Prize. Gowda lives and works in Bangalore.