Not Just Pretty Pictures
When social activist Teesta Setalvad realised she needed to raise funds for her organisation, Citizens for Peace and Justice, she decided to turn to art.
Setalvad has been fighting against political heavyweights for the rights of victims of communal violence in Gujarat since 2002. But, in order to continue providing legal aid to the victims, she has now turned to a core group of artists for financial support. “We have been dealing with communal issues and political obstacles, so there was no question of any corporate funding coming in,” she admits, adding, “We found our support in artists who have been a great source of support for the cause throughout.” This core group of artists includes names like Anjolie Ela Menon, Nilima Sheikh, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, Arpana Caur and Ram Rahman, who have openly supported the 50-year-old Setalvad’s organisation since its inception ten years ago.
The core group reached out to its network of artists, young and old. Kria, an arts think-tank, was also roped in for professional expertise, and thus came the idea for ‘Art for Humanity’, a fundraising exhibition scheduled to be held from 6 to 9 April in Mumbai.
Unlike an auction organised by sister concern Sabrang in 2008, Art for Humanity is an exhibition where works of art will be displayed for sale and are mainly priced at Rs 50,000 onwards, the maximum limit being Rs 12 lakh. There are two pieces in the higher range—an Akbar Padamsee Metascape done in 2010 and a painting by noted veteran Ram Kumar in 1997 for his Benaras series.
“Artists are not worried about being politically correct, and openly support a cause if need be,” Setalvad says, while speaking about the generosity that was extended to her by the art community.
For the artists, though, it is not so much about raising funds or endorsing the cause as about being involved and making a statement with their art.
Mumbai-based artist Tushar Joag, whose work titled Shutterfreeze is on display at the exhibition, is very clear that art is meant for intervention, and is not merely a decorative tool. “I am part of the exhibition not because I endorse the cause, but because I am involved politically and socially,” says Joag, who sees himself as a social interventionist and explores art within public spaces.
Joag’s exhibit is a replica of the Flora Fountain structure, a landmark in south Mumbai—only, broken at the head. He had created it in 2005 in response to regional intolerance perpetrated by the Shiv Sena.
“The head of the structure is Flora, the goddess of abundance. I had the structure built by labourers who build sets for Bollywood, put it on a truck and took it across the city. Bal Thackeray’s intolerance towards migrants from UP was a symbol of Mumbai losing its spirit of tolerance. The truck was going around the city looking for the fountain’s lost head—abundance and tolerance,” he explains. Joag sees his exhibit as a way of involving more people by appealing to their senses and thought.
Meanwhile, veterans such as Nilima Sheikh and Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, based in Delhi and Vadodara, have been central to the exhibition. “We are privileged to be part of this exhibition and to be able to articulate our concerns through our art and as fund raisers,” says Nilima Sheikh, whose work Hometown essentially articulates the sufferings and strife of people living in Kashmir.
Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh’s Speaking Tree symbolises the peaceful co-existence of communities with saints, musicians and Sufis on a Chinar tree. The vision of peace and sufferings of people in Kashmir are contextually similar to the scenario in Gujarat, Nilima explains.
As certain artists look for political and social involvement through their art, Pratul Dash, known for depicting the violence inflicted by urban spaces on the individual, feels that art is also about creative expression. “Of course, it’s not about creating pretty pieces that people would buy for their drawing rooms. It is about how one reacts to the environment around,” he says, explaining his artwork Man with a Wooden Horse, which shows a man bearing the burden of political power symbolised by a horse and engulfed in blazing orange flames.
“I was painting this piece around the time the riots happened. I wasn’t painting for the riots or any cause, but was just reacting to what was happening, hence the violence in the work, which is very uncharacteristic of me,” Dash says.
“Artists may or may not be obviously political in their stand, but their work is usually a reaction to what is happening around them,” he concludes.