Vivek Vilasini’s Recruiting Station, 2013.
MUMBAI - I’m just back from Mumbai, that teeming, frequently harrowing but never dull Indian metropolis. The former Bombay is a city where you can look out your taxi window to see seemingly endless poverty one moment, but in the next vista there’s a 27-story, single-residence tower with three helipads (the $1 billion Ambani family home).
Naturally, I wanted to check out the art galleries. But India, as I learned quickly, is full of mysteries. Even armed with a map, some of them proved elusive; my traveling companion and I turned one corner expecting to find the well-regarded Project 88; instead there was a forlorn-looking cow on the sidewalk in front of a school. Feeling a little bovine ourselves for not being able to find some of the galleries, we stopped in for a curry sandwich at Basilico, a restaurant on Arthur Bunder Road near our hotel (the magnificent Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, now recovered from the 2008 terrorist attack there).
Over lunch we wondered aloud about the gallery Chatterjee & Lal, which was also proving elusive, and we were interrupted by a voice: “Oh, I’m Chatterjee.” We looked around, and the only other person in the restaurant waved to us from the other side of a bookshelf and came over to shake our hands. Mort Chatterjee, a London native, helped give us the scoop on the art landscape. His gallery was actually closed that day, but he knows the scene well after a dozen years in town. “Delhi has the best non-profit spaces,” he told us. “But Mumbai is the best for commercial galleries.” And business has picked up quite a bit of late, he said.
Gregroy Crewdson’s Untitled, 2007.
Happening right now, Chatterjee reminded us, is Focus Festival Mumbai, a citywide photography effort that continues through March 27. Two dozen galleries are participating, most of them in the southern part of the city, which is the most touristed—in particular in the Colaba neighborhood, where we were exploring.
Sakshi Gallery, very close to Chatterjee & Lal, has on view a provocatively titled show called “Poseurs,” a look at artifice in photography. Sakshi represents the noted American photographer Gregory Crewdson in India, and one of his surreal, staged scenes from 2007 dominated one wall. There were two pieces by Vivek Vilasini that caught our eye, especially Recruiting Station (2013), a photograph of six Indian men positioned together in the shape of one large horse and superimposed on a shot of an Army recruiting station in New York’s Times Square.
And the work of the self-dubbed artist Waswo X. Waswo also merits a look. The Wisconsin native moved to India to work, and he addresses cultural stereotypes in his work. The Mutka Chor (2010), photograph of a hunky Indian man by a riverbed amidst water pitchers, was surrounded by inlaid frame of very high quality—at least as interesting as the picture inside it. An American looking at traditional ideas of Indians wasn’t what we thought we’d see when we set off on our gallery search, but Mumbai excels at delivering the unexpected.