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Shining at Venice Biennale

No official pavilion, yet Indian artists command attention with thought-provoking installations and artworks

Shining at Venice Biennale

‘Slings & Arrows of Outrageous Fortune’ by Sonal Ambani.

Shireen Quadri

India doesn’t have an official pavilion at the ongoing Venice Biennale this year, but art from the country is making a splash across various sections. Of these, sculptor Sonal Ambani’s installation, ‘Slings & Arrows of Outrageous Fortune’, a reflection on the gender pay gap, stands out. Part of the ‘Personal Structures’ exhibition, it features a stainless steel bull adorned with major world currencies, charging towards a target.

Ram Kumar, ‘Women’, 1953. Image courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia 

The bull, Ambani says, symbolises a patriarchal structure valourising male hegemony. While the circular target represents the collective goal of gender equality, the red arrows piercing the bull’s body signify the efforts of those who challenge systemic biases and work towards an equitable future.

Aravani Art Project, ‘Diaspore’, 2024. Photo Courtesy: Aravani Art Project

The artist explains that the conceptual leap to merge the bull, a traditional symbol of strength and dominance in financial context, with the theme of gender inequality arose from recognising the intersection of economic and social structures in perpetuating inequality. “The bull parallels the patriarchal systems that dominate not just markets, but social life as well. I sought to highlight how deeply embedded these gender biases are within our economic systems. The incorporation of world currencies on the bull further emphasises the global nature of this issue by establishing the scale and the systemic nature of gender inequality,” says Ambani.

Nobel laureate Claudia Goldin’s research has been instrumental in quantifying the gender pay gap with empirical evidence. Ambani’s installation takes a more visceral approach. “It translates the statistics into a tangible and emotive experience, bringing a sense of immediacy and urgency to the issue. It humanises the data, allowing viewers to connect with the subject on an emotional level and fostering empathy and a deeper understanding,” says Ambani.

Art, she underlines, has the unique ability to evoke emotional responses and personal reflection in ways that data alone cannot; it can bridge the gap, she believes, between intellectual understanding and emotional engagement. The artist hopes the sculpture can be a reminder to the viewers that achieving gender equality is not a straightforward path, but one that involves persistent, often contentious, efforts that challenge the status quo.

“Sculpture, to me, is about creating a tangible connection between the idea and the audience, allowing for a multi-dimensional exploration of themes. It is something ‘out there’ which exists as a physical manifestation of emotions and thought. For me, this tactile and spatial interaction is what makes sculpture a powerful medium,” says the artist.

Another prominent Indian attraction this year is a grand tribute to MF Husain. Organised by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), ‘The Rooted Nomad’ is an immersive odyssey through Husain’s life and art. The other Modern masters whose works are on display include FN Souza, SH Raza, Amrita Sher-Gil, Ram Kumar, Bhupen Khakhar and Jamini Roy. Paresh Maity’s bronze sculpture, ‘Genesis’, presented by Delhi-based Art Alive Gallery, is also part of ‘Personal Structures’, a biennial contemporary art exhibition organised by the European Cultural Centre. So is a mural by the Aravani Art Project, an art collective comprising cis and transgender women, which echoes the idea of inclusivity and identity.

Contemporary artist Shilpa Gupta’s ‘Listening Air’ is part of the collateral event ‘From Ukraine: Dare to Dream’, organised by the PinchukArtCentre at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac; it will be on view till August 1. Gupta’s installation brings together voices that have been passed on and persisted through generations, using “songs and poetry as powerful critiques against systems of control and as uplifting carriers of hope in times of struggle”. Another collateral event, ‘The Cosmic Garden’, held at the Salone Verde Art & Social Club, celebrates the oeuvre of senior artists Madhvi and Manu Parekh.

B Prabha, Areez Katki and Parul Thacker, too, have their works at the Biennale. Together, their works have ensured that India’s voice resonates strongly at Venice this year.

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