Art is being supercharged by spirituality as artists globally draw on shared heritages to make sense of the current crises of war, greed and faith with festival sculpture, surreal photographs and feminist statements
The soul of art is transcendence, latticed with subtle meanings—mandalas at play. It both rejects and embraces the times. Spirituality has permeated the art world in recent years as the works of mystically and religiously driven artists are popping up in galleries across the world long after their death, provoking critics and reviewers alike to have a contemporary conversation. Indian art has been long influenced by religious motifs, metaphysics, epic and the philosophy of the soul.
The ongoing India International Spiritual Art Festival that has been running for the past 100 days and is on till November 8, is a spiritual explanation of such feudal splendour; dazzling nettipattams of temple elephants created by Shobha Prem with gold-plated fibre—the glorious Trissur Pooram was under-scaled this year. The festival that exhibits over 70 artists from India, Poland, South Africa and Oman is a creative confluence of spirituality and heritage. There is yoga in aluminum and steel, animistic elaborations by Ishrath Humairah and calligraphic art by Australia-based Gautam Jhanjee which is culturally rooted in the Indian idyll.
A world plagued by war since the 1930s, religious violence, women’s enslavement through faith, the greed of empires, the ecological crises and the industrial expansion of the wealthy West has forced artists to reexamine its cardinal points and their own. They are turning to spirituality on canvases, mediums, textures and colours. Perhaps it was a premonition of the pandemic’s devastation of the body and the mind—with all the wealth, technology, skill and will of governments, children were dying and families were being torn apart.
The first indication came at a posthumous show of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint in 2018-19 at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC, which is still the most visited show in the museum’s history. af Klint was a medium and Theosophist when Annie Besant was active in the early 20th century, a time of religious and scientific churning. Art was the tool of nationalist examination. She received little notice in her lifetime, but the significance is that the Guggenheim found it relevant to exhume her nearly a century after her death. The next year, Agnes Pelton’s first solo exhibition after two decades was held posthumously at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC. She belonged to the Transcendental Painting Group of Santa Fe, founded in 1938 during American Art’s social realism age.
Anish Kapoor and Sandip Mukherjee owe a lot to the group; ‘Phaidon’s Speaking of Art: Four Decades of Art in Conversation’ has reproduced a conversation by Kapoor on the topic explaining, “For a long time now spiritualism has been a taboo subject... Yet it is a fundamental of the human condition, and we must somehow deal with it. It is a treacherous path—between the meaningless talk of the 1960s and real things. As human beings we have consciousness, and that must be dealt with on some level.” A recent interview quoted the most expensive Middle Eastern artist Parviz Tanavoli saying, “The resurgence of spirituality is more present than ever in contemporary art.”
His studio ‘Kabood’ in Tehran emerged as the ‘whenua’ of the Saqqakhaneh Iranian modernist movement— “the first culturally specific modernist group of note whose works were influenced as much by Shia Muslim folk art, as by pre-Islamic art and international formal strategies”, according to the Asia Society. The trend is a breakaway from the establishment dictates of the ancient world where art was financially and culturally joined at the hip with religion.
The world is a rabidly political space. Pakistani artist and photographer Nadia Waheed’s paintings in the group-show “She Came to Stay”, are illusory journeys into alien worlds. Her weltanschauung is a combination of the Buddhist philosophical concept of ‘nyat’, that represents spiritual draining and kenosis which represents Christ transforming into God’s empty vessel. There are dissenters too, such as feminist artist Ann Agee, whose signature hand-built ceramic sculptures are derived from religious figures even as she denies their spirituality. Agee suggests spirituality has a moral aspect she is unwilling to be dictated by. Creativity is socially political. Indian art in the age of Hindutva would have a problem with that.