THE NEWS that renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was detained on 3 April by the Chinese authorities has been deeply shocking. Weiwei, who is politically vocal, had particularly raised the cause of 2008 Sichuan earthquake victims. He was arrested on suspicion of “economic crimes” in a government crackdown on political dissidents.
China has been 20 years ahead of India in contemporary art. Some fantastic artists have come out of there. Weiwei has not only been a great Chinese artist, but is also a respectable international artist. When they needed his endorsement for the Olympics, the Chinese government used his talent as a consultant for the Bird’s Nest stadium. This is a contradiction. Weiwei has also been beaten by the Chinese police. In Germany, he spent many days in hospital. In spite of being an international figure, he chose to stay in his country.
India, on the other hand, has very little support for contemporary art. China has a far larger number of contemporary artists and museums. There is now finally the Kiran Nadar Museum, and it’s a great beginning. It creates a climate that encourages more and more of contemporary art. The new wing of National Gallery of Modern Art is worse than a shopping mall. There are no curators and no major events are happening there. Nobody is thinking seriously about running it and I’m not sure why people who don’t know about art are put in charge of running it. The government doesn’t take help from the private sector. And this hurts our contemporary art. We don’t reach people who don’t already know about art.
At the same time, what India has is freedom of art. We too have our problems, and no doubt MF Husain is the biggest example. The Right Wing can be very powerful in our country. It was incredibly sad that the government which was not even the ruling party excised Husain. This may have been partly because Husain wasn’t that young anymore. He could not come out and fight like Taslima Nasrin. This is one fight we need to keep our eyes on.
THERE HAS been very little coverage of Weiwei’s plight and this central fight for artistic freedom in Indian media. Our media is, in general, less concerned with art and artists. Our coverage tends to be home-oriented. But things are changing slowly — art is always a slow thing. Recently, we were in Jantar Mantar to protest against corruption. Not only that, a lot of people came to a three-day function at Alliance Française recently, which protested the wrongful imprisonment of Binayak Sen. It was more than an exhibition or seminar — it was a way to voice a kind of thought.
The job of an artist is to make art. Not every artist can come out boldly and speak out like Ai Weiwei. But for the ones who do, it’s good for them as well as their countries. We should all support artists who talk about the big issues of our time. But sometimes an artist’s work speaks for itself.
We have signed a petition for Weiwei and written to the Chinese culture ministry. We are in the same boat as him and we have a big fight ahead of us.
Subodh Gupta is an artist