Lack of infra & govt apathy make it difficult for local artists to promote their works

The tribal society in Meghalaya had an oral history that was passed down through generations. As the society opened up to the outer world, forms of expression and documentation changed. In the modern society, visual art forms like painting, photography and film became an important medium. Today, the state has several talented visual artists, including painters, who are creating a new world of aesthetics.
But every new wave has an undercurrent of struggle and Meghalaya is no exception. Artists, especially painters, in the state find it difficult to get a foothold in the art world despite hard work and talent. The lack of infrastructure here makes the task increasingly onerous.
The singular platform that local artists have is the annual art exhibition and workshop organised by the Department of Arts and Culture. The event is held alternatively in Shillong and Tura and artists, young and veteran, are invited to exhibit their works.
However, contentions are aplenty as local artists feel the annual event is “not professionally organised”.

The events

Not many artists are happy with the way the department organised the exhibition and workshop in Shillong this year but most of them preferred to maintain anonymity while express their grievances.
The corner spot on the premises of State Central Library made the event inconspicuous leading to unimpressive footfall.
“We cannot expect more visitors and art enthusiasts when we are dumped in a corner. There is only a hoarding outside the gate and nothing else. Last time (in 2017), it was not like this and the arrangement was elaborate. There were placards and festoons which attracted the attention of people and many curious passersby came in to check out what the event was all about. But this year, people hardly had an inclination about what was going on,” complained several artists who participated in the programme.
The space provided to the artists for workshop was also cramped and even the handful of visitors found it difficult to walk around and enjoy the live painting sessions.
The display of art works was also inefficiently done. “Paintings were hung haphazardly without proper segmentation. The lights inside the makeshift gallery were poorly set. This shows that the event was not managed by professionals,” said an artist on condition of anonymity.
The annual event, which started with much fanfare in 2017, is a crucial platform for local artists who look forward to it for publicity and sale. But shoddy arrangement and reluctance of the organisers belied the importance of the event.
There are some calendar events which also give artists the opportunity to showcase their works “but painting is tagged with so many events that it loses the focus”.
“The quality of the art exhibition is degrading. Events like 18 Degrees represent pop culture and are not the right places to exhibit serious painting. Infrastructure at the exhibition was pathetic too,” said a self-taught artist who specialises in abstract.
“There is a need for a dedicated event for painters. Organisers should understand that music, painting and other visual arts are different forms and should not be mixed up,” asserted another struggling artist.
Treibor Mawlong, a renowned artist from Nongstoin who is an alumnus of Santiniketan, echoed the same sentiment saying a proper platform for artists is lacking in the state.
The artists have another complaint. They said the paintings which the department keeps with itself are “dumped in a storeroom without any professional care”.
W Nongsiej, the director of the Department of Arts and Culture, admitted that there are no trained curators or gallerists but disagreed with the artists saying the paintings are taken care of and sent to other exhibitions within the state.

Gallery grudge

Shillong has become synonymous with rock and other forms of western music but only a few outside the state know that the hill city has a number of talented painters and sculptors, many of whom have been trained in Santiniketan in West Bengal which is considered one of the premier art schools in the country.
Sadly, there is no permanent gallery where the artists’ works can be displayed. “We (members of the now defunct Meghalaya Artists’ Guild) have been fighting for a gallery since 1987. We were not in favour of the art and culture gallery in Rilbong because it was not centrally located and no one had consulted us before setting it up there,” said senior artist Raphael Warjri.
The gallery has not been used since 2001 when the State Assembly was temporarily shifted to the Rilbong premises of the Department of Arts and Culture.
“We raise our demand every time and make our voices heard. But till now there is nothing. Probably, the government has planned something which I am not aware of,” said Mawlong, adding that he has never held an exhibition in Shillong but has given a few of his works for display. He also rued the unprofessionalism in holding exhibitions here.
In absence of a gallery, local artists have to make do with temporary set-ups. Warjri’s Riti Academy of Visual Arts, which was established in 1991, has a gallery and often hosts young artists and organises art camps.

The Shillong International Centre for Performing Arts and Culture (SICPAC), which is coming up at Mawdiangdiang, will have a gallery but “after inspection we found out that the structure is more like a corporate set-up”, said Warjri.
“We recently met the minister (AL Hek) and others and vehemently demanded a gallery. The SICPAC building has one floor dedicated to visual arts. How can that be? There are different forms of visual arts and various categories of paintings by local, national and international artists. How can one floor suffice,” he added.
Warjri informed that none of the artists or art experts was consulted before the SICPAC gallery was conceptualized and constructed.
Nongsiej said NEC is funding the construction of a gallery on the premises of the State Central Library. “But the last tranche of funding has not come and so the work has stopped. You see, money is a perennial problem,” he admitted.
A proposal for a gallery in the city has been submitted to the government and it is awaiting clearance, he informed.
Rangskhembor Mawlong, a young artist from Mawiong, has a different take on the problem. According to him, “at this present age I do not think art should be confined to a readymade structure”.
“We recently had an exhibition in an old house, House No. 15 in Jaiaw, and I felt I had my best exhibition their till date,” he added.

The struggle

There are problems galore for local artists and absence of a gallery is only one of them. The local art market is mediocre and aficionados are missing. This makes it difficult for artists to sell their works. In Mawblei’s words, “People do appreciate art… They will take a nice picture of it but very few people do actually spend time with their eyes.”
Mawlong too has similar views. According to him, artists do earn accolades but when it comes to putting a price on a painting, people are apathetic.
Many artists said they take up commissioned work and most of the times these are not creatively challenging. “Imagine an artist who does abstract is asked to paint a landscape or realistic work. It is not difficult may be but not satisfying either,” said an artist.
Several artists also depend on the digital platform to promote their works.

One artist said he has an Instagram account where he uploads his paintings and has been appreciated by people from outside the country. “Digital platform helps us make a network,” he added.
Lack of space is another hindrance. One of the artists said there is no provision for art residency for local painters. “Residency is very important because artists can give their best. I do not have enough space in my rented studio to keep all my works. My creativity cannot blossom fully and this is sad for an artist,” he complained.
“The world has progressed so much but we don’t even have the basic necessities like proper space for a workshop,” renowned artist Careen Langstieh summed up the deplorable state of affairs.

Silence is golden

When it comes to criticisms, the government is rigid. Instead of lending an ear to the artists’ grievances and working on those to improve the existing condition, it shuns the rebels.
None of the struggling artists wanted to talk on record fearing repercussions.
“Many of us depend on the department for a platform, no matter how wobbly it is. So when anyone is vocal he or she is excommunicated. The artist is not invited to the next event. This is a reason why many in the fraternity choose to maintain silence. But we need to stand united to change things. It is now or never,” said an artist, who had drawn flak in the past for being vocal.

Bigger canvas

So what needs to be done to create a better platform? Warjri said he has his suggestions ready for the government to transform SICPAC into a state-of-the-art gallery. “I have readied a proposal where I have mentioned certain points for the upcoming gallery,” said the artist.
One of the suggestions is to provide at least “five Art galleries on different floors, which could be segmented for different categories of artists”.
“The Kiosks might be required to setup for keeping data bank of detail information on specific topics with segmentation in different links for easy access to the visitors and scholars. In this way, the SICPAC will become the single window provision and facilitation hub for entertainment, intellectual discourse and academic research and documentation,” Warjri suggested.
Mawlong observed that the need of the hour is a strong platform for local artists and the government should ensure that. “Also, artists should customise their works to make them available to and affordable for different people. This way they can have a wider reach and selling their works will be easier,” he explained.
But above all, the government should have the zeal and intention to develop infrastructure for promoting art. Instead of splurging on numerous calendar events, it can utilise fund to boost the art market. By doing so, it will not only provide the much needed platform to local painters but also create a bigger canvas for them outside the state.

~ NM

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