What impact does recognition by way of awards have on an artist’s valuation?
Mithu Sen’s work can easily deceive, its apparent delicacy, or fragility, turning out at closer quarters to reveal her scathing wit in which male genitalia (and male egos) are often targeted. What the work doesn’t do, the titles achieve, like I forgot my penis at home. Not all her work is as feminist, but that she’s an artist to watch out for came home when last week she bagged the Rs 10 lakh Skoda Prize, which is being likened by some to UK’s prestigious Turner. Meant to acknowledge new developments in contemporary art, it will shine the light on Sen’s forthcoming shows and, no doubt, her prices as well. That it’s a good time to start snatching up her works, such as those at Saffronart’s new format, 24-hour contemporary auction on February 2-3, where a couple of her mixed-media paintings are estimated between Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 2 lakh, need hardly be stressed, as the prize is bound to renew interest in her earlier works and edge their prices up.
Yusuf Arakkal’s paintings share none of Sen’s tentativeness, but in some ways the turning point for this senior artist came when he won first the silver, and then the gold medal at the Florence International Biennale, in 2003 and 2005 respectively. For the Bangalore-based artist with a well-established reputation, the prizes meant a change in perception in how his work was viewed among collectors, and prices shot up to almost twice in the period. Arakkal paints mostly in large format, and prices are currently in the range of Rs 85,000-Rs 1 lakh per square foot, with some room for bargaining when it comes to his more outsized works
Arakkal is among the last of the artists who paint across diverse styles but are always in control of their medium and their subject. Starting out as an abstractionist, he was soon tackling the entire oeuvre of figurative art, from portraits to landscapes and still-life. But the Kerala-born artist who lost both his parents at a young age rarely paints fun-filled images. There is a sense of oppression, even impending doom, in his portraits, the colours are a monochromatic sea where the browns and blacks stress the sense of loneliness and isolation that surrounds people and appears to penetrate the core of hypocrisy that marks society. Even when he uses bright colours, that sense of being alone is only heightened. His still-lifes, too, bear the imprint of fleeting time, of beauty that is incandescent for a moment before being extinguished forever.
And yet, the same colours can turn almost evangelical when he turns to episodes from Christ’s life — a series he is currently working on in his characteristic big sizes. Here, his Christ does not suffer or invite pity, he is heroic, the spiritual radiance that surrounds him is uplifting, and the images are remarkable for their strength rather than any notions of martyrdom. Of the series, Arakkal’s version of the Last Supper is distinctive because Christ here does not surround himself with his disciples, but their presence is marked by the bowls and plates on the table. The reason, Arakkal explains, is that he does not wish to portray any negative emotions, especially of betrayal, since Christ himself pardons the sinner and expatiates him of his failing; while in another work on the Crucifixion, he shows the nails on the cross outside and away from Christ’s hands, so that the moment rather than the suffering is captured on the canvas.
While Arakkal mostly paints ordinary mortals, Mithu Sen deals with ordinary emotions to which she gives her twist. There is more in common between the two artists than is at first apparent, not least of which is the ability to deal with everyday subjects within the parameters of their own unflinching gaze and give them an extraordinariness that sets them apart. This conscious ability may have led to their respective prizes. Arakkal was by no means a newbie artist when he won the honours, but what it achieved for him was a growing recognition of his value. Now to see if Sen’s work gets the same acknowledgement among her groups of peers.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.