Art.Motif, an intimate gallery set up by Mala Aneja, opened its doors in Delhi in November 1995. The first show, 'Images on paper' was curated by poet, writer and independent curator, Prayag Shukla.
The gallery was launched at a time of great ferment in the art world. Even as visual language and art practices were changing radically, the business of art was poised for taking off to dizzying heights.
The art scene had come alive with an air of optimism. It was a time when a new generation of artists was exploring daringly new frontiers in art language. A number of new, young artists was dominating the gallery spaces in the big cities. Artists like Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta and several others among their contemporaries were acquiring international presence when the new millennium came around.
The new generation of artists experimented with form, medium, material with great energy. Installations became very visible at exhibition spaces. Atul Dodiya started painting on rolling shutters; Anjum Singh experimented with several materials, among them ball bearings and magnets to create forms suggesting crowded habitats. She made references to manifestations of consumerism in her installations. Sheba Chachi created an installation on Meena Kumari using a quantity of glass bangles among many other things. Priya Ravish Mehra worked with fibres and fabrics dyed with dyes of her own making. And she was not alone in working with fabrics. Many women artists used stitching as a part of their practice. Artists made installations with sand and even simulations of bread slices. Digital resources were being widely used and videos as exhibits were not uncommon. The possibilities were endless.
Side by side, with this explosion of creativity, there was a boom in the gallery business. New galleries opened up in all the metropolitan cities and many new collectors, some of them from countries abroad, arrived on the scene. A reflection of this trend was observed in the increased importance of international auctions of Indian and South Asian art. As a result of this, it was noticed from the mid-Nineties onwards that works of Indian artists fetched prices well above their reserve prices. A barrier was shattered when Tyeb Mehta's 'Celebration' sold for some Rs 2.5 crore in 2002 at a Christie's auction. It was a record price for any Indian artist till then.
A fallout of this was that the local art market quickened. Indian auction houses like Saffronart started in the new millennium. There was a frenzy among galleries to deal in the big signatures. There was a rush of workshops and residences organised by galleries where the front-ranking artists were sure to be invited. The surge in demand had some unhappy consequences. For instance, fake art multiplied noticeably. But there were happy developments as well. Most exhibitions were well documented with galleries printing proper catalogues. Art publishing received a fillip. A large number of books on artists were printed by galleries. Art lovers could access reprints.
Another noticeable development was the flattening of the distinction between high art and folk art. A couple of decades before the new millennium, there was a huge uproar because it was proposed by the commissioners of a Triennale that a couple of renowned folk artists share exhibition space with modern artists. However, in recent times, some galleries combined folk art with modern and contemporary in their group shows without much resistance. In fact, in the new millennium, some galleries turned exclusively to dealing in folk art.
Post-2008, the art market took a hit for a while following the international economic crisis. A number of galleries closed their doors. Others began showing photographs, graphic prints, drawings and watercolours instead of large oils. But the downturn did not last too long. And till the pandemic hit, the art scene had once again been quite lively.
Through the ups and downs in the art scene, Art.Motif charted its course quite steadily. From the earlier years, it expanded gradually to its present quarters in the same building. Over the last few years, some exciting exhibitions have been mounted in this open, attractive, well- proportioned exhibition space, still exuding an air of intimacy.
The first solo exhibition that Mala mounted in the mid-1990s was a show of S Harshavardhana's work and it was his first solo as well. The choice of Harshavardhana, an abstract artist, points to Mala's predilections as well. She has always responded to abstract, non-objective art and carefully given a clear direction to her gallery, foregrounding non-objective art. The works of eminent abstractionists VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Rajendra Dhawan, Ambadas and Ganesh Haloi have been shown in the gallery's exhibitions.
Instead of chasing famous artists, Mala has searched for good, new, experimental artists painting abstracts, with a command over their language. Many of her young artists like John Tun Sein, Shalina Vichitra, Yogendra Tripathi and Harshavardhana have become well-known names in the art scene. They have introduced a note of freshness in their abstractions, in the way they use colour and texture.
The other area of Mala's interests has been textiles. Art.Motif has mounted some stimulating exhibitions involving textiles, which have left a deep impression. One of the exhibitions in recent times that caused great excitement was Renuka Reddy's revival of the famous trade textile, hand-painted chintz. Along with examples of her chintz, Reddy documented the history of the technique and its revival. Other major textile shows were Kalamkari by Ajit Das, a Shibori show by Neha Puri Dhir, woven textiles by Tilak Samarawickrema, a Sri Lankan artist and architect, and one of Punjabi Phulkari curated by textile historian Jasleen Dhamija.
Other interesting projects for Mala have been the mounting of genre and medium-based exhibitions. Mala likes to explore the less-trodden path. She has chosen to exhibit artists working with less common mediums like gouache and pastels in a group show. Similarly, she has mounted genre-based group shows like landscapes and drawings.
In her own way, Mala has been able to establish a character and identity of her gallery Art.Motif in the rapidly changing Indian art scene. Unlike many galleries who are still searching for their persona, Art.Motif is sure about the image it wants to project. The viewer knows what to expect– no flamboyance but a quiet, calm pleasure. Mala's trademark is not just the new talent that she discovers but also the atmosphere of contemplation that she creates with her meticulously curated exhibitions.