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The best way the art world can help is by funding oxygen supplies and medical care, said people on the ground in India.

Indian Artists and Galleries Respond to Covid-19 Nightmare

Himali Singh Soin, static range (2020) (still). Courtesy the artist.

India recorded over 400,000 new COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row on Sunday. The death toll rose by 3,523, taking the country's total to 211,853. The New York Times reports that actual deaths could exceed these official numbers by two to five times.

'What is happening in India right now is heartbreaking, inhuman and downright shameful,' said Prateek Raja, co-founder of Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata. 'Scores of friends and people we know have passed away in the last two to three weeks.'

'Several of our artists and their families have tested positive and we are in touch with them in trying to help them through their quarantine periods in their cities of domicile,' Raja continued. 'All day, members of the team and us personally are coordinating for hospital beds, oxygen supplies or medicines, even ambulances for others we know or whoever reaches out to us.'

Aparajita Jain, co-director of Nature Morte in New Delhi, said the situation is 'like war'.

'Six of my artists have had Covid. Sixty percent of my staff have Covid or have family that are severely sick,' she said. 'At a moment like this, it feels tonedeaf to tell them to think about art and work.'

'Art is all about transcendence, beyond the living,' she continued. 'And right now, we're just brought down to the very basics: can we survive through this? And how many people can we take with us?'

The suffering is so pervasive that asking for help from within India has become difficult, she said.

'Even last year, the community in India rallied to raise money for meal kits etcetera, but this time, asking anyone for anything is like asking a family whose child has gone to war for more,' she said.

Bharti Kher, Algorithm for clarity (2019). Bindis on painted board. 192.1 cm diameter.

Bharti Kher, Algorithm for clarity (2019). Bindis on painted board. 192.1 cm diameter. Courtesy the artist and Nature Morte.

The opening of the Kochi Biennale, which was scheduled for December 2020, was postponed to November 2021 and the 13th India Art Fair was called off in February 2021 due to the pandemic. Art world activity in India had begun to regain momentum, however, after daily cases fell from a peak of around 98,000 in September to fewer than 10,000 in February.

Just last month, 37 galleries attended the inaugural edition of Delhi Art Week from 3 to 10 April.

But India lost its grip on Covid-19 incredibly fast.

'It came like a tsunami,' Jain said.

As cases rose—ostensibly due to a new virus variant that spread at events such as political rallies, cricket matches, religious festivals, and weddings—India's capital city re-entered lockdown on 19 April.

Other parts of the country have been hit hard and imposed their own lockdowns. While Delhi has about 100,000 active cases, Bengaluru has 280,000.

A Bengaluru-based curator, who preferred not to be named, told Ocula Magazine, 'Earlier on I was concerned about what artists could do. But now that seems utterly secondary. The main priorities simply being: saving lives through oxygen, getting people medical care, and getting people vaccinated.'

'If the larger art community was to help, we would need to raise money and actually buy product and send it to India,' Jain agreed.

The Mission Oxygen project on Indian crowdfunding site Ketto has already raised US $3.8m for oxygen concentrators and cylinders, and a similar project on Give India has raised US $3.5m. Other sites accepting donations include Unicef, the Indian Red Cross Society, and Oxfam.

(Nature Morte will donate 10% of the proceeds from their exhibition in the Frieze New York Viewing Room to Mission Oxygen.)

London and Delhi-based artist Himali Singh Soin is directing donations to an organisation called Live to Love, which works with communities in the Himalayas as part of her static range project in collaboration with Serpentine Gallery and WePresent. Donations will be matched by the project's sponsor, WeTransfer, until 30 June.

'Originally, the donations would have gone to the empowerment of these communities at large, but with this sudden and total crisis, Live to Love quickly diverted attention and resources to the pandemic,' she said.

'Everyone's really come through and passed the love onward,' Soin continued. 'So while the system fails us, our leaders lead us astray and dark, morbid motivations are at work at a grand level, minute by minute, the kindnesses pour in, citizens rally, cook, feed, care, cry, sing, mourn, make calls, help a friend, hold each other even at a distance.'

'We do not know how this is going to pan out over the next few weeks but we remain positive and hopeful that we will emerge out of this nightmare,' Raja said. —[O]

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