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An Interview With Amar Singh, of Amar Gallery
June 25, 2017
“Some art is horrifically accessible,” says Amar Singh, the 28-year-old founder of 5-month-old Amar Gallery in Islington. “The market doesn’t necessarily appreciate a drawing by Giulio Romano who was Raphael’s student. You can buy it for less than a Damien Hirst print – and that’s mind blowing to me!” This attitude is not one of arty-farty snobbery; it’s actually quite the opposite. Singh champions the ‘underdog’ when it comes to representation in the arts. And while describing Romano as an underdog may not necessarily be accurate given that he has had exhibitions in the likes of the Louvre, it’s more about giving everyone the accreditation they deserve.
“As a child I was taken to museums from the age of four,’ Singh recalls. ‘I then started working with the Renaissance, an area I’m in love with. I began expanding into drawings, prints and contemporary work, as there is a buoyant market for them. And I always felt the desire to champion and support living artists.: Another of Singh’s preferred prerequisites when it comes to supporting less-known creatives is that they are still walking the earthly plane. As well as this, they should ideally be female, gay or both. “I have been working for human rights in India, focusing on women and LGBT rights, and this has had a heavy influence on my gallery,” he says. “Those under-represented in India also happen to be quite suppressed in the arts too. I want to give these groups the exposure they deserve.”
“It never fails to shock me how women are still not at the forefront of the art world. You look at a list of the most expensive paintings in the world – it’s all men. I want the top five to be women!” Singh lists the likes of Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Salcedo and Carmen Herrera as examples of those that should be way up that list. The latter still works at the age of 102.
“This should be celebrated,” Singh insists. “They haven’t been honoured how they should be in the same way their peers have been.” Indeed, a recent Netflix documentary about Herrera titled The 100 Years Show saw the Cuban-American abstract painter recall how she was told by gallery owners – female themselves – that she couldn’t exhibit her work at their venues because she was a woman. “This was instilled into the mindsets of many – that women artists were inferior. I’m working on changing that dynamic!” retains Singh.
He was born in Paddington and considers himself a Londoner through and through. But his heritage is rich with nuance. For starters, he’s sort of a prince. Only he’s not. He comes from the Kapurthala line of Indian royals and happens to be 16th in line to the throne – a throne that is now defunct. “I am proud of my heritage, but I was born in London, my mother was very much middle income when she met my father,” he explains. “I don’t consider myself royal. It’s lovely to go back to India and be referred to as such, but I have never felt that. What I have taken from my family’s influence is really all about human rights and art.”
And indeed, his ancestors were all about the art. One in particular – Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala – rocked the proverbial cultural boat in the name of art. He chartered ships to travel to Europe so that he might get his hands on some otherworldly items, and doing so fell madly in love with a Spanish dancer, Anita Delgado, who eventually gave him a son to continue the royal bloodline (Penelope Cruz is making a film about it and starring as Delgado. “I’ve spoken to her on the phone about it,” Singh casually throws into conversation).
It’s his Maharaja forefather that gave Singh the idea for his ‘fantasy exhibition’. “Jagatjit built a place modelled on the Palace of Versailles. Can you imagine it? This breathtaking pink palace in Punjab. It rocked the Punjab more than Hollywood does today,” Singh says. “I’d love to hold a pop-up month there, celebrating paintings, dance, performance. Hold an event where the audience is taken through a journey of the history of dance, from the waltz to bhangra, against a stunning backdrop of the Renaissance.”
This immersive exhibition idea has been at the back of Singh’s mind since he first decided to carve a career in the arts. He wants to hold ‘hybrid’ events that celebrate more than one art form. And last year, he did. But it wasn’t an easy feat. “I pick a charity every three years to be a patron of and last September I launched the Andrea Bocelli Foundation in the UK at the Phillips auction house in Berkeley Square,” Singh recalls. “To say it was easy would be a straight out lie!”
On the eve of the event – that would see Bocelli joining several renowned performers on stage to sing and Phillips’ Frieze collection on display – the sound company cancelled. “We sorted it. It took a lot of begging and crying and phone calls,” Singh laughs.
For Singh, the road to philanthropy and curation is certainly paved with good intention; but his efforts to launch Amar Gallery proved to be a minefield too. “It took two years to find the space,” he says with an air of exasperation. “Even the wealthy areas of London are being gentrified to the point where the wealthy can’t even afford them.”
He selected the Islington base because “Central London wasn’t a reality” and even then he claims to have got lucky. “The lovely thing about the location is that there are some big nearby galleries and then other small ones. So we all contribute to the community. The main reason it took a while to settle on that space is because people are liars.” he states. Indeed, one of the potential gallery sites was in Mayfair, where, after multiple meetings with the landlord’s rep (“these landlords are never present, they’re on a yacht somewhere”), Singh was told that it was likely the rent would be quadrupled after the first three months. “Talk about greed. This would be frustrating to anybody. To find honest decent straight-shooting landlords isn’t an easy process.”
But he did. And so came the next hurdle: finding artists to showcase. “Prior to opening up the space, very few artists want to show with someone who doesn’t have an actual gallery yet,” Singh explains. “You approach artists and they’re all “great where’s your gallery?”; and you’re like “we don’t have one yet”. So you have to be ready for rejection.” One artist, however, took a punt on the new kid on the block: Howard Tangye, who was Central Saint Martins’ Head of Womenswear Design, and who boasts Zac Posen, John Galliano and Stella McCartney as some of his alumni. “He believed in me,” Singh recounts, with fondness. “The opening show was a great success and it’s down to him. He is a remarkable soul and artist.” Tangye has, since his Amar Gallery exhibition in January, featured in a museum show at Harvard; something Singh modestly says is nothing to do with him, but is certainly a testament to how privileged he was to have such an artist open his gallery.
This summer, the exhibition in-house is called Form: Flow and celebrates one gay artist and one female artist, both Indian. Pandit Khairnar works with oil and acrylics on canvas, while Parul Thacker uses crystals, nylon and gem stones – two variants that Signh asserts compliment one another harmoniously. The latter is certainly original – it’s bold, multi-dimensional, odd and makes you want to touch it; the former is a form of Rothko-esque Indian abstract expressionism. “I haven’t worked in art circles in India, I have worked with collectors over there,” Singh says. “Indian art history is magical. Look at the Taj Mahal for Christ’s sake.”
“Some of the largest galleries in the world have 80 artists on their roster but no Indians. What is that? Talent is embedded into Indians, given the art history of the place. That current will change as the country opens up. They have a new political administration, for better or for worse, and that needs to bring a positive change, the same way China has done it! Look at all the weavers and craftsmen we have. These people need to be represented by western galleries. And vice versa – this is something I would like to do.”
And when better for him to do this than 2017 – the self-proclaimed Indian year of culture. But Singh knows there are further boundaries to cross in doing so – in particular, what some might actually consider art. “I look for something that moves me, challenges me,” he insists. “Yes, I can find it hard to appreciate conceptual art because of my love for the Renaissance. But to me, it has to actually mean something. A plastic bag with saliva on it that some 18-year-old has done, trying to refer to Tesco being their local supermarket – it’s nonsense.” Singh instead champions the likes of Theaster Gates, who uses hosepipes to signify how the police would water down black people in America who were peacefully rioting for equal rights; or Glen Ligon, whose text paintings express the suppression of black people who were lynched and murdered; he calls these artists “powerful conceptualists” unlike “that Tesco stuff”.
Singh recognises that social media plays a part today too – and wants his gallery to roll with the times. “Yes, the old model works, but it needs updating,” he says. “You go into spaces in Central London where artists sell their pieces for nine figures, and no-one is there. Sometimes these places are just plain intimidating. You need to feel as if you can go into a museum and not be shot in the head by a security guard.” And Singh insists immersive exhibitions are a way to achieve this. “I want exhibitions to spill out from my gallery and be an extension of it,” he sums up. “I want to throw events in warehouses, old hospitals, people’s homes even. I want people to attend exhibitions and be a part of them. This is why I want my museum of dance to happen. I mean, there’s a museum of ice-cream now in the States. Fantastic! This is the essence of immersive art!”
By Andrew Bullock
Amar Gallery, 48 Penton Street, London N1 9QA