Arts / Museums

India’s Rich Art is Having a Major Houston Moment

Palace Treasures and Rare Photos are Coming

BY // 02.22.18

The riches of India take over this March, with two culturally significant exhibitions opening six days apart in Houston. An over-the-top historic exhibition of the decorative arts and a biennial focused on cutting-edge photography. “Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India” travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, early this month. It’s the first time these treasures have left their repository in India — a palace dating to 1459, now preserved by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, which made the United States tour possible.

The MFAH is the first stop of a three-city, two-year exhibition schedule; the landmark partnership that made the blockbuster possible was five years in the making. Expect a rare peek into the riches of the maharajas and maharanis of the Rathore Dynasty, told via 250 objects: splendid jewels, textiles and tapestries, palace furnishings, arms and armor, architectural treasures, sumptuous regalia, and even a 17th-century court tent, elephant howdahs, and an 18th-century gilded palanquin that enabled its princely occupant to be born in ceremonial style.

The tale of this regal desert kingdom in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan is conceptually spun around three themes, including the role of women in royal patronage. The exhibit’s six sections span four centuries and delve into such tantalizing topics as The Royal Wedding Procession.

Six days after the MFAH show opens, FotoFest’s 17th International Biennial comes into focus. For the first time ever, artists from the subcontinent of India and the Indian diaspora are presented during the biennial, the largest photographic convergence of its kind in America. The action centers around Washington Avenue Arts District’s FotoFest headquarters at Silver Street Studios, as well as Asia Society Texas Center, which serves as a venue for FotoFest-curated offerings for the first time.

Forty-seven artists of Indian origin, including Houston’s Prince Varughese Thomas, are featured in a show that promises revelations about the world’s largest democracy.

Lead curator Sunil Gupta and co-curator FotoFest’s Steven Evans bring 60 years of art-world expertise to the endeavor. In 2017, the pair traveled throughout India and other destinations to review portfolios and conduct studio visits with nearly 150 artists. The result: 700 photographic images, video, and new media, including photographic sculpture from artists whose subjects range from drag queens, gender and sexuality to ecology, street children, migration, refugee camps, and myth and religion. In the latter category, don’t miss the cinematic work of Nandini Valli Muthiah.

Beyond the India component, more than 100 participating spaces serve up photo fare for this year’s FotoFest, which also features films, talks and tours, a two-day symposium, literary and culinary events, the Meeting Place Portfolio Review, and FotoFest’s epic collecting op and fund-raiser, International Fine Print Auction, set for Monday, March 19, at The Whitehall Houston Hotel, 1700 Smith. Collectors alert: 76 lots come across the block, featuring works by by 74 artists including 12 Indian headliners. (The big night for photography honors pioneering Houston–based talents Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom of MANUAL. )

“Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 4 to August 19;. “FotoFest 2018 Biennial: India,” at FotoFest (Silver Street Studios, Winter Street Studios, Silos on Sawyer, and Asia Society Texas Center, plus other venues for the participating spaces), March 10 to April 22.

All FotoFest images courtesy the artist as well as the galleries noted.

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