Indian contemporary art arrives finds new fans in Berlin

As a former Gestapo interrogation centre in Berlin, the sprawling building at number 90-91 Zimmerstrasse once played a chilling role in the city's history, dpa reported.

Now the huge factory-sized premises near the German capital's former Cold War Checkpoint Charlie crossing has been renovated and transformed into a home for a cluster of major art galleries in the city.

On the building's top floor, in high-ceilinged, voluminous rooms is the recently opened Nature Morte gallery, where fans of contemporary Indian art indulge their tastes. New Delhi-born artist Dayanita Singh is currently showing a series of photographic shots depicting marginalised Indian communities.

Nature Morte Berlin is the second gallery in the capital dedicated to contemporary Indian art. The Bodhi gallery, located behind one of Berlin's major art museums, the Hamburger Bahnhof, was the first, opening in May.

Since then, it has been busy mounting exhibitions aimed at winning new audiences for the new wave of Indian art that has been sweeping the global art market.

Nature Morte, on the other hand, was originally part of New York's East Village art scene in the 1980s before re-establishing itself in New Delhi in 1997.

The gallery's Berlin director Julie Engelmeier first studied politics and economics in Paris, London and New York before getting hooked up in the art world.

She's excited about Nature Morte's debut Indian art exhibition, featuring Dayanita Singh's work in three distinct sections. The exhibition runs through to January 3 next year.

One section highlights images shot within the Anandamayi Ashram in the northern Indian city of Varanasi (Benares). From portraits of girls sequestered within this environment emerges a study of the tensions found in India today including the role of women.

Another section zeroes in on activities at a site in the western Indian state of Gujarat where mentally and physically ill patients go in the hope of a cure. Formerly suffering from epilepsy, Singh was originally drawn to the site.

Engelmeier is an enthusiastic fan of Dayanita Singh's searching brand of photography. "She is a highly profiled, super-serious Indian photographer, who is also a very funny and warm person," said Engelmeier.

"I'm happy to have opened with her work because it sets a great standard for the gallery," she says.

As to her own background, the Munich-born Engelmeier told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in an interview: "I was working for a consultancy firm for a spell, but then took a year out to reorientate myself.

"I had this affinity with India and made visits there whenever I could. My brother also lived in New Delhi, so there was this big connection and it was there that I started my work in the art world," she explains.

In India, Engelmeier met New Delhi-based American art entrepreneur Peter Nagy, at a moment when he was toying with the idea of opening a gallery in Europe, preferably in Berlin. "That's how everything fell into place for me," she smiles.

Engelmeier, 28, is fascinated by Berlin's thriving art world activity: "The city now has as many art galleries as Manhattan.

"There may not be a lot of industry or many big art buyers here, but there are lots of artists from all parts of the world. They like its free-wheeling, liberal atmosphere; its many cafes and pubs and its vibrant cultural life.

"All the big German art fairs now take place in Berlin, whereas previously the art hot spot was Cologne," she says.

As for art entrepreneur Nagy, he's confident his latest Berlin venture will be welcomed by collectors.

Nature Morte was the first Indian gallery to participate at the world's most prestigious art fairs. "In that sense we have a special edge in terms of brand recognition with the international art world," Nagy told The Art Newspaper recently.

"We think people will want to travel to Berlin to see what we are doing," he said.

In the years following the demise of the Berlin Wall, numerous galleries emerged along just one street in centre of what was the city9s former communist half.

Now it has spread to other parts of the city including the area around the old Checkpoint Charlie crossing point with a flood of galleries having opened up in recent years near where the Berlin Wall marked out the city's post-Second World War divide.

"Gallerists move here because there are large spaces available at much cheaper prices," explains Engelmeier.

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