“Art is not a mirror to reflect reality,” wrote radical German theatre artist Bertolt Brecht, “but a hammer with which to shape it.” His view is clearly shared by InsideOut Delhi, a non-profit volunteer LGBTQ+ group, which in association with the NAZ Foundation curates an art competition (now in its second year) with two very clear objectives: to educate broader society about the experience of being LGBTQ+ in India, and to expose selected LGBTQ+ artists to a wider audience of buyers, galleries and agents.
In a country where it was illegal to be LGBTQ+ until September 6, 2018, the competition challenges artists who are residents of India and identify as LGBTQ to not just think through the issues, but also explore how they can use the visual arts to overcome obstacles and prejudices creatively.
The 2018 theme “Refracted Lives” asked LGBTQ+ artists to address how their lives bent in response to societal forces such as religion, family, or the law.
The theme this year; “Awakening,” is a more upbeat one, signifying an increase in confidence and optimism on their journey of self-reflection. This year, 76 artists entered the competition.
LGBT artists such as Amir Rabbani from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, who have really worked against the odds to be who they are, says the competition is a significant outlet. “Coming from a Muslim background,” Rabbani says, “I restricted myself, to not show my paintings to my art teachers or classmates. When I heard about the InsideOut Project, I felt it was a great platform to show my true inner self which was till now firmly in my closet”.
All the submitted artwork is judged by a distinguished panel of art critics, collectors, buyers, curators and writers. Chosen finalists get to exhibit, for a fortnight at the LaLiT Hotel’s gallery in New Delhi, during Pride Month in November. Winners of first, second and third place, as well as a People’s Choice Award, are announced at a gala reception at the gallery. They stand to gain cash prizes, sponsored by prominent LGBTQ businesses and individuals.
As the head of the jury panel, Manoj Bhramar explains, “This is a juried art show, one at which exhibiting artists have to be found worthy of entry by presenting their work to a panel of jurors. The process is intended to raise the quality of the show and therefore attract patrons. The higher the reputation and standard an event or show has, the more good artists and ensuing art lovers it will attract.”
Exhibiting artists get the opportunity to sell their artwork or be commissioned further. The 2018 People’s Choice winner Aditya Raj says being recognized by the competition was a game-changer. “It is very difficult for queer artists in India to go to curators and galleries and get this kind of support.”
Having their work seen by thousands of local and international visitors encouraged many of last year’s finalists to appreciate the impact of their creativity on the larger community. “I noticed a lot changed within myself, since taking part in the competition,” says Adil Kalim (3rd place winner 2018). “It really encouraged me and pushed me to develop faith and confidence in my identity and work. Now I can take my battles to society by faithfully and truthfully conveying my message through my craft.”
“Through the prism of mythology, which often many folks use as a powerful tool – where ‘god’ cannot be challenged—I managed to spread the message amongst my friends’ circles. They had no idea this androgynous form of Lord Shiva was in fact ‘queer’. I think the more we do with our art through this platform; there will be an awakening,” adds sculptor Nishant Khoiya, whose installation Ardhanarisvara depicted the androgynous form of divine power.
In February 2019, last year’s finalists also had an opportunity to participate in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. “Through the cultural exchange in Australia, we met a cross-section of artists and interested collectors, like Deborah Kelly, C Hardy Moore, William Yang,” says Baishali Chetia, a 2018 finalist. “From them, we learnt a lot about how to use visual language and LGBT activism.”
Another 2018 finalist, Saba, excitedly tells us, “The environment kind of encouraged me. It is one thing to paint whatever is going on in your head, and it is a different level to see someone appreciate it enough to take it home. It’s not about the money; it is more about the person who understood and connected with it and put it in a place where they want it for themselves.”
After taking the exhibit to Australia last year, this year the organizers hope to take the show from Delhi to other cities in India. InsideOut Delhi has kickstarted a fundraising campaign, both offline and online, asking the larger LGBTQ community and allies to contribute towards sending the selected artwork and artists to more cities so that they can get a wider national berth.
Speaking on behalf of the 2019 jury panel, Bhramar adds, “I hope that the work we gather this year illustrates bravery and vulnerability, highlighting both our diversity and our unity, our deep sorrows and our hopeless optimism. Artist and art both share a hope that will provide the future generations dignity of life and equal rights.”
There is barely a week left to contribute and allow these LGBTQ artists a chance to travel. Visit and contribute here.
InsideOut is a volunteer LGBTQ+ organization of Indian and expat professionals and diplomats based in New Delhi, supporting health, human rights and the arts through cultural exchange. For further information, email InsideOutDelhi@gmail.com.