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Culture

Berlin Gallery Highlights Indian Art

A former interrogation site for the Gestapo, Nazi Germany's secret police, in Berlin is now home to contemporary art from the Indian subcontinent. The German capital has become a magnet for the international art scene.

Photo of girl jumping

Dayanita Singh's "Jumping Girl" is part of a series photographed in Benares, India

As a former Gestapo interrogation center in Berlin, the sprawling building at number 90-91 Zimmerstrasse once played a chilling role in the city's history. Now, the 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 themselves. New Delhi-born artist Dayanita Singh is currently showing a series of photographic shots depicting marginalized Indian communities.

Nature Morte is the second gallery in Berlin dedicated to contemporary Indian art. The Bodhi gallery, located behind one of the city'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.

Singh's work sets standards

The gallery's Berlin director Julie Engelmeier first studied politics and economics in Paris, London and New York before getting involved in the art world. She said she's excited about Nature Morte's debut Indian art exhibition, featuring Singh's work in three distinct sections. The exhibition runs through to Jan. 3.

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.

The exhibition of Dayanita Singh's photographs

The Nature Morte Gallery focuses on Indian art

Engelmeier is an enthusiastic fan of Singh's searching brand of photography.

"She is a highly profiled, super-serious Indian photographer, who is also a very funny and warm person," Engelmeier said. "I'm happy to have opened with her work because it sets a great standard for the gallery."

An affinity for India

As to her own background, the Munich-born Engelmeier told German news agency DPA in an interview, "I was working for a consultancy firm for a spell, but then took a year out to re-orientate myself."

"I had this affinity with India and made visits there whenever I could," Engelmeier said. "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."

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," Engelmeier said.

Engelmeier, 28, is fascinated by Berlin's thriving art world activity.

"The city now has as many art galleries as Manhattan," she said. "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," Engelmeier said.

A magnet for Berlin

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."

In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, numerous galleries emerged along just one street in center of what was the city's 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," Engelmeier said.

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