Hubert Burda Media

Art's the Raj

To further its art-centric cause that is the ZegnArt project, Ermenegildo Zegna spearheads public art in India.

Art's the Raj

It was perhaps the most fitting accoutrement for a cultural instituition as storied and complete as the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
We are in Mumbai. And there, from afar, draped over the façade of the museum like a gossamer veil is a juggernaut of a man-made spider's cobweb. A web, indicative of time's unhurried passing, veiling ever so elegantly over the visage of the grand dame (the museum is 158 years old).
As we approach the doorway, it becomes gradually apparent that the web is spun, not out of silk or fabric, but of rubber stamps, each etched with the forgotten anglicised names of Mumbai's city streets (all are now replaced by its purportedly more “rightful” indigenous Indian names). All are then strung together to form an impossible tapestry, its diaphanous appeal belies the fact that hours ago before its launch, an industrial crane had to heave it up the roof.
This is the art installation by Reena Kallat, one of India's It-girls of contemporary art, that launched the luxury menswear house Ermenegildo Zegna's ZegnArt art project. Cobweb/Crossings was handpicked by ZegnArt together with a jury, and in collaboration with the museum.
At the press conference in March to inaugurate the event, Kallat herself is elegantly contained in her bewilderment to be selected out of obscurity. After all, it is rare for a foreign private organisation (from the depths of Italy, no less) to cross oceans and join hands with an Indian public institution to promote an artist.
So how did it happen?
There was a sense of déjà vu as I sit to converse with Anna Zegna, the brand's image director and a fourth generation descendant of the founder, her grandfather, the namesake Ermenegildo himself.
Like Kallat's Cobweb/Crossings, there is more than meets the eye when I lean in closer to see that her earrings on each ear are of different designs, like fraternal twins, similar but not the same. On closer inspection, I realise that they are actually fashioned from naath, or the South Indian bridal nose-rings.
“My companions,” says Ermenegildo Zegna's image director, by way of explaining them away. “They are fantastic. I love India — all the colours, can you believe it? They are very loud but very warm at the same time.”
We are conversing in her suite at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, incidentally where the first Zegna boutique opened in 2007 with much fanfare, then feted as India's largest luxury store with its very own street access. Interestingly, in this city with one of the world's most populous (population: 20.5 million) densities, Zegna has a grand total of two shops. In the whole subcontinent itself, it has five — two others in Delhi and the fifth in Hyderabad — opened in joint ventures with India's Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Group.
Yet, the impetus for ZegnArt, or its Mumbai venue, says Anna, is not strategic.
“It's not as though that with the launch of Reena's Cobweb/ Crossings we will be able to sell one more suit. The turnover in this country is not huge. If we wanted to turn this into a marketing story, we would have gone to China,” she says. Next year, ZegnArt travels to Istanbul, and Brazil thereafter, coinciding with each city's Art Biennale.
“ZegnArt is not a sponsorship, or a private collection. It facilitates public art to engage public dialogue. By merging private and public, you can forge a conversation that wasn't there before. As a brand, we are interested in participating in the evolution of each society by engaging with its indigenous people. It's a new form of art that has not existed until today.”
Of late, there is a deluge of Italian houses using other disciplines (philanthropy, social duty and the arts, for instance) to engage the public, and to reach out to a wider audience — one which is not necessarily already consumers of high fashion: Fendi (to restore Rome's fountains, including the Trevi), Tod's (Rome's Coliseum), Diesel (Venice's Rialto Bridge), Bulgari (to finance education with the Save The Children organisation), Prada (its non-profit Fondazione for contemporary art also recently helped restore Venice's Ca'Corner della Regina) and so on.
To be fair, Zegna's involvement in art — and specifically public art — is not a knee-jerk reaction to the trends of the moment. The House has always been ingrained in art.
“When the brand was just a mill, my grandfather believed in the social and holistic approach to build a community life. We are truly rich only when we are surrounded by art and culture, he always says. Back then, he invited artists, sculptors and architects to take up residency at Trivero [Zegna's hometown]. There was no ROI, all this was done for pleasure,” she explains. “ZegnArt is a continuation of this legacy, brought to a global level.”
But she maintains firmly that “art is art and fashion is fashion”.
“What I would like to think is that there is potential for cross-fertilisation,” she elaborates. And when the cross-fertilisation becomes more specifically focused on public art, it, in large part, deals with social emotions and examines them by inciting discourse. In a way, fashion as costume art is a form of public art as well, she says. It mirrors the spirit of the times and what people are feeling.
“Fashion speaks to the emotions too. It moves something inside. Like art, it goes beyond rationality,” she enthuses. “It touches people and makes them vibrate.
“And fashion can work with art to cause debate, which is great.”
The Zegnart Press trip winds down after two full days of activity and we decide to take the chance to take a whirlwind tour of Mumbai's burgeoning contemporary art scene.
We visit the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke to take in video artist Surabhi Saraf's Illuminen and Fold, both being contemplations on light play, mechanical movement and mundane human behaviour.
Then it's off to the Volte Gallery to view multi-media artist William Kentridge, who fuses himself into his own work via a collection of short films, sculptures, collages and tapestries in Poems I Used to Know.
Next stop: Lakeeren Contemporary Art Gallery, where Anita Dube's Eye, Etc is a show of votive eyes mounted as sprawling site-specific wall sculptures to comment on fascism and territorial disputes.
The last stop was at The Guild for fabric artist Rakhi Peswani's Anatomy of Silence, a case study on the body as text to inscribe the ardour of a craftsman's body.
While the art was diverse, there was one thing in common when it comes to Mumbai's contemporary art scene — besides the fact that they all reside in small spaces with no direct street access, tucked away in the most inconspicuous corners — they all invoke a sense of suppression, and in tandem, a yearning to be free, to be heard. The art is, in a word, emotive.
While they are not wrought to be public art (although they could easily be), they still resonate with the conversation the day before.
In Anna's words, and like what ZegnArt is trying to achieve, they are messages crafted to move.
And yes, it makes us vibrate.