I recently visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA to explore the recent exhibition In Search of New Markets: Craft Traditions in Nineteenth-Century India. I was drawn to this exhibition because unlike much of South Asian peripheral art, the objects on display for "In Search of New Markets" were created for commercial purposes and not for religious or courtly settings. My personal research interests focus on the ‘dress-up’ experience in souvenir photographs during the nineteenth century: a curated presentation of worldliness, that is supported by the commercial world of collections, decorations, gifts, memorabilia, journals, and other objects of cultural show.
As I walked through the exhibition, albeit limited to six or seven pieces, I became engrossed in a blue and white vase. The decoration of this vase, a common characteristic in the palette and floral style of Multan tiles, seemed disjointed and unfamiliar in comparison with the shape and size of the vessel. I was struck by the way the umbrella of the oriental, or imagination of the foreign consumer, informed the production of ceramics and wooden furniture in colonial India. In each object, I could consider first-hand, points of connection—and tension—between established Indian art forms, the commercial ambitions of the colonial vehicle, and Indian artists trying to find new buyers for their work.
Before I visited this collection, I spent a few months reading Saloni Mathur’s book "India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display" (2007). To all museum visitors I would say that this exhibition seemed to draw upon Mathur’s points on the crafting and aestheticizing of cultural wares. Like the textile pattern paisley, these objects reveal how India was made fashionable to Western audiences within the popular cultural arenas of the imperial metropole. They also reveal the distinctly modern modes of promotion and distribution that were used to generate demand for them.
The installation project has really transformed the Norton Simon for me, even though the floorplan and collections have remained, essentially, the same. The objects on display seem representatives of traditional Indian craft, but they are certainly not without western inspiration.