Aarti Lohia’s art collection is a reflection of her own tastes and personal journey
The first artwork that Aarti Lohia ever bought was a painting by the Indonesian artist Putu Sutawijaya called Looking for Wings. The imposing work depicts a number of male figures; those at the bottom of the canvas are struggling with one another and seem to be in a state of agony, but gazing upwards, the viewer sees those same figures adorned with wings in the top section of the painting. “Symbolic of so many things,” Aarti reflects, looking back on that first purchase. “Like your journey through life, there are so many interpretations.”
As with all art, Looking for Wings spoke to Aarti at a particular moment in her life. And for her, it was a tough moment. Having grown up in Delhi, she got married at 20 and moved to Indonesia to be with her husband, Amit Lohia, vice-chairman of Indorama Corporation, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies (which was founded by his father Sri Prakash Lohia). This was at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis, and Indonesia back then was beset by political turmoil and unrest. “It was literally burning,” she says, recalling that on her first trip there in 1999, she had seen buses and shops ablaze. On top of that, Aarti lost her mother just two weeks after her wedding. “It was a very heavy time for me and art was a way for me to cope with everything that was going on,” she says. “Fast forward 25 years and I still love that work of art. It’s still one of my favourite paintings in the collection.”
Since the late 1990s, Aarti has built a collection of over 200 works from around the globe, including pieces by Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi, British sculptor Antony Gormley and the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh. Yet the collection is less a considered accumulation and more a reflection of her own personal tastes and globe-straddling life journey. “To be honest, I don’t think there was ever a strategy of wanting to be a collector,” she says, sitting on an elegant chaise longue in the reception room of her home in West London, where she and her family have lived for the past seven years. “There was no plan to have a collection.” Instead there was a constant and ever-burning passion to support artists and their work. “Art is all about patronage,” Aarti says. “An important aspect of collecting for me is that you are supporting a living artist who needs your money today, he needs to feed his family, he needs to feed his kids, he needs to travel, to research.”
Another reason why Aarti prefers supporting living artists is that their work is able to spark fresh conversations and uncover vital topics. Her husband’s family has tended, for instance, to collect European Renaissance artworks by artists who are long dead. For Aarti, although this work is often undeniably beautiful, it’s far less interesting. “You appreciate it, but there’s no discussion around that artwork. No one is talking about it, because the conversations have already been had”. Whereas contemporary artists, of course, offer perspectives on our own times and their work has yet to be discussed and dissected ad infinitum.
Just as there was no great tactical plan behind building the collection, there has not been a regional focus to Aarti’s purchases either. While the collection is certainly home to many South Asian and Southeast Asian artists, this is more down to her personal sensibilities and where she has spent her time than because of a strategic desire to collect ‘regional’ art. “Contemporary art should not, in my view, be defined by region,” she says, explaining that our multicultural societies and global dialogues render such definitions unhelpful.
That said, representation is something Aarti feels increasingly strongly about. “It’s becoming more important to me now that these artists have a champion, that they have a voice,” she says. As her collection has grown and her reputation as a thoughtful and passionate patron of the arts has blossomed, Aarti has been invited to sit on a number of committees and boards, at museums including New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Tate Modern, V&A and Serpentine Galleries in London; for the Tate, for instance, she has been part of South Asian acquisitions. “I feel like I have a voice and I want to use that wisely,” she says, “even if I can make six more people aware of some artist who is doing amazing work.”
The information exchange works both ways. What Aarti gets in return is an insider’s view into how some of the biggest and most successful museums in the world operate. “I’m genuinely interested in learning about how museums build collections,” she says. “And the only way you can know that is if you get to meet the curators.” She takes these learnings into her role as someone who sits on the board of trustees of the Kochi Biennale, the first of its kind in India, an artist-led event that she believes has “lifted Indian contemporary art to a place that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago”.
While art takes up a fair amount of Aarti’s time, she also runs the SP Lohia Foundation, a charitable foundation set up in her father-in-law’s name, which funds a vast array of activities, from digitising ancient books (a particular passion of Sri Prakash Lohia’s) to supporting chess in the UK. (Aarti describes herself as a “chess mum”, because she’s devoted recent years to training and travelling with her son, who is a three-time under 13 British chess champion.) The Foundation also carries out cataract clinics across Asia and Africa. In the coming years, Aarti says she is keen to ‘fine tune’ the foundation’s mission and expand its activities.
Nonetheless, the Foundation grabbed headlines recently when it was announced that it would be the National Gallery’s leading philanthropic supporter for its modern and contemporary art programming, to coincide with the London museum’s 200-year anniversary. “They have never had a South Asian supporter,” says Aarti, beaming. “It’s amazing.” As part of this, the Indian artist Nalini Malani will be projecting some of her video works onto the facade of the Gallery overlooking Trafalgar Square. The prospect already has Aarti thinking about her legacy. “I imagine my little one, who is six,” she says. “When he grows up and is passing by Trafalgar Square and someone says, ‘Remember there was that Indian artist who showed her videos there’, my son will say, ‘Yes, my mum was at that table. She made that happen.’” Such talk is, of course, premature, for a woman who is still just in her forties and clearly has so much more energy and insight to lend the art world.