Entrace to “INDIA!” at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB), Rio de Janeiro (all photos by the author)

There is nothing quite like the feeling of being a tourist in a new country, and stumbling into a city or neighborhood there that makes you feel like a tourist in a completely different way. It’s a bit like a person who visits New York City for the first time and wanders into Chinatown — that small slice of Chinese culture in the great American metropolis can act like a tiny transport to another culture.

This is how I felt visiting the latest art exhibition titled India! at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB) in Rio de Janeiro. A tourist in Brazil and a stranger to Portuguese, I became for a few hours a tourist lost within the art and history of India. It’s a disconcerting feeling to say the least, but CCBB’s India!, the largest display of Indian art and culture in Brazil to date, is a fascinating tour through unfamiliar art and artists.

A massively overwhelming exhibition in the best sense of the word, like the exhibitions the Met pulls together on a regular basis, India! is almost an anthropological survey of Indian culture seen through art. Divided into four themes — People, Gods, The Formation of Modern India, and Contemporary Art — it is the contemporary section of the exhibition that predictably felt the most relevant. Though we tend to study the art and artifacts of ancient cultures, what current artists are saying about contemporary life in those same cultures is always much less familiar.

The art critic Gregory Volk likes to say that American artists are not as aware as they should be of international artists, and while our museums regularly show many European artists, I was certainly not familiar with the contemporary Indian artists in this exhibit. All prominent artists in their country, they also happened to stay in the same guesthouse I did in Rio de Janeiro, (albeit a month or so after the opening of India!) run by an artist and musician couple. The hostess of the b&b enjoyed telling me amusing stories over breakfast of the parties and conversations she’d had with the artists during the opening week, many of which involved her suggesting new projects or changes to their current pieces.

The Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil does not have the look or feel of an art museum. Instead, it acts more like a multi-purpose cultural center, hosting lectures, concerts and movies in addition to art exhibitions. Full of balconies, elevators and elevator operators that only speak Portuguese, CCBB is a confusing maze of hallways.

Though India! at first glance looked like a small, two-room show, it turned out to be a vast, unending experience, as one room lead somehow into another and another. I spent as much time wondering what I’d missed as I did discovering new vaults and corridors. Built in 1906 and beautifully restored, the CCBB is a tourist destination in the center of Rio, but the events and exhibitions it hosts feel anything but touristy. Because of the significant tax deductions the city of Rio gives for-profit institutions (like the banks) for investing in art and culture, it’s in CCBB’s own best interest to be a reputable and recognized cultural center.

India! is a proactive and captivating exhibition, the kind that should travel elsewhere and will hopefully make contemporary Indian art and artists more familiar to other international artists.

Looking up at the skylight of the beautifully restored CCBB interior, through an Indian textile draped across the circular center of the building

Lord Ganesh, the Lord of Beginnings, sits within a colorful throne, elephant head as recognizable as any Hindu deity, welcoming visitors into the exhibit

A colorful rickshaw from the streets of India, painted and decorated, is treated like a vintage photo booth in a city bar — everyone climbs inside to have their picture taken

From the inside of the rickshaw, however, as you stare out at a yellow Ganesh, the lobby of CCBB allows you to be a temporary tourist in contemporary Indian life and culture

A humorous piece by the Indian artist Ravinder Reddy, titled “Migrant” (2011)

Three large-scale, carcass-like paintings by Mumbai artist Jitish Kallat titled “Haemoglyphics (Archipelago of Arches)” (2009). Kallat explores themes of “sustenance, survival and mortality” in contemporary Mumbai

A distinctly feminine mixed media installation by Reena Saini Kallat, titled “Colostrum” (2008-11)

“Vishnu Villas” (2008), by Indian artist Manjunath Kamath, is an installation showing the fallen Vishnu god, an ornate but broken table, and a television monitor playing the image of a Claymation man making the sound of a siren

A very moving installation by artist Bharti Kher, consisting of empty chairs and draped, shapeless Saris, titled “In Your Absence” (2010)

A three-paneled, triangle installation of LCD monitors by the media collective RAQS, titled “Collective Proverbs” (2011)

Rolled digital portraits printed on polymicro textiles, cleverly titled “Roll Models” (2011), by the Indian artist Riyas Komu.

A series of colorful photographs by photographer and multi-media artist Vivek Vilasini, titled “Housing Dreams” (2011).

The New Delhi based artistic team Thukral & Tagra — Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra — created this installation titled “Put it On-Shoot it Right,” which promotes safe sex by turning it into an elaborate game centered around wearing a condom

An installation of garments made of alternative materials by the artist Vivan Sundaram, this one is titled “Rawhide” (2011)

India! will up through January 29 at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).

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