Role of the curator in maturing Indian art scene – interview Vidya Shivadas

INDIA CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE CURATORS

Guest writer Rajesh Punj shines some light on a maturing Indian art scene in this interview with Vidya Shivadas, Researcher at the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art and an important figure in a movement towards a sustainable elucidative platform.

Tejal Shah's performance and Praneet Soi's site specific mural in "ID Entity", Vadehra Art Gallery, October 2010. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas

Tejal Shah's performance and Praneet Soi's site specific mural in "ID Entity", Vadehra Art Gallery, October 2010. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas

Vidya Shivadas is of a new breed of art intellectual who has been propelled, by due diligence and good fortune, to the forefront of a maturing critical debate about the kind of art that is coming out of India right now. In the face of strong international interest in its ideas and its aesthetics, the Indian art scene urgently requires the kind of sustainable elucidative platform that Shivadas and her peers are developing. The quality of writing and the critical debate that furnishes contemporary Indian art at this time is lacking – this is certainly something that a number of the country’s leading contemporary artists continue to bullishly suggest – and a more informed debate on the part of this upwardly mobile generation is required in order to positively define a set of cohesive ideas that both underpin and unpick their local art scene.

India is establishing its art scene from within the central cities of Bombay, New Delhi and Kolkata, each cultivating its own signature matrix of art schools, intellectuals and artists, while striving to mimic existing global centres of contemporary art. Where, in the twentieth century, Paris and New York dominated with impressionism and modern abstract expressionism, twenty-first century art thrives internationally under the remit of globalisation and technological exchange mechanisms. Simultaneously, India is in conversation with China, China is conversing with America and Europe is trying to catch America’s attention economically, socially and culturally. In a constant state of flux and under international scrutiny, art in India needs to engage at a level presupposed by an international circuit that requires firm ideas fast.

Vidya Shivadas, curator. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

Vidya Shivadas, Indian curator and researcher. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

Vidya Shivadas is part of a maturing Indian art scene that is engaging both nationally and internationally. After earning a Master’s degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, she worked briefly at The Indian Express, covering the art scene for the culture desk. She was appointed as curator of Vadehra Art Gallery in 2002 and worked on the space’s contemporary art programme for five years before setting up a non-profit organisation called the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA). Formed in 2007, FICA aims to provide financial and educational support to young artists, writers and developers of public art projects and spaces.

Independently, Shivadas researches art institutions in India, charting their histories and policies and how these relate to current art practices. Her plurality between curating contemporary works, critically engaging with those works and then going outside the remit of commercial galleries and seeking to nurture a new generation of artists is admirable. The existence of FICA seems to prove that there is some funding available for ventures that attempt to expand the private art fraternities beyond studios, public spaces and commercial galleries. Such philanthropic actions are demonstrative of the multiple possibilities for sustaining the contemporary art scene in India, allowing the country to attract and claim back artists, curators and art professionals currently working or being represented by Western art galleries and institutions.

Interview with Vidya Shivadas

Rajesh Punj caught up with Vidya Shivadas to discuss her roles as curator, researcher and intellectual in the contemporary Indian art scene.

In a 2008 article written by Sonia Bahadur for Verve onLine, titled “Life in the Art Lane“, you are named as one of a number of “dynamic young women curator[s]” along with contemporaries such as Bhavna Kakar, owner of LATTITUDE 28 and Editor/Publisher of TakeOnArt, and Latika Gupta, a Delhi-based critic and art historian. Has, as the article suggests, a band of young women brought a new sense of professionalism and intellectualism to curating in India and, further, how is curating defined in this country since it is not taught academically?

In India, as elsewhere in the world, there seems to be a movement towards celebrating the creative and authorial presence of the curator and, fortunately, this moment is allowing some critical reflection on the discipline. What is the nature of the critical and artistic discourse curators produce? How do they relate to the institutional structures within which they work and the contexts in which they stage their exhibitions? And, how do they engage with the histories of exhibition-making and curatorial practices?

There have been many discussions and seminars to this end at various art institutions, we at FICA have organised two such forums in July 2010 and January 2011…. I, for one, am very interested in looking back to the history of exhibition-making in the Indian context. This somewhat unwritten history of curation in India formed the subject matter for [issue number five of the magazine Take0nArt] that I co-edited along with Natasha Ginwala.

A special issue on curation in the Indian context in 'TAKE on Art', April 2011. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas

A special issue on curation in the Indian context in 'TAKE on Art', April 2011. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas

This act of retrieval was not driven by the desire to set in place a linear and canonical history of curatorial practice but to take heed from Giorgio Agamben when he tells us ‘that the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archaeology; an archaeology that does not, however, regress to a historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.’ [Writer’s note: this statement was taken from the essay, “What Is the Contemporary?”.] We do not have academic courses dedicated to curation in Indian art schools, so we need to find other ways of looking at the contours of the practice, how it has developed and how it functions within its immediate context. It was only in 1994 that the term ‘curator’ was first used in India, when art critic and cultural theorist Geeta Kapur was invited to select works from the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art.

The exhibition that Kapur ironically described as a ‘basic rehang of the collection’ generated a great deal of controversy, with many artists questioning the curator’s role and right to construct narratives or suggest new clusterings. This was the start of the curator being seen as a legitimate figure. She, among a host of other [art professionals], like gallerists, collectors and auctioneers, began to make their presence felt amidst the growing private sector and the art market. Many of the curators operating today are part of a nascent institutional structure that has been put in place by the art market in the last decade and a half.

Many of the younger curators operating today are part of a nascent institutional structure that has been put in place by the art market in the last decade and a half. They are stepping into a terrain of exhibition-making that has to a great extent, and without much self-consciousness, been so far determined by the artists themselves. How do they work within that reality? How do they grapple with the notion of working independently or within art spaces, often in close proximity with artists and the gallerists? What are the frameworks for addressing an audience within and outside our own immediate context? These are the questions that engage me.

How significant are curating models in the West to what you are doing now? How significant has the act of curation become to an intellectual debate about the rise of contemporary Indian art within the country and internationally?

Curating models in the West are, of course, significant because India is part of a global discourse. Indian artists are making their way into international exhibitions and biennales and there are also an increasing number of exhibitions focused on contemporary Indian art in the international arena.

[Writer’s note: Such curatorial crossovers that have drawn contemporary Indian art to the international stage allow for a greater foreign influence that feeds back into a national forum in which Indian art, ideas and criticism exhale more effectively into the atmosphere.]

Priya Sen's evocative installation in "Something I've been meaning to tell you", Vadehra Art Gallery, April 2011.Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

Priya Sen's evocative installation in "Something I've been meaning to tell you", Vadehra Art Gallery, April 2011.Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

What are the fundamental principles for you when considering a project or when being invited to curate an existing body of works?

My location as a curator has largely been from within an institution, namely Vadehra Art Gallery (VAG), a private gallery. VAG was established in 1987, in the early years of liberalisation, and is known for its long association with the first-generation post-independence modernists and also the next generation of artists that were working in the Sixties. Since the late Nineties, it also expanded its brief to work with younger and emerging artists. So the question for me has always been, what does it mean to curate from within an institution? How do I deal with the context the gallery provides me with? How do I deal with its audience, its artists, its infrastructure, its image? Am I representing the institution to the artist, or is it the other way round? What is the relationship, in short, between the exhibition and the institution?

At one level, I engage with these questions by extending the mandate of a private gallery, pushing it in the direction of a public institution and [witnessing and testing] the possibilities and limitations of this exercise. Vadehra and I set up the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art [FICA] in 2007 with this in mind. It has been an interesting experience to run a long-term programme bringing school children and artists together in order to develop creative approaches to education or to support a blogging project at an art fair, where the artist Abhishek Hazra and young art writers created an online platform to examine its discursive possibilities. FICA is not strictly about curating but it is about setting up an institutional framework that allows me to go beyond the structures of the gallery and the kind of relations it engenders with artists and with audiences.

[Writer’s note: FICA is clearly a vessel or laboratory that allows, with funding, for something much more experimental, something that constitutes possible changes, debate and exchanges; because contemporary Indian art may have already become too commercial, its context decided on by a matrix of gallerists, artists and auction houses.]

Now when it comes to curating, I employ strategies which are in conversation with the gallery’s history and public perception, which involve working collaboratively with artists and which are interested in pushing forward critical discourse and art historical readings. Many of my curatorial projects have been interested in the issue of gender as well. For example, “Fluid Structures: Gender and Abstraction in India” ran in April 2008 and brought two generations of women artists into conversation, and three diasporic Pakistani women were shown together in “Butt, Chishti & Syed” in 2009. Other exhibitions include “ID/entity” (2010), where the artists made very direct allusions to a current public debate on the government’s ambitious AADHAAR project, which aims to provide every Indian with a unique identification card by 2011, and “Something I’ve been meaning to tell you” (2011) addressed deeply personal relationships. The latter was curated in collaboration with Sunil Gupta.

'Daily Check Up' by Desire Machine Collective in the exhibition "ID Entity", Vadehra Art Gallery, October 2010. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

'Daily Check Up' by Desire Machine Collective in the exhibition "ID Entity", Vadehra Art Gallery, October 2010. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

Is the current global interest from auction houses, collectors and gallerists, in contemporary Indian art purely a western construct?

Contemporary Indian art is a vibrant and charged space that has had a long history of more than century, if you date it back to Raja Ravi Varma and his generation from the late nineteenth century onwards. … For those of us working from within the Indian art scene, we are interested in ensuring these diverse practices speak to audiences here and understanding how these artists participate in the intellectual and political climate. The current interest in Indian art among western curators and institutions adds other layers of engagement where art from this country enters into other kinds of debates and discussions. I think it is important to sustain the multiple conversations that occur at various sites and to not privilege or denounce one over the other.

Who and what are you influenced by, nationally and internationally, when it comes to your curatorial practice?

The list is endless: Charles Esche for the interesting work he has done at the Van Abbemuseum and at various biennales; Hu Fang and Zhang Wie for their alternative art space Vitamin Creative in Guangzhou and Beijing; the curators of Documenta 12, Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, for risking failure to address some very important questions on the role and rationale of world exhibitions today, the Polish artist and filmmaker Artur Żmijewski who is curating the Berlin Biennale in 2012 which I am really looking forward to.

Closer to home, Geeta Kapur is a mentor and a hugely inspirational figure for the exhibitions she has curated from the Seventies onwards. [I am influenced by] artist and curator Sunil Gupta because of the way in which he turns exhibition-making into a democratic and collaborative process, Grant Watson and Suman Gopinath, who have showcased art from India very differently in a way that moves away from the formulaic big-budget India exhibitions. Last but not least, I must mention Devi Art Foundation, the vision-turned-reality of Lekha and Anupam Poddar who opened up their collection to the public and subjected it to critical rigour through curatorial practice.

Of special mention is the exhibition guest curated by the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, called “Resemble Reassemble”, for the way in which he used the spatial and conceptual possibilities of an exhibition to deconstruct the idea of national art, and Annapurna Garimella, who did a brilliant two-part exhibition that re-engaged with the idea of vernacular art practices and how they intersect with the contemporary art world.

Who, for you, are the artists that are the forefront of your mind right now, in and outside of India, and that would merit inclusion in grand curatorial projects?

In India today there are four to five generations of artists working actively and in dialogue with each other. Many of these artists could be the subject of important curatorial exercises. We have only skimmed the surface of what their practices are about in terms of archival potential, documentation and critical discourse. A case in point would be the recent retrospective of the Bengal artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, and event that was painstakingly researched by the team at Delhi Art Gallery and which threw so much material into the public domain. The possibilities are endless.

Nasreen Mohamedi at the exhibition "Fluid Structures…", Vadehra Art Gallery, April 2008. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

Nasreen Mohamedi at the exhibition "Fluid Structures…", Vadehra Art Gallery, April 2008. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

At Vadehra, are you solely responsible for the exhibitions programme or is everything at the gallery determined through a committee?

I work with a team of very interesting professionals with diverse backgrounds, from art history to design to conservation to public relations to business. We develop our exhibitions and projects collectively.

In your role as a full time curator attached to a gallery, do you remain quite unique, or is curating just one of a number of skills required by those seeking to work in galleries or in the art world in India today?

I was definitely an exception to the rule when I joined the gallery in 2002, but now more and more young people are joining art galleries. I only hope that the institutions open up beyond the model of the gallery owner as the only visible entity and build organisations that allow these young people, with their special insight and energy, to function as independent professionals. That has definitely happened at the gallery where I work.

[Writer’s note: It goes back to Shivadas’ original explanation for the setting up of FICA in 2007, the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art. There was, at the time, a fundamental need for a formative infrastructure for contemporary art that allowed for sustainable progress of the Indian art scene. Galleries have a responsibility to act outside of the their commercial interests, to function as laboratories, classrooms and places of social exchange, and to network amongst themselves, in order to flourish as a creditable apparatus for contemporary art today.]

In 2009, you acquired a grant from Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong that allowed you to research the development of art criticism in India, from independence to the present day. What conclusions, if any, have you drawn from this research?

The project, essentially carried out from 2010 to 2011, was aimed at a fragmentary mapping of the discipline of art criticism in India, from the post-independence period to the present day, through the writings of some key figures. It traced the careers of art writers W.G. Archer, Richard Bartholomew, J. Swaminathan, Geeta Kapur and Ranjit Hoskote who emerged as distinct critical voices at different historical moments, and who played (and continue to play) an influential role in the Indian modern and contemporary art scenes. Given my primary interest in institutions, I wanted to locate their writings within the wider networks that shaped art practices. Beyond situating the critics within their historical contexts and a constellation of writers around them, the project is a starting point for me to embed [art] writing within a larger art system of publications, patronage and institutions.

I am interested in bringing the dialectical relationship between the institutional spaces and textual discourses to the fore. Yes, it’s true that in India we have an art scene in which the complexity and diversity of art production and practices has not been developed sufficiently into both critical and institutional discourses, but I am also interested in moving away from these ‘discourses of lack’. Thus, the project was a self-initiated pedagogic exercise, a starting point from which I could pursue my own writerly voice. The findings were many and fragmented, but the research looked mostly at how these critics have clarified their critical role at different historic moments, and allowed me to think about the role of writing today, when the role of the critic is being usurped by the curator, when the idea of criticism is being replaced by criticality and critique, where the terms of discussion are now being pitched in a global arena.

Is it an objective of yours to be responsible for the development of art theory, on a par with the development of contemporary art practice?

I don’t know about that. The things I am interested in range from looking at forgotten or scarcely documented histories of institutions to critical thinking relating to modern and contemporary art practice and art production. I am also working towards building art institutions that really engage with audiences, that work hard at creating access, that function as sites of learning.

Artists Shilpa Gupta and Vivan Sundaram in FICA Reading Room at the workshop Dialogues on Curating Part 1, July 2010. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

Artists Shilpa Gupta and Vivan Sundaram in FICA Reading Room at the workshop Dialogues on Curating Part 1, July 2010. Image courtesy Vidya Shivadas.

What motivates your research and curatorial work now? What has motivated your most recent projects?

Currently I am working on an exhibition of an important international artist whose identity will be revealed soon. I am also keen to pursue my own research on art institutions in the Indian context and will eventually publish a book on this.

What do you make of the depth and breadth of critical art writing in India, as presented in magazines, reviews, discussions and debates?

In India today, we have many more niche forums of writing and discussion on art, even as the space for art in mainstream media is shrinking. We have many interesting writers and young minds emerging and I see this as a very positive moment. At FICA, we are especially interested in creating forums for young writers to provide them with short courses and workshops to review their writings and also help them develop their own peer networks. We have held four writing workshops so far.

[Editor’s note | 19 January 2012: At the request of the writer, minimal alterations have to made to this article since it was published.]

RAJESH PUNJ, GUEST WRITER; BIO AND IMAGE

KN/HH

Related Topics: art education, curators, interviews, contemporary art in India

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