Breaking down identity myths: Interview with Project for Empty Space founders – Part 2

SOUTH ASIAN CONTEMPORARY ART CURATORS

Recently, Art Radar spoke with Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi about their community art non-profit and their work as curators of South Asian art. Part two of the interview focuses on their perspectives on the region’s artists and cultural development.

Image from the exhibition, "And the falchion passed through his neck...", on view from December 2011 to January 2012 at Latitude 28. Exhibition curated by Jasmine Wahi.

You are reading part two of Art Radar‘s interview with South Asian art curators Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi. Click here to read part one on their non-profit community art organisation, Project for Empty Space.

Apart from their public art installation, the non-profit Project for Empty Space, Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi are also active curators of contemporary South Asian art, working internationally. Among other exhibitions, in 2010 Thirukode curated the exhibition “Structures Within an Intervention” at The Guild Art Gallery, and Wahi recently curated the exhibition “And the falchion passed through his neck…” at Latitude 28 in Lado Sarai, New Delhi. Wahi is also the Chief Curator for the 2012 edition of ART ASIA Miami. In part two of this interview with Art Radar, the pair discuss the role South Asian identity and gender plays in their work as well as the state of contemporary art in South Asia today.

What first got you both interested in South Asian and Middle Eastern contemporary art?

MT: For me, the focus came from when I did my Master’s here at Christie’s, and I was really interested in the art market. I came in 2008, so there was a lot going on in the Indian and Chinese markets. That was an angle that I was interested in, and that then changed over the course of doing the programme and working in a gallery focused on South Asian art. It grew from an initial interest in a general view of what was going on with South Asian contemporary art, including artists who were based here, like the diaspora [artists], as well as artists based out of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Then my interest shifted towards artists who were engaging outside of the gallery space, artists who were thinking about socially engaged practice, about public art. That’s where my interest is right now.

Jasmine, would you go into your background in South Asian and Middle Eastern contemporary art?

JW: Sure. I guess that a lot of my interest sort of came when I was older, because I was born and raised [in the US]. … I actually almost coincidentally got involved in South Asian and Middle Eastern art when I was working at Christie’s. I started out working as an intern when I was an undergrad and was placed, purely without any prior knowledge or without anyone knowing, into the South Asian contemporary department, which is where I really started to develop a stronger interest, and it just sort of went from there to pretty much shaping everything I’ve done since then.

Image from the exhibition, "And the falchion passed through his neck...", on view from December 2011 to January 2012 at Latitude 28. Exhibition curated by Jasmine Wahi.

Do you specifically look for artists, including diasporic artists, who are engaging with the local New York community, or how they negotiate these influences?

JW: I tend to, and I think that’s my background. I, unlike Meena, was born and raised here, so I didn’t really get in touch with those roots until I got into art history. So a lot of my practice, within Project for Empty Space and also commercially is really exploring the dichotomy between people like me and the larger population within New York, which I find really interesting because New York is such a diverse place.

Image from the exhibition, "Structures Within an Intervention" at The Guild Art Gallery. Exhibition curated by Meenakshi Thirukode.

You have both said that one primary motivation behind the project was to move away from the “high-brow” gallery environment in New York. Do you see similar issues in other cities around the world, especially in South or West Asia?

MT: I do think that there’s a huge difference between those worlds. Recently I’ve been meeting and talking to artists who are outside of that institutional space, and it’s interesting because they’re looked at as the sort of underground art scene. Then there’s the commercial, which is far more of a focus in South Asia, at least that’s my personal opinion, within India at least. I do think that there’s a large focus on commercial gallery-based shows, but there are also a lot of interesting artists who are actually exploring a much more political, social angle to things. I’m surprised that there are just so many of those kinds of collectives and artists there, but no one really talks about it as much within a mainstream context. I do think it’s stifling, the commercial aspect of things, and for me it was great to have gone through that learning process of having interned at the auction house and doing a Master’s there and then working in a commercial gallery system that focused on South Asian art. Moving away from that was… it’s like you need to know the nature of the beast if you want to really make up your mind about what you think about it. I think that people should really explore artists who are outside of that realm of the gallery space in South Asia. There’s a lot going on, for sure.

You are reading part two of Art Radar‘s interview with South Asian art curators Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi. Click here to read part one on their non-profit community art organisation, Project for Empty Space.

A lot of people have commented that South Asian and Indian art are really poised to take off in the next few years, especially with Neha Kirpal and how she’s expanded the India Art Fair. Would you agree with this assessment?

JW: I think actually Indian art in particular has gone through it’s sort of major presence already, and it’s still going through that. But when it first came out, really picked up back in 2004 and 2005, it really became a viable, almost mainstream market to contend with, and I don’t think it’s lost its momentum. It is definitely still very much commercially driven, but that momentum also carries some more seriousness and gravity to the field. So I do think that it’s continuing to pick up. There was sort of a correction, as there was with all markets when the market crashed here, but now, recovering from that, I think the Indian market is in a really strong place again and is developing well both commercially and academically.

MT: I agree that there’s a lot of focus [on the commercial side], and I think the India Art Fair is one of the bigger things to come out of it. It has had a tremendous response, which goes back to the fact that there’s a lot of potential, entrepreneurially, within the art world there. I think that there are some galleries there that are doing amazing work, one of them being Experimenter in Calcutta that I had a chance to go to. … It’s a commercial gallery system, but they really work with artists who are engaging public spaces and curatorial platforms. I went there for the Young Curator’s Hub. .. Ten curators were invited to talk about curatorial practice, art curators who are working within the South Asian art realm. Those are some of the things that are exciting to me, alongside things like the India Art Fair, the commercial systems that are also looking at practices outside of that system or artists who are doing completely conceptual work that is not necessarily paintings or sculptures that you tend to think of as being things that can be sold. There are collectors picking up things that are beyond just paintings, conceptual works that you didn’t think about before, which is good to see. There are a lot of things that are changing, and it will be great … for artists and collectors who also think of developing their own, not institutions, but alternatives to that.

Image from the exhibition, "Structures Within an Intervention" at The Guild Art Gallery. Exhibition curated by Meenakshi Thirukode.

Why do you see those sorts of institutions that develop outside of the commercial art market as important for art in a developing country?

MT: I think [art professionals] are natural entrepreneurs, whether it’s artists or curators or cultural producers. I think they’re thinking out of the box and they’re thinking about the ways and means through which they can navigate through a lot of the issues, whether it’s the economy, whether its politics or social causes. You create structures that way, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a White Cube space that’s just showing shows. It can be anything, it could be Sarai or Khoj in India, which are both artist-run initiatives. They’re doing amazing work supporting artists, writers and curators, and collaborating with international organisations and residencies. I think that those things are much more important because you’re going deeper into how you’re engaging with cultural producers.

We read that both of you curate and write on exhibitions in New York, India and Southeast Asia. Do you both travel between the States and Asia often?

JW: I would say I go a fair amount. My first show in India was actually this past December. Other than that I’ve been mostly here, working more with the diasporic community, but my plan is, later this year and next year, to do at least one show in India again, and hopefully at some point in Pakistan.

MT: My family is also based in India, so I travel [there]. I’ve curated about two or three shows there in India and then, like I’ve said, I’ve travelled to Calcutta at one point as well for the Young Curator’s Hub. So I do sort of go for project-based as well family-based visits. But definitely more India than other parts, right now. At least once or twice a year I’m travelling back and forth.

You are reading part two of Art Radar‘s interview with South Asian art curators Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi. Click here to read part one on their non-profit community art organisation, Project for Empty Space.

Do you both see your work as curators as being affected by your involvement in the South Asian community?

JW: I think so. I guess because I’m sort of biased as a South Asian woman, I very consciously try and incorporate South Asian women into a lot of my shows, even if they’re not necessarily about the experience as a South Asian artist or even being South Asian in general. So, particularly in New York, and this is going to sound a little strange or contradictory, a lot of what I try to do is incorporate diasporic artists to show that they are more mainstream, to bring us out of this purely niche or exoticised perspective, so we can prove that we are really strong artists and are not just boxed into a certain identity. I think identity is really important, but I think it should be an enhancing or positive quality rather than a limiting one.

MT: Being a South Asian woman curator, that’s a huge part of it, because for me when I moved here people were already contextualising my work, or me, general assumptions that, oh, it’s a brown-skinned woman. But I come from a completely different upbringing and background, because it’s different to be born here as a second- or third-generation South Asian woman. Jasmine’s experiences will be completely different from mine, because I moved here when I was 23. So there are so many layers to being a South Asian woman, to the context that you bring in. … Curatorially, that’s what I’ve been exploring and what led to PES [Project for Empty Space]. I’m working on a film about a South Asian immigrant woman and her journey through the New York art world. That’s outside of PES, but completely influenced by all the work that I’ve been doing with Jasmine and with other curators, and what I’ve been doing independently.



Both of you cite gender and sexual identity as a special interest. Can you talk about these themes as they relate to South Asian art and contemporary artists?

MT: Specifically for me, I don’t necessarily see myself as having an identity crisis. It’s a different sort of history. Like I said, I moved from India when I was 23, so my entire upbringing and outlook is set in a completely different cultural context as opposed to being born a brown woman in America. So to me I don’t hold any of those contexts close…. That’s something that I think about a lot, about artists or curators or writers who move here. Then at the same time, when you’re in New York people just put you in the same box. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a brown woman, then this is your problem, or this is probably what you’re having issues with.’ It has to be this identity or that, or ‘You don’t know if you’re American or if you’re Indian’, that kind of thing. Not that all artists who are [of the] diaspora go through that either, but it’s funny how people just stereotype based on what they see, and all the cultural burdens that are discussed in art history are just thrown upon you. That’s kind of problematic to me, and so my work is kind of about that. Working on this film is about that for me….

Image from the exhibition, "And the falchion passed through his neck...", on view from December 2011 to January 2012 at Latitude 28. Exhibition curated by Jasmine Wahi.

JW: Kind of like Meena said, I think that everyone here in New York has a different experience. Even though everyone here is very different, a lot of times being brown you get categorised or boxed in without having a chance to prove yourself otherwise. That’s just how stereotypes are, I guess. … Sometimes in New York, not only as a South Asian but also a woman, doing creative and curatorial stuff sometimes can be a battle, because people just don’t take you as seriously. I’ve definitely found that abroad, actually, when I was in India. So that’s sort of part of it, trying to prove yourself.

I think that both of us really have a conscientiousness about social issues. For whatever reason we’re both, I think, sensitive to them and to other people who are perhaps less fortunate or disenfranchised because of certain elements. I’ve definitely noticed about Meenakshi’s work and my own, that there is a sense of activism and trying to give a voice or at least get people to think about these sometimes tough social issues. This is also kind of where Project for Empty Space has come from, allowing people that voice and exposure to something they might not otherwise have.

You are reading part two of Art Radar‘s interview with South Asian art curators Meenakshi Thirukode and Jasmine Wahi. Click here to read part one on their non-profit community art organisation, Project for Empty Space.

PR/KN/HH

Related Topics: interviews, curatorial practice, Jasmine Wahi, Meenakshi Thirukode, women power

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Breaking down identity myths: Interview with Project for Empty Space founders – Part 2 — 1 Comment

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