Experimenter Curators’ Hub: 3 curators on the Indian contemporary art scene

Three pioneering curators share their insights of working and curating in contemporary India. 

With the 5th Experimenter Curators’ Hub taking place at the end of July 2015, Art Radar catches up with three of the invited curators – Shanay Jhaveri, Dr Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and Jitish Kallat – to hear their views on the issues driving contemporary art in India.

Experimenter Curators' Hub 2014. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2014. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Experimenter Curators’ Hub (ECH) 2015 will take place on 23, 24 and 25 July 2015 at Experimenter in Kolkata, India. Ten highly acclaimed, international curators are being invited to the Hub to present and discuss their practice with reference to their recent curatorial work.

ECH has become a pivotal platform in the development and shaping of the discourse on curatorial practice and exhibition making. Past iterations have seen the participation of important and influential figures, such as Ranjit Hoskote, Yuko Hasegawa and Eunjie JooArt Radar speaks with the three curators in this year’s programme who hail from India – to discuss the issues, trends and questions they see driving discussions of Indian contemporary art.

Shanay Jhaveri. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Shanay Jhaveri. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Shanay Jhaveri: testing the imagination

Shanay Jhaveri graduated from Brown University, with a focus on Art-Semiotics and the History of Art and Architecture, and is currently a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, London. He is the editor of Outsider Films on India: 1950 -1990, and has curated film programmes at the Tate Modern, Frieze and INIVA. He divides his time between Mumbai and London.

When asked to describe the current Indian art scene, Jhaveri replies:

It is maturing, evolving and elaborating itself, in the face of uncertain odds.

Although information on the precise topics of presentation at this year’s ECH are not yet disclosed, Jhaveri reveals what he feels is a pressing point for discussion:

I think it is necessary to discuss how not to be wholly seduced by the contemporary, and to try and re-orient curatorial practices to the modern, the historical and by doing so, how that can test not only current exhibition formats and modes of display, but also our own imaginations.

Jhaveri believes that at this point in time, Indian curators and art historians have contributed to Indian curatorial practice and the art scene in remarkable ways. Worth of particular mention for him are Naman Ahuja’s magisterial exhibition “The Body in Indian Art”, as well as events such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the Dhaka Art Summit “that are becoming crucial meeting points in the region for artists and curators.” Jhaveri is also appreciative of the efforts made by the Asia Art Archive to digitise private collections and holdings of artists.

Dr Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Dr Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Dr Tasneem Zakaria Mehta: the need for good policy, education and institutions

Dr Tasneem Zakaria Mehta is an art historian, writer, curator, designer and cultural activist. Her PhD research dealt with the establishment of museums and schools of art in the 19th century, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is also Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum.

When asked to describe the Indian art scene, Dr Mehta is unforgiving:

Besieged by bad policy. […] I think we have many talented artists but there is huge need to expose the public to contemporary art or it remains in the purview of collectors and the elite and doesn’t impact the larger community. That’s the reason institutional and public fora are important. There is also a great need to develop a strong educational structure to support new initiatives.

Having worked in a number of museum institutions in India, such as the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, the Governing Council of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the Central Advisory Board for Museums and a Senior Expert Advisor to UNESCO, Dr Mehta is well aware of what museum management needs to thrive. She proposes:

Independence, autonomy, engagement of experts, revision of salary structures and hiring criteria, enhancement of forums for dialogue and debate, improvement of educational facilities and curriculum. Look at JJ School of Art and Baroda Art college two great institutions that the state has ruined. The list is endless. We are in a colonial mindset where culture is concerned.

At ECH 2015, Dr Mehta will focus on issues of identity, which has been her key interest from the very beginning and the centre of her curatorial work. Her heterogeneous profile allows a more open-minded view of curatorial practice, with an awareness of institutional constraints as well as the freedom of artistic expression:

I not only curate but also run a major institution and that has its own compulsions and constraints. I think its very important to not just have ideas but to have the ability to translate them into coherent intellectual, visual and temporal statements as well. Ultimately art is a visual and (mostly) tactile sensory medium. Its power comes from being able to express ideas with immediacy and strength in ways that other mediums cannot and to deliver it in ways that resonate, disturb or delight. That requires a lot of thought, research, and looking at and understanding art.

Jitish Kallat in his studio. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Jitish Kallat in his studio. Image courtesy Experimenter.

Jitish Kallat: moving beyond preconceived ideas

Based in Mumbai, Jitish Kallat is one of India’s most pioneering and celebrated artists. He works across a variety of media including painting, sculpture, photography and installation – and he was the artistic director and curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014. His works have been in major exhibitions of Indian contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago (2010-2011), MAXXI, Rome (2012) and at Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, France (2011), Saatchi Gallery, London (2010), Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (both 2009), the Serpentine Gallery, London (2008-09) and the Tate Modern, London (2001).

At ECH 2015, Kallat will be holding a presentation on his latest curatorial project, “Whorled Explorations”, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014. He shares with Art Radar:

I was asked to describe how I approached this project, so I will address that and hope to be in dialogue with other colleagues. I wanted the “Whorled Explorations” to develop from the premise of shared intuitions and not be administered by preconceived curatorial determinism. I’d often say that I wanted the biennale to produce themes rather than reproduce a set curatorial theme. Hence my process has been one of circulating signs in my letters to colleagues, in the form of textual prompts or visual pointers to arrive at a project where themes emerge from an interrogation of signs and to let the exhibition develop a self-generated organising principle. It is also a way of leaving the door wide open for chance and contingency… vital ingredients to discover the unknown and have a go at the unknowable.

Kallat is primarily an artist and he calls his curatorial experience “an unexpected departure”. He clearly has a mind that prises open the way we think – which is bringing great benefit to curatorial discussions. When asked which of his practices – artistic or curatorial – better describes his way of speaking through art, he replies:

[…] as far as disciplines go, curating art and making art could be seen as differentiated versions of the same intention. At a fundamental level, isn’t it all an attempt to understand reality? One fundamental difference would be the enormity of dialogue and conversations that comes along with the commitment to curate a large international exhibition such as a Biennale. In the 12 months that I spent curating “Whorled Explorations” I enjoyed every moment of the dialogue. […] It has now been three months since I have retreated into my studio after the closing of the Biennale. I have been immersed in the process of making work and I am relishing the silence in the studio.

Kallat is based in Mumbai and leaves us with a taste of its inspiring setting:

While it is a fact that museums, art schools and other artistic institutions have a long way to go in terms of up-regulating their everyday processes and practices, as an artist it is incredible to be working in a place like Mumbai. The gaps in the artistic ecosystem are compensated by the complexity of life around, festooned with incomprehensible questions and offering tiny glimpses into the deeper mysteries of our existence.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Indian artists, curators, curatorial practice, the art scene and events in India

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