Gallery directors Priyanka and Prateek Raja share their experiences of developing discourse around contemporary visual art in South Asia and beyond.
With the first edition of the Experimenter Curators’ Hub (ECH) held in 2011, the platform has grown from strength to strength and is now a key event in the international visual art calendar.
Experimenter is a contemporary art space established in 2009 in Kolkata that presents multidisciplinary work of young Indian and international artists. Dedicated to supporting emerging and mid-career artists, the gallery believes in the role of visual art to contest as well as interpret challenges in the contemporary world.
The gallery is also engaged in fostering public dialogue, and as a result in 2011 they held their first edition of the Curators’ Hub. The platform fosters debate on curatorial practice and exhibition making over three days, bringing together artists, curators, gallery directors, writers and thinkers from across the region and beyond. In 2017, ECH will run from 27 to 29 July and will include the participation (PDF download) of important art professionals like Hammad Nasar, Reem Fadda and Pedro de Almeida among others.
Art Radar caught up with Priyanka and Prateek Raja to find out more about their vision for the Experimenter Gallery and the Curator’s Hub.
How have the gallery’s mission and activities evolved since Experimenter Gallery opened in 2009?
We feel our exhibitions have strengthened over the years. We are able to forge relationships with institutions and curators at a much faster pace in the increasingly global world, to place the work of our artists in collections that have global significance and to manage the careers of some of the finest artists in the world. Having said that, our core objectives are essentially the same since we started.
Experimenter, as the name suggests, is an incubator for new things and experiences, but we are very focused on what we do, even if it involves experimentation. We are interested in representing the careers of artists who we feel capture the mood of the contemporary world that we live in. The programme keeps the artistic practice at its centre and presents a dynamic, active and challenging body of work to the art viewing community. We continue to push boundaries that we have set for ourselves and, through the work of our artists, ask questions that could be uncomfortable and even confrontational at times. There needs to be a consistency within what we show and we are fortunate to be working with some wonderful people.
Could you tell us a bit about how you select the artists you work with? Are there any emerging South Asian artists, in particular, to watch out for?
Artist relationships, as we have said before, are like marriages to us. There is, at first, a mutual attraction, when we are already partly in love with the artist’s practice. Then like most love stories, there is a first point of contact, a conversation, a connection between us and the artist, followed by a certain kind of mutual courtship and following. Eventually, we go on a date or two through group exhibitions and other smaller projects and then gingerly enter into a relationship and eventually a marriage of sorts. By the time we have established the relationship, we know everything about each other. It is a unique way of looking at things and the artists’ interests are always our primary focus.
If one looks at the artists whose practice we represent, one will find a certain thread of connection between them. The kind of aesthetic that represents our point of view of the world is reflected in the practices of the artists we show. We can say that we look at ourselves constantly and critically at all times. We attempt to break down our structure periodically to keep ourselves challenged in the same way that we started out with.
In terms of emerging artists, there are a lot of artists – in our opinion – who are doing exceptionally well and are breaking through in many ways. Naeem Mohaiemen, for example, is on an amazing trajectory, with major work at documenta 14 and the 2015 edition of the Venice Biennale. Prabhakar Pachpute has shown at some of the most important group exhibitions in the world. Ayesha Sultana and Praneet Soi are the other two artists we would like to highlight. There is also the amazing Samson Young from Hong Kong who is really a rising star – he represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale this year. Sahej Rahal is an excellent artist with a very strong practice. Rathin Barman recently did some amazing work at the Singapore Art Museum for the Singapore Biennale. He has some very strong developments on his career. Sohrab Hura is an amazing photographer who has an excellent practice. These are only some of the artists that come to mind! There is a lot of exciting work happening in South Asia and this is by no way all-inclusive.
What sort of changes and trends have you seen in the contemporary art scene in India, or specifically Kolkata, since you opened Experimenter Gallery?
I think the quality of artistic practices and exhibition making has gone from strength to strength. Display, for example, in Kolkata and the rest of the country has significantly improved. There are also some well-designed publications that have found the light of day. Two things that have significantly impacted the contemporary art scene in a positive way are a new generation of young curators who are pushing the realms of their own practices. They are open to looking beyond their own regions and reviewing practices of artists that may have been historically under explored.
The second aspect is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, one of the best biennales in the world in my opinion, entirely run by artists, and that has the potential for tremendous possibilities in making the region significant.
A highlight of the Experimenter calendar is the Curators’ Hub. Could you explain why you established the Hub and how it has evolved since the first edition in 2011?
We founded the Hub, as we recognised that there is a lack of art infrastructure in our country. In the absence of this, we feel it is crucial that private organisations – in whatever their capacities – fill that void in the interim, in the larger interest of the social and cultural fabric of the nation. We are very happy to take this lead and are hugely indebted to all the partners who enable this to happen.
We started with a simple idea, a basic need to discuss curatorial practice in India and to be able to bring to the country some of the most influential minds in contemporary practice we have access to. It felt important to us as individuals to make this growing pool of people accessible, first to our own city and then to the rest of the country.
We ourselves are participants in the discussions and equally keen to know how and what informs the conceptual frameworks of how the curators work.
Sharing that knowledge in an intense hub-like huddle over two-three days has been extremely rewarding, and creates a framework for the public (both in person and via online platforms) to participate in the discussions. It remains a unique and intimate, conversation-led initiative, which attracts people from all over the world for the three days it is held.
These have remained the ethos and the core fundamentals upon which the Curators’ Hub continues to exist. The scope of the event has expanded over the years and we are proud that its impact is felt not only in the South Asia region but also the world over.
Do you see the relationship between curators, critics, artists and galleries changing in India? If so, in what ways?
Relationships are always evolving and getting stronger by the day. The art world in India is going through a phase of consolidation, which is great for the larger interests of the art community. I see a lot of exhibitions these days that have strong curatorial frameworks and artists are not shying away from expanding their practices, growing within their core areas of work and research, and of working with new materials. I see a lot of research and context by writers and critics when they are reviewing shows, and all this can only be good for the scene.
Are there any specific challenges or opportunities in the field of curating contemporary art that are specific to the South Asian context?
I think the biggest challenge at the moment is to build a significant knowledge base for practices from South Asia which have historically been under-represented. Amazing examples of Modernism were developed in India in the 1950s. These artists, exploring their own practices within the modern world, have left a huge body of rich material. There is an urgent need to archive, preserve, and build on those conversations that can be re-examined today. There are numerous possibilities that can be explored but the challenge is to work with the material responsibly.
What are some of the key themes that arise in the Curators’ Hub discussions?
The Hub has always been a driver for knowledge and a source of informed discourse. Audiences are ensconced in a high-energy, high involvement atmosphere which is a catalyst for new ideas, collaborations and possibilities of newer ways of thinking about contemporary art. Challenges and opportunities of curating exhibitions are deeply discussed and debated. I think the biggest takeaway is an intense conversation led discourse that allows a certain point of introspection.
Experimenter has been working to extend the Curators’ Hub on online platforms. How do you use online and social media channels to reach out to wider audiences?
The Hub has grown from strength to strength technologically. We have enabled live streaming, webcasting and even added an interactive edge through social media tools, adding to its reach and impact. Over the last two years, we have been live blogging as well as submitting end of day blogs. Another tool that we have come to use is Twitter, which we use to highlight some of the key aspects of the Hub and quotes by curators. It drives a lot of interest and online discussion. On occasion, we have also had a curator make a presentation through video conference because he could not come to India due to personal reasons at the last moment. This is a perfect example of the way technology plays such a fundamental role, to enable the Curators’ Hub to function in a global setting.
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