Research as Practice, Exhibition as Inquiry, Archive as Verb: Hammad Nasar at Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2017

Participating in Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2017, the London-based curator, writer and researcher presented a run-down of his recent projects.

Art Radar looks at some of the highlights of his presentation.

Hammad Nasar, Curator of National Pavilion UAE 2017. Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE.

Hammad Nasar, Curator of National Pavilion UAE 2017. Image courtesy National Pavilion UAE.

For me, exhibitions really are a way to think with artists and, through art, about the world. – Hammad Nasar

Speaking at length about his curatorial practice during Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2017, the former Head of Research and Programmes at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, connected the dots between research, the exhibition and the archive. Known for his research-intensive exhibitions, Hammad Nasar attempted to deliver his thesis on these three disparate elements of his own curatorial practice. Touching on the main projects that he curated over the years, including “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play”, the UAE’s national pavilion at the 57th Venice Art Biennale (2017), as well as “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space” at Johnson Museum, Cornell University & Nasher Museum, Duke University (2012-13), Nasar provided an overview of his methodologies for his selected projects, elaborating on the differences in curatorial approaches and styles for each of them.

His talk came as part of the 7th edition of the Experimenters Curators’ Hub, which took place over three days. Hosted by Experimenter gallery in India, this year’s edition included Barbara Piwowarska, Lauren Cornell, Olivier Kaeser, Pedro de Almeida, Reem Fadda, Roobina Karode, Ruba Katrib and Nada Raza. Culminating as a series of presentations and talks at Experimenter, the platform was aimed at advancing critical discourse surrounding curatorial practice and exhibition making.

Hrair Sarkissian, 'City Fabric(No.1)', 2010, Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space at Johnson Museum of Art, New York

Hrair Sarkissian, ‘City Fabric(No.1)’, 2010, Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space at Johnson Museum of Art, New York

Curatorial collaboration in “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space”

Addressing one of the thorniest issues in modern India’s history of independence and nation-building, “Lines of Control” may well be remembered as one of Nasar’s more ambitious projects to date. Taking place over three different museums with Nasar as co-curator of the exhibition, the show was an attempt to grapple with one of the bloodiest episodes in India’s recent history. With the country being split into two different sovereign nations, with a resultant estimated 10 to 15 million killed, the exhibition served – in part – as a commemorative exercise, the Partition having taken place 60 years since the show first debuted.

Revealing that the main impulse behind the making of the exhibition was the apparent lack of visual memory left behind by what could qualify as one of the most distressing events in world history, Nasar noted that the exhibition began to map out pertinent visual responses that contemporary South Asian artists created. Demarcating the Partition as a “productive space” – as a space that spurred not just the production of new discourses involved in nation-building and national identity-formation, but also a space that encouraged a creative engagement with the subject matter itself – the project was a documentary, of sorts, of the visual responses that arose from Partition.

The exhibition became (as described by Nasar) a longue durée project. Beginning in 2005, the exhibition developed over a series of workshops and iterations, before finally developing into its mature form in 2012. Described as a series of collaborations after collaborations with various artists, institutional faculty and other interested parties, the process of making “Lines of Control” was marked by an iterative spirit that, as Nasar explained, allowed him the opportunity for “self-learning”. As Nasar noted,

it became a machine for collaboration […] there is a Gujarati saying, “if you’re going to eat an elephant, do it in small bites.” I think that was very much a part of Lines of Control. If I am going to tweak it [the saying] a little bit, I think it helps if you have time to digest, and if you have a whole bunch of friends that you can invite to the party.

“Lines of Control”, it seemed, was a practice in curatorial collaboration; of learning and growing alongside peers whilst letting an idea simmer.

"Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play", United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May - 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates."Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play", United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May - 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play”, United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May – 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

Extreme sports: “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play”

Exploring the construction of “home” through familiar past-time games, Nasar’s most recent exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale, “Rock, Paper, Scissors” explored the role of play in the construction of one’s national identity. Involving five artists who thought of the UAE as “home”, the exhibition investigated how we made sense of the world through the act of playing. Nasar’s approach to “Rock, Paper, Scissors” was markedly different. If “Lines of Control” was a long duration project, his work for the national pavilion at the Venice Biennale was a short, quick-fire operation.

"Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play", United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May - 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play”, United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May – 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

"Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play", United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May - 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play”, United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May – 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

He noted that the focus of this project was navigating the platform of the Venice Biennale and the concept of a “national” pavilion. Focused less on the notion of collaboration, Nasar acknowledged that Venice was a unique constellation that made curatorial work different than from other contexts. In a previous interview with ArtReview, Nasar mentioned that logistical challenges itself made Venice an “extreme sport” when it came to curating.

"Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play", United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May - 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play”, United Arab Emirates Pavilion, 13 May – 26 November 2017, 57th Venice Biennale. Image courtesy National Pavilion United Arab Emirates.

Grappling with colonialism: London, Asia

Commissioned by the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2012, Sophie Ernst’s Silent Empress was a key artwork that Nasar covered during his presentation at Experimenter.

Silent Empress involved the voice projection of a monologue from a megaphone attached to the statue of Queen Victoria, appearing as though the Queen was gesturing towards an apology for Britain’s colonial past. 30 minutes elapsed until the authorities deemed it disrespectful, and the project ended prematurely. Nasar noted:

I think we need our statues to speak uncomfortable truths. The cultural sphere in functioning democracies should be a profoundly unsafe space for sacred cows.

Nasar’s London, Asia was conceptualised as a range of projects that addressed colonial legacies and sought to look reflexively back upon the very hybrid identities that it had left behind in contemporary Britain. A collaborative project with others such as Sarah Turner, Nasar’s London, Asia was a curatorial intervention that reflected upon contemporary society’s reactions towards colonial legacies, such as with Sophie Ernst’s Silent Empress, and how it shapes how we view ourselves and others. Responding to his own identity as a South Asian, living in London, Nasar’s project can be read as a grappling with the complex challenges of having to deal with the visual legacies of colonialism that inhabited the same spaces as the peoples that it had affected. Statues, Nasar noted, should not be silent. With much of his own curatorial practice focused on dealing with the notions of empire, London, Asia closed Nasar’s presentation, bringing certain lines of inquiry back into play.

Junni Chen

1930

Related topics: events in India, political art, Curatorial practice, video summaries

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