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Curating South Asia

At its best, curating is an intellectual and social passion, but it is also a “profession,” in the sense that any successful curatorial intervention requires interaction with physical and mental ecologies and infrastructures. Curators must ascertain and negotiate the availability of art-historical research; gain access to artifacts and archives; understand the conditions of display spaces such as museums, galleries, and public arenas; canvass patronage; envision the publics being addressed; and navigate considerations of legality, social permissibility, and free speech. In South Asia, however, all these fields of endeavor are still at an early stage of formation. Ideally, curating should not be confined within the existing limits of such structures—or simply make use of them—but also contribute to their development.

South Asia constitutes one of the largest populations on the planet, and is significantly uneven and diverse in its social formations. Dozens of languages are used, numerous religious and vernacular practices prevail, and there are gross, persistent, and perhaps worsening disparities in wealth, education, and access to resources. The region faces tremendous political and imaginative challenges in envisioning itself as a shared geography in which exchanges of peoples, ideas, and goods are routine. It also has a sizeable and growing diaspora, scattered across the world, which increasingly cannot be conceived of as being separate from “home” in a globalizing world.

These conditions certainly pose a daunting challenge to curators, but precisely because their profession remains in flux as far as South Asian art is concerned, intelligent curatorial practice can also act as a powerful agent for positive change. Much has happened during the last two decades in the South Asian region, but considerable work remains ahead. Outlined here are just a few of the key challenges and opportunities.

By virtue of its size, relative political stability, growing internal and external patronage, and other institutional developments, the curating of modern and contemporary art in India has blossomed in recent years. Public and private museums1 and good commercial galleries provide curators with exhibition venues, journals and magazines help fashion a critical discourse, and degree programs and workshops train scholars, artists, and curators2. A new generation of curators has emerged in India, and curating is now considered a serious and competitive profession3. India also overshadows other South Asian countries in its international exposure, its artists and curators having recently enjoyed more opportunities to exhibit both domestically and internationally.

Other countries however are also developing analogous infrastructures including museums, galleries, journals, training programs, and periodic exhibition platforms such as biennials4, and are beginning to garner increased international attention as a result. These initiatives promise to establish curating as a reputable and influential practice throughout the region. During the past few years, international curators have collaborated productively with local artists and intellectuals to create an array of interesting projects, and it seems likely that this will continue. Over the next decade, obstacles notwithstanding, we can thus expect to see the birth of numerous innovative curatorial initiatives across South Asia.

During its long history, South Asia has seldom possessed political unity or social uniformity, but the crystallization of the nation-state model during the twentieth century has created new dominant realities that are immensely significant. In many ways, the South Asian artist’s status as “national” figure remains key to situating her formative and ongoing concerns. However, the very supremacy of the nation-state has also led to the constriction of intellectual and imaginative horizons. It has elided numerous regional and transnational connections that have been historically active, and which survive in diminished or transformed ways today. The spread of fashion and pop-media imagery is just one visible example of such exchange in the contemporary era.

In this regard, nonprofit initiatives such as the Triangle Network (Britto in Bangladesh, Khoj in India, Theerta in Sri Lanka, and Vasl in Pakistan) are active not only in developing local artistic and curatorial initiatives, but also in linking peoples and ideas in innovative ways across South Asia. Also, the South Asian diaspora is enormous in cities such as Dubai, London, and New York. Curatorial initiatives in these places have also been instrumental in reconceiving South Asia beyond the restrictions of national borders. By proposing a deeper and broader model of South Asia in major international venues, these initiatives also contribute new ideas to domestic curatorial agendas5.

South Asia’s publics form a fractured palimpsest; the misconceived image of the region’s citizenry as an undifferentiated mass ignores all the complexities of society and self. Through classificatory technologies, colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reformulated traditional communities and established new hierarchies and subjectivities in place of those it inherited. The independent nation state has generated new social groupings since the mid-twentieth century, but this top-down process has been contested and redirected by major transformations on the ground such as hyper-urbanization, and the claims of marginalized peoples for justice and representation (appeals routinely suppressed by state violence).

Publics are thus crosshatched by the conflicting demands of languages, castes, and genders, regional variations and class divisions, and, above all, by their varying abilities to achieve recognition and voice. Thus it is no accident that a large and sophisticated body of scholarship on the subaltern has emerged in South Asian historiography, a category encompassing the historical and contemporary issue of the visibility, marginality, and representation of individuals and communities as subjects of history.

How does this pertain to curating? Simply put, the practice cannot adopt a fixed perspective that presents an abstracted nation-state as the sole viable framework, since to do so would obscure other important perspectives. There is a pressing need to rethink curatorial agendas, and to focus on creative approaches designed to illuminate neglected, suppressed, and emerging relations. These might include the exploration of subnational and transnational spatial conceptions, and the forging of a nuanced understanding of how new forces (such as accelerated urbanization and pervasive electronic media piracy) are transforming our sense of belonging. Curators will also need to foreground the problems of subalternaity and marginality in order to frame appropriate agendas. Contemporary art and curating should actively seek to fashion new publics comprised not simply of extant connoisseurs, but also of those presently marginal to its address.

From the perspective of postcolonial studies, master categories such as art are marked by catachresis, in that they do not quite possess an adequate referent; the South Asian context impels us to continuously question what is meant by the term. To be more specific, South Asia, which has historically been a major site of artisanal work and the courtly arts, was transformed during the colonial era by the founding of formal art education. Since the early twentieth century, the idea of art as a modern practice with associated discourses and institutions has been well established. This conception is characterized by individual subjectivity and bolstered by, for example, the circulation of art objects through a gallery system. The ambiguity of art as an umbrella term to refer to very different types of artifacts of modern art, craft, and courtly and religious objects, is only one instance of this conceptual puzzle.

The discourses and practices of modern and contemporary art play out against the backdrop of the “popular.” In South Asia, the latter domain is immense, and constitutes a number of overlapping fields existing in productive tension and collaboration with each other. It encompasses tribal, folk, and artisanal practices6, incorporates diverse media and methods, and embraces “bazaar arts,” including religious and secular posters and other street-based forms. It also gestures toward widespread and continuous grass-roots social and political mobilization. The relation between high art and popular visual culture in South Asia is multiply determined, and cannot be reduced to theoretical dualities such as elite and kitsch, or to conceptions of the postmodern formulated in the context of late capitalism.

Art as a formation remains in dynamic engagement with the popular, a chaotic force that is nonetheless all-too-frequently excluded from curatorial visions. While it is perfectly legitimate to focus on “professional” artists and their work when organizing a specific exhibition or project, a deeper understanding of the interconnected forces that surround them may help guard against any perception of contemporary art as either failing to represent society at large, or as representing it completely. There is a wider world beyond the gallery and, ideally, a curatorial project should provide some sense of how art can be meaningfully situated in relation to these broader issues—even when the mandate and setting of any exhibition is necessarily circumscribed.

In order to contribute to cultural value, curating needs to be firmly conceived as research, and aimed at creating new knowledge and new perspectives. Artistic practice in South Asia and its diaspora is vibrant and active, but scholarly attention to its multiple meanings tends to lag behind. Much artwork is appreciated largely as spectacle, and “star” international curating has an egregious tendency to assemble shiny, superficial objects and images into hastily conceived and ultimately flavorless mega-exhibitions of “global” contemporary art.

Curatorial research encompasses the careful delineation of artistic location, trajectory, and intent. It also includes the responsible situation of individual practices and works within larger frames of meaning beyond artists’ own consciously formulated programs. Curating must explore neglected perspectives such as the fraught relationship between tradition, modernism, and contemporary art; the intellectual milieu in which the work is made and received; and the importance of travel, diaspora, and cultural exchange in the production of “national” art. South Asian curating in particular needs to experiment with exhibition and project platforms as ways to spark new spatial and communicative interaction. Individual projects should be conceived of not only as stand-alone events, but also as contributions to a larger body of exploration. To consolidate the status and influence of their field, curators must also commit themselves to institution-building and archival development, and to the promotion of scholarly collaboration via symposia, catalogs, websites, and workshops, making these and other elements key to any given project.

—Writer, curator, and artist Iftikhar Dadi, Ph.D, is an associate professor in Cornell University’s Department of History of Art and Chair of its Department of Art.

  1. Collectors are also becoming actively involved in shaping curatorial agendas. For example, the New Delhi-based Devi Art Foundation has mounted numerous exhibitions—including “national” shows focused on Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran—and has invited curators from India and abroad to produce them.
  2. University programs training researchers and curators include the graduate level School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Private research initiatives include The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA).
  3. A special issue of Take on Art magazine, vol. 2, no. 1 (2011), focused on curating exemplifies this trend.
  4. Examples include the Colombo Art Biennale in Sri Lanka and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography in Bangladesh.
  5. See, for example, the numerous projects developed by Green Cardamom, an arts organization that at the time of writing was based in London but has since relocated to Hong Kong.
  6. Jyotindra Jain’s work has been exemplary in foregrounding the problem of situating tribal and folk art in contemporary art contexts.