The Curious Language of the Curator: The Art of Translating Artworld(s)

How does communal ownership shape fearless perspectives in the arts? A promising Curator talks about the ethical imperatives in the artworld

LILA: Thank you, Natasha, for agreeing to engage with us. Let us start with a discussion on what drives you as an art curator? What is your worldview – what do you attempt to communicate through your work?

Natasha Ginwala: In my practice I engage with contemporary artistic practitioners from South Asia and across the world, together developing a comprehension of today’s complex reality and often striving to dismantle majoritarian conditions of history telling to survey micro narratives that reveal hidden layers of human experience. Please have a closer look at my recent projects to comprehend how my worldview accounts for the curatorial work that has been undertaken, through projects such as Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium in Contour Biennale 8 (Belgium); Corruption: Everybody Knows… at e-flux, New York; and My East is Your West organised by the Gujral Foundation at the 56th Venice Biennale featuring artists Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana. As geologists sense the inner activities of this earth, artists too make ‘sense’ of our shared present through the tools of visual culture and multidisciplinary knowledge.

LILA: One finds that the contemporary world is inclined to vertical specialisations. And, art is increasingly becoming a niche space, even as it is a potential site for a multiplicity of voices to express themselves creatively. Art establishments seem to be engaging only with a select group of people, and artists tend to communicate among themselves and not to the larger public. Is there an accessibility problem in the art world? How can we overcome this using the language of curation?

NG: Like most professions, curating is also a specialisation, and yet the public role of art is something that is assumed to hold paramount significance. I’m not a believer in the notion that ‘everyone is an artist’, and yet in my role as curator I spend a lot of time as a mediator between artists and visiting public; moving between the artist studio, art schools, biennials, artist-run spaces and museums. Art establishments have in fact become more public. There have been historic spaces such as Jahangir Art Gallery that are now surrounded by a mix of commercial galleries and non-profit spaces, such as Clark House Initiative, Mumbai Art Room, and Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Even private museums such as KNMA in New Delhi are making an effort to actively engage with local communities and schools – very close by in Khirki village is the long-standing arts initiative KHOJ, which has played a vital role in socially-responsive projects and holds the neighborhood community as a stakeholder in its programming. The Pune Biennale and Kochi-Muziris Biennale are other recent models in the Indian context that play a role in integrating contemporary art as a vital component of the social fabric. We must look beyond, in the region as well, from Lahore to Dhaka and Colombo, to understand the artistic exchanges that are taking place with incredible energy and collaborative approaches despite political schisms.

LILA: Further on the question of spectacle – there seems to be growing tendency to create artworks that make a huge impression, especially in public art. Is there a way in which public art can be thought about in an organic manner?

NG: Of course, as an engaged audience one needs to study artistic trajectories beyond the spectacle to understand it’s social function and political imaginary. Here are some examples: Currently I’m working with filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam who have been making films on the Tibetan resistance, Himalayan geography and communities in exile for around two decades. I’ve also completed a monograph on the practice of Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat, who minutely observes the social landscape, popular culture and cosmopolitan realities of the city through his work – he has also been a curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. At times his work may bear a spectacular scale but it also goes into microscopic diagnosis, and remains considered with both the human scale and the interstellar scale. Artists such as Vivan Sundaram, Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh, K G Subramanyan, Gulammohammed Sheikh among several others have done incredible work also as part of collective entities such as SAHMAT, showing solidarity over years on communal harmony, cultural freedom and preserving the secular fabric of this nation.

LILA: Many artists who create spectacular works often use the services of ‘artisans’, and in gallery spaces or in public art sites, we don’t see any acknowledgement of these people who have actually worked on making the artwork. Sometimes, artists also draw from various traditional spaces and contemporarise without properly acknowledging. Is there a need for a Manual of Ethics in the art world?

NG: This is an important question and one observes that there is a greater responsibility being undertaken by textile designers these days in recognising the inputs of artisanal and crafts communities that make their products possible than say in the contemporary art scene. While there is no standard manual on the matter of acknowledging collaborators who specialise in crafts and decorative arts, this is an ethical imperative and as a curator one needs to address these matters directly as part of the working dialogue with artists and art institutions. I would like to cite the example of the photographer Gauri Gill and the artist Navjot Altaf, who are practitioners I greatly admire for precisely the mutual respect and collaborative recognition given to their collaborators in the process of art-making.

LILA: Is the curator also a partner in art creation? Is it necessary to remain invisible as a curator, to have your voice influence the artwork the least, or vice versa?

NG: A curator and artist are vital dialogue partners. The curator is not an invisible figure but rather has a different set role to play in the mediation and circulation of art often through tasks such as conceptual development, writing, exhibition layout, educational and discursive programming.

LILA: Many curators are art history graduates, except in rare cases like Kochi Muziris Biennale where artists themselves are chosen as curators. What is your take on this? Does art history, the way it is taught in schools, help in understanding or curating contemporary works? Isn’t it high time we started academic courses in curatorial work?

NG: Curating began to be taught in the late nineties internationally, especially in Europe and the United States. It is therefore thought to be a new discipline. However, museums have always had care-takers and the term curating includes the aspect of ‘care’ for cultural artefacts and artistic work. Even in India, The School of Arts & Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University conducted the first programme on Curation in 2008 and I was part of the batch that studied under Dr. Kavita Singh as part of this newly formed curriculum. My classmates and I co-curated the exhibition Where in the World, at Devi Art Foundation in 2009 as part of the curatorial course. After this I went on to pursue de Appel Curatorial Programme in Amsterdam. And as a LILA Fellow, I was the first South Asian participant in de Appel Arts Centre.

For the second part of your question, artists have played the role of curator since decades and still do. At the same time there is definitely more attention towards the teaching of curatorial practice as an academic discipline. However, one learns best on the job!

LILA: Art is an expensive occupation, and it is hard to get noticed. Marketing and Networking seem to be more important than art-making itself to be out there. Out of the thousands of young people who graduate every year from fine arts colleges in the country, only a couple or so make it big in the art world. Where do the others go? Why do we still run fine arts courses if this is the outcome?

NG: Your question strikes me as a highly pessimistic one. Why not ask why execute so many engineering and management programmes in every part of the country?! Of course it is difficult to receive commercial success as an artist, but this is the case with other creative professions too. It is time that our government understands the vital need for artistic work to gain public support. For instance, the German government has recently increased public funding for the arts, and yet we are facing a regressive scenario where qualified museum professionals are being replaced by cultural bureaucrats in state institutions. Regional art councils need to be more alert in providing artists studio facilities and free exhibition spaces in order to further democratise the viewing of contemporary art.

LILA: What in your view is the direction of contemporary art in India vis-a-vis global practices? Is there a movement or a collective that is making a difference, or are individual artists pursuing their own dreams largely?

NG: Let us not forget there isn’t a unilateral art world, but rather a multitude of art worlds that are uneven yet continuously generative and ever more related. The categorisation of the South Asian art scene as “nascent” at times stems from a superficial engagement with contemporary practice without taking account of the sedimented histories of art and politics; intergenerational discourse; pedagogic models and an informal landscape of institutions that emerge through artist collectives, interdisciplinary groups, critical publications, biennale / triennial platforms, and residency-workshops. Beyond the public museum, it is these para-institutions that have fostered a resilient arts scene wherein local artistic practices have co-evolved with waves of internationalism since colonial modernity, into the decades of nation-building, and to the present day. We currently face a fragile public domain, and while there is a rising tendency for private initiatives in the cultural field, there is a greater need for a sense of communal ownership so that fearlessly independent perspectives in the arts may thrive, and sustained exchange among practitioners of the subcontinent may continue.

LILA: Art criticism in the country seems to be a non-existent being. As a curator, what do you think about this absence of critical appreciation and analysis about art practices? Can art make itself relevant in our times without studied responses?

NG: It is incorrect to suggest that art criticism is non-existent in this cultural context. Consider the historic magazine, MARG which was launched by Mulk Raj Anand in 1946! I recently guest edited a volume of MARG on the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. There are other magazines such as Art India, TAKE on Art Magazine and online platforms such as Critical Collective that hold a vital position in the production and distribution of art criticism today. The main problem is that the space for art criticism within mainstream newspapers has been shrinking but here too there are some hopeful signs through news platforms such as SCROLL and The WIRE.

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