For art curation in India, challenge lies not only in preserving culture, but also envisioning what must be preserved
What is the role of an art curator at a time when truth has become a major casualty?
What is the role of an art curator at a time when truth has become a major casualty? The Kochi Biennale Foundation’s curatorial workshop, involving young curators, artists and architecture students, is an interesting lead-in to explore the role of an art curator as cultures and histories are being eroded and manipulated. Led by the Mumbai-based curator Nancy Adajania, the online workshop (31 March-25 April) is titled ‘Once Upon a Cultural Famine: A Curatorial Thought Experiment,’ and an excerpt from its concept note reads:
“If there were a cultural famine, what would we secure for the future? It could be an artefact that is classical or demotic, modern or contemporary. It could be an endangered language, a story or a song, a recipe, a quilt, an extinct seed variety, a technical manual or the Constitution.”
What stands out in the concept note is the workshop’s intent on focusing on the participants’ ‘voice’ as curators, other than the fact that it alludes to a widespread crisis where dissent and intolerance towards independence of thought; and the fabrication of facts and erasure of history, etc., have left us in a state of perpetual conflict. In such a scenario, a high degree of voice from the practitioners of arts appears to be an imperative, especially when — as the workshop’s open call reads — culture needs preservation, in the event of a hypothetical (or anticipated?) cultural famine. That this excerpt ends with the “Constitution” as one of the aspects of culture that needs to be saved for the future suggests the curator’s intervention in interpreting our day-to-day — and by no means are they mundane — conflicts and turbulences is necessary.
In the book The Curator’s Handbook, Adrian George, the Director of Exhibitions and Museum Services at ArtScience Museum, Singapore, looks at the role of a curator as broad, evolving and all-encompassing, who “challenges perceptions”, investigates what “future culture” would look like, and brings social engagement into the curatorial practice. Other than pointing out the standard job responsibilities of exhibition-making and managing collections, George highlights the interpretive role of a curator, especially in making complex ideas accessible to a wider audience. The curator, being the subject specialist, is also seen as an umbrella role of a critic, journalist and writer — all combined into one.
In India, where freedom of expression has become a disturbingly polarising topic, art curation based on a strong sense of voice, particularly with a journalistic/critical bent, can be a tightrope walk. However, there have been exhibitions in the recent past, such as the India Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2019), that can be interpreted as being critical of governance, but in an indirect way. Under the curatorial theme of ‘Our Time for a Future Caring,’ and with Gandhi’s legacy and ideals as its reference point, the exhibition’s modern and contemporary artworks were presented as “an opportunity for a renewed search and investigation into received notions of agency, action, and freedom.”
But exhibitions of such a wide scale and nuanced curatorial approach are few and far between given the series of challenges that do not prioritise the nurturing of art curation in India. These include the lack of opportunities for curators to take up full-time roles at museums or galleries. State support, including budgetary allocation, for the growth and promotion of art and culture has often been found to be increasingly deficient, and where the representation of contemporary art is left in the hands of patrons, philanthropists and art connoisseurs.
In terms of the training programmes to become a curator, India offers many options — from degree courses and diplomas to the more popular programmes at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, for example, and the shorter duration programmes offered by Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and New Delhi-based Khoj International Artists’ Association. However, there is a need for the art market to create avenues for college-level learnings to be translated into professional experience that can be the basis of a substantial career path as a curator. Because the stakes of raising one’s voice are much higher now, the curator’s role is paramount, and who is able to call out what is ignored, misread, or erased in our histories and contemporary narratives (as seen in a recent topical exhibition, ‘Erasure,’ at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi).
Having said that, one refreshing aspect of art curation has been conversations involving curators through platforms such as the Experimenter Curators’ Hub, which had its 10th edition last year, and the second edition of the Asian Curatorial Forum, a collaboration between the New Delhi-based Prameya Art Foundation (founded by Shrine Empire gallery) and the National Culture and Arts Foundation, Taiwan. Such models, whereby commercial galleries look beyond their original mandate to create independent spaces for dialogue and critique on/for the arts, are redeeming as we witness the perpetuation of a monolithic polity.
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