Caste in the USA, Episode 9: Examining the trials of representing caste in the 'elite' art world
'Caste In The USA' is a podcast series examining the pervasiveness of caste discrimination among Indians in the US, hosted by Equality Labs' Thenmozhi Soundararajan. This is Episode 9.
Editor's note: Firstpost is holding a series of conversations with Indians in the US, across its campuses, offices and households, to understand how caste discrimination pervades the community just as much as it does back home in India. Hosted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist, artist, technologist and executive director of Equality Labs, the podcast cracks taboos about caste among Indians in the US. Listen to more episodes here.
In Episode 9:
Thenmozhi Soundararajan speaks to internationally renowned curator and artist, Jaishri Abichandani, about the challenges involved in representing caste in the US and global art world.
In terms of representation in the US art scene, the numbers are frighteningly low for South Asians. According to Jaishri, for every 100 artists in New York, only 0.2 percent are South Asian. The Dalit representation? Almost invisible, she says.
With billionaires using art to maintain hegemony, there is a limit to the amount of diversity they are allowed to bring in with their work. Most of what counts as the voice of Indian art has been framed by early independence Brahmin ideologies, creating an uneven setting. For Dalit artists, the inability to access the 'elite' world of art is that much harder.
"The value of art is assigned very arbitrarily by gallery dealers, it depends on exclusivity, it depends on a kind of esoteric community supporting it very much in the ways Brahminism works," says Jaishri.
Join the conversation around fighting for art that represents the stories of the oppressed, at the intersectionality of caste and class. With art being a powerful tool, both Thenmozhi and Jaishri agree that it is important to use the medium to prevent the silencing and erasure of marginalised communities.
Listen to Caste in the USA, Episode 9 here:
Read the complete transcript for Episode 9:
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri, everyone. I am Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and this is Caste In the United States with Firstpost. Today’s episode is an exploration of caste in the art world, joining us is an internationally renowned curator and artist Jaishri Abhichandani. Her exhibition, and her own solo work as an artist have been shown around the world and she has been one of the first curators to push for Dalit artists to be seen in South Asia, Europe and the US. Welcome, Jaishri and Jai Bhim.
Jaishri Abhichandani: Jai Bhim, thank you so much for having me.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Jaishri, you are a well-known figure in the art world, having been everywhere from the Queen’s museum to the Ford Foundation, and you have also been a very vocal advocate for the increasing diversity and representation in art. Can you tell us in your opinion: how does caste play out in these spaces, particularly amongst South Asians?
Jaishri Abhichandani: I think it would be very much parallel to how it does in many other fields which includes access to language, culture, education, context, networks of support, materials even right? For example, when you are upper caste or you are Brahmin, and you are used to being part of the system and you are able to plug into the hierarchies of the art world because they are kind of replicated in the art world the same way they are in society. You don’t quite challenge those hierarchies, you understand how to navigate them, make space for yourself within them and all of those things are impacted by both caste and by class.
I kind of went through most of the exhibitions, South Asian exhibitions that I had curate in the past, to be honest with you until I worked with Thenmozhi I was much more focused on being sure that the diversity is there in terms of religion, nationality, queerness, and even blackness. So many other types of representation, it was really like caste was the last thing I picked and it took a long time even for me to come to it and I am not Brahmin, I am just somewhere upper caste, not quite sure where. So the ways in which I understood it to operate, for example, are if we look at the artists particularly Indian artists, let’s not look at the Pakistani or Bangladeshi artists who are successful for whom class is paramount, but within the Indian context the ones who are most successful tend to be Brahmin, tend to have gone to private schools, Ivy League art schools, they have the access to the language of the white art world. They have made sure that they are completely well-versed in it and they are addressing it, their success depends on it, and in order to be a successful artist in the art world here as is construed you really have to shut your eyes to all kinds of injustices you cannot look at who is on the board of museums in which you get showed in if you get shown in any museums at all.
You cannot look at who is buying your work because you just need to be able to make it work. So there are all kinds of compromises that you have to willing to make at some point and those are, in a way, compromises you are willing to make if you understand yourself to be part of systems if you don’t if you have always been shut out of those systems those are not compromises you are willing to make. A lot of that also goes to the matter of address, who are you addressing in the art world, there are folks who understand that success means addressing the white art world and the s the work that they make is easily legible by those folks but there are folks who understand that they are going to address who they are their communities, they are going to address the people that mirror them whether those people be, you know, people of colour, or queer, or South Asian or Black or whatever it may be.
All of the different ways in which we identify intersectionality so there are those who have committed themselves to, let’s call that loving blackness as opposed to loving whiteness. And the position that you find yourself in if you commit like I have to promote and making visible the work of all people who are left out of the equation, for example, I will give you numbers, in the US museums 85.4 percent of the collected work is by white artists, 87.4 percent of that is by white men, 9 percent of the work is by Asian artists, 2.8 percent by Latino artists, and 1.2 percent by African-American artists.
Now, when we come to South Asian artists and the number of South Asian artists represented in New York galleries that would be 0.2 percent. So if out of 100 artists in New York only 0.2 percent are Soth Asian who are successfully showing I would say the percentage of Dalit artists within that tiny percentage would be kind of invisible.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: That’s a really important place to have power as well because again even the fact that those statistics exist has to do with the fights for diversity led by curators of colour. We don’t have the same diverse body of curators for South Asian art that can advocate for caste as a critical axis. Imagine if we were able to do that we could make the argument that this has been erased, this is a community and a point of view that really needs to be centred as we look at the changing norms and possibilities coming out of the South Asian context.
Jaishri Abhichandani: Absolutely! When I feel like there is so much ignorance and misperceptions about India and the glorification of Hinduism that I am just not here for. It is crucial for caste to be part of the dialogue so that people have a real critical understanding of what is happening on the ground these days.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: And some of the questions about why it’s hard for South Asians and even harder for caste-oppressed South Asians to be represented in these spaces is because of what these spaces represent. They represent such closed-door spaces that are elite, you need already existing access and privilege to get into. For me that brings up the question: what we fundamentally see as art, for example, people from Dalit and Bahujan community are often working and struggling people so their art can be seen to be related to utility, to work, to narrative and struggle. So the art is not in the galleries, its in the statues of Ambedkar and Periyar on the streets. It’s in the pots that have been shaped to draw water or its in songs about our ancestors or it’s in protest signs, political posters. Now, do you feel that one of the things that the art world needs to do is step down from museums and galleries and step onto the streets?
Jaishri Abhichandani: Oh Absolutely! Absolutely! There is a very straight equation, see because the value of art is assigned very arbitrarily by gallery dealers, it depends on exclusivity, it depends on a kind of esoteric community supporting it very much in the ways Brahminism works. There is such a direct parallel between the ways in which caste functions and how the art world functions. There is the art market which is very small and very exclusive very few people in the art world get to be successful artists in that way but there are local initiatives which do kind of social practice work which is closer to the work of Dalit artists which is rooted in the community. There are works that engage socio-political issues but the reality is that within the US art world a very particular kind of art is prioritised. It is an artwork that is very self-referential, that depends upon the history of white male art to give itself any value, it is opaque to most other people.
I spent a long time at the Queen’s museum trying to change that model along with other people. There was a great director there called Tom Fikenpearl, who went on to become the commissioner of cultural services in New York City, who hired me as someone who lived close to the museum and was a community organiser to bring communities into the museum. We worked for a really long time, we worked for about ten years to do that but then the state intervened frankly after Tom left, there was a Director named Laura Riekovich who took up his ideology and was leading the museum and there was a huge furore caused by the Israeli government which basically led to Laura and some of the other staff having to leave the museum and that amazing trajectory that we set up for the museum is a community space came to a screeching end.
There are ways in which I have seen white supremacy in the art world pay lip service to diversity but punish every single one of us who dedicate our lives doing this work and I can name at least three to four Black women curators who last year came out to speak about the blatant racism they face in their places of work in different museums, they have either resigned or they have spoken up. The fact remains that for those of us who are working to shift this art world, there is a lot of backlash; there are ways in which we get punished for it.
We get brought into institutions to make changes but then those institutions resent us for asking for those changes. So it’s really kind of intense work. All the museums continue to be led by white people, their boards are filled with billionaires and frankly, museums are places where billionaires are money laundering their money and reputation laundering in destructive ways their main income. There are those of us who have been asking for all these structural changes within museums because they are meant to be public institutions that are open to us, that are not reflecting just the interests of billionaires. So it's a very deep fight that we are in right now.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think this is really important for our listeners who aren’t as familiar with the business of art but there can be an easy mistake where people are assuming that art is just a marketplace of ideas when rather art is a place that becomes an artefact of capital but all of these different stakeholders who have money in the game pay to create a currency around the conversation of the artists that they curate. All of these different institutions become critical to examine in terms of the ways that they keep cementing and layering hegemony. So whether it is art schools where people learn their craft or you know curators or gallery spaces where art is shown and therefore then given value to the commerce of the conversation in the global sense because again this is a really interesting moment for art because we are seeing that the traditional nexus of art conversations that happen in Delhi and New York also open up to a global conversation where Shanghai, Singapore as well Berlin are also clear anchors for what gets to be seen as part of the global conversation.
To that area, South Asian artists are a gatekeeper for what gets to be determined as craft versus to what is seen as fine art which goes to the questions that were asked earlier. This part I want to dig into a little more with you, Jaishri, is that as a Dalit artist myself one of the things that run like a current with my other Dalit artist colleagues is that art articulation as Dalit Bahujan artists has a different origin story than what is traditionally known as modern art. I think that when you think of the Indian style of painting that is associated with Indian nationalism that started the modern art scene in India it is very much about Indian nationalism which is very much informed by Brahmins particularly Bengali Brahmins and that has really come to shape and dominate who gets to be the authentic voice of the Indian context whether it is the diaspora or not. So I am just wondering if you could talk a little about that because you have seen that you have been in some of these circles how you think it creates a culture of difficulty for Dalit artists like myself who might want to navigate this space.
Jaishri Abhichandani: So when I was going back to Bombay a fair amount in the 1990s and the early 2000s I got to know many of the folks who are the biggest art stars in the Indian art world now. And from what I understood from there was when they were art school they felt like they had to educate themselves on the language of Western contemporary art which was not being taught to them. And you see for them to access what was happening in the rest of the world they had to have a great degree of privilege in terms of caste, class, education, access to resources, libraries, books, cultural understanding, art history in a way that most Dalit artists would just not have the access to at all. It is actually looking at art that was happening in the West that created this new generation of Indian contemporary artists who are very successful in the market, and in the museums and in biennial scenes all of that success is completely predicated on their caste and class and their ability to access these academic discourses of the West which completely leaves out the aesthetics, the philosophy, the symbolism all of it that struggle that is associated with Dalit artists. The reality is for them to be able to continue to be successful these artists have to evacuate their work of anything that would piss off the government, and so the work that ends up being successful is bland kind of critique that is completely from their upper caste perspectives, some of the most successful artists are Brahmin artists who can spout white male theorists like its nobody’s business and that’s why they are so successful because they can speak in the language of white men and those are all kind of things that leave out the voices of all of the people that we are engaging with and I did some reading in terms of the iconography used by Dalit artists, I can’t say much because it was only one article, but I learned so much about the use of material, land, the ideas of pollution and not pollution, the pictorial language that is being used for the evacuation of the human figure or the placing of the human figure and how that figure is situated within nature and the use of natural symbology there is so much beautiful, rich stuff there but the truth is that the traditions of Dalit artists are regarded as folks traditions and relegated to a much smaller monetary value in the local market and very few of those artists are able to break out individually into a contemporary art scene that rewards them financially the same way as upper caste artists are rewarded.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: And I think that’s really important. It’s like, I think of my other peers and I was just like to shout them out here like Malvika Raj, Priyadarshini Ohol, Sajan Mani because there is a very powerful movement of Dalit artists who are taking space and creating opportunities for people to interrogate their caste privilege as well as the pain of being caste oppressed. I just feel that this is a moment where there are a lot of South Asian artists who will jump on a decolonisation conversation but are much more reticent to discuss what it means to de-Brahminise.
I think for us South Asians, the call to de-Brahminise is even more urgent than the call to decolonise because it is the core wound that continues to divide our society. And it also what eclipses our ability to really speak to the human condition because how can you speak to the human condition if you are excluding hundreds of millions of people and you are just the creamy layer of society what point of view do you have to what suffers, what moves and what really beats through the heartbeat of our communities. I am just wondering Jaishri if you would be able to share some of the successes in terms of the art world, in terms of diversification with relation to race because that might be the pathway for people to think more critically about how to diversify in terms of the issue of caste.
Jaishri Abhichandani: Sure, I also want to quickly shout out one or two folks, one is Rajyashri Goody, who is a wonderful Dalit artist and curator, and also I want to shoutout Twelve Gates Gallery in Philadelphia who had shown the work of Anmol Pathun who is a Dalit artist and they were one of the first folks to do so, so I really want to give props to Atif and Ayesha within their conversation because they are one the few galleries that actually do pay attention. I want to start with Atif, Aisha and Twelve Gates and some of the wins and I have to think a wee bit about the wins because I just read you the statistics about what a small number, 1.2 percent of the collections of American museums include African-American artists and this is something that a few museums are systematically trying to correct and there are a few museums that have sold the works of white male artists and used the money to purchase the works of Black, Indigenous and POC artists which is great.
I want to shout out to a very important person his name is Franklin Sermons he is the director at the Perez Art Museum in Miami and he is a rare Black male director of a museum and he has made it his mission to really foreground and purchase the work of Black women artists and give them the most spectacular shows that we have seen in a long time. There are just the most brilliant Black women curators whom we are indebted for showing us this can be done, and they include, Thelma Golden who is executive director of the Studio Museum, Debra Willis who is just a queen and has been at the forefront of deconstructing Black imagery and giving us the most powerful tools.
There are a couple of strategies, one of them being intervening within institutions, now that is a problematic enough strategy because it takes a lot of personal, it takes from you personally to be surrounded with a sea of whiteness and then to do this change but then the other strategy is to build those spaces and institutions who are wee a centralised like Thelma Golden set up the Studio Museum in Harlem there are those folks who are engaged in setting up support structures for Black, indigenous, POC artists and those are the structures that hold us up.
There is an organisation called ENFOCU that has been working with photographers of colour for over 40 years and they have the best archive for the work that has been produced by photographers here. Even though these spaces are smaller, their function is critical because they become the repositories of these communities’ histories, in a way that we cannot depend on mainstream art studios to do so the work of building these organisations is critical so these are some of the strategies and the other strategies include like curating in a way that is sensitive, to bring communities in through public programming, there are just so many ways in which you can engage and dialogue even with all of the restrictions that may be placed on us.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I also think that there has to be an investment in Dalit artists and caste-oppressed artists in general and that includes investments through the entire eco-system of their career. Whether it is scholarships for art schools, money for material, fellowships so that people can build both their art practice and their art thinking, and then the support to have their first show. Like, I have been in touch with many artists who maybe have had the opportunity to be curated abroad but they don’t have the money to attend their own show, being able to be present when your work is being exhibited is so critical to the networking, building relationships and also for the feedback loop that you need as a creator to be able to know that your work is impactful and that you are being seen.
And I also think that another critical lens which we are missing is the role of criticism as a filmmaker I know that we would have seen the rise of new-wave cinema if we didn’t have the Arthur sales if we didn’t have the accompanying criticism of meaning around the objects that are being created by those innovators, similarly, we really lack a body of art criticism which really has Dalit, Bahujan-centred critics that are able to speak to this moment, they are able to speak to these creators. And I am just wondering have you seen other efforts that have been invested in that can help build this platform?
Jaishri Abhichandani: To give you a very known example in American art which is Project Row Houses, do you guys know about that initiative at all?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I know a little bit about it. The one in Texas, right?
Jaishri Abhichandani: Yes, exactly. Project Row houses is based in the third ward in Houston, Texas which was a historically Black ward and there is an artist name Rick Lowe who is the founder of Project Row Houses and he was a contemporary artist working in a studio and at some point, while he was working in his studio, a young man came into his studio and said that what is the point of the art that you are making for the community but it does nothing for the community. So that really spurred Rick into action and so he got involved with community organising efforts within his neighbourhood, within the third ward and then there were the rules of 22 short gun houses, these were houses that were slave quarters essentially and those houses were slated for demolition so what happened was that Rick and the entire community got together and prevented the demolition of these houses and they took them over. They turned them into a dual-purpose non-profit organisation and half of them ended up being dedicated to artists where each house was given to an artist to create work, as for the rest of the houses each house was given to a single mother. What was done was that she wasn’t just provided with housing but she was provided vocational training, educational training, she could go to college, she got daycare, food in this community where she lived with other single mothers as long as she needed to get on her feet and then move on. In the meanwhile, there were international artists that were coming in or local artists that were coming in and occupying these homes and there’s been for the entire life of Project Row Houses this amazing dialogue and the agency that they feel because along with Project Row Houses they get to decide some of what happens with the zoning regulations, what places need to be preserved, how to protect them from gentrifiers and it gives them organising power that a lot of the communities in their neighbourhoods lack.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: So Jaishri, thank you for this very rich conversation. Would you have any last thoughts that you would like to share with everyone?
Jaishri Abhichandani: Well, one of the questions that you guys had was what can be my ask from other upper caste folks like myself, so I have been thinking about my own process of coming to a place of wanting caste abolition and giving up Hinduism so I would say to folks who are my peers, that as in the diaspora, have the privilege to be able to do this because if we don’t do this work it is our biggest failure. And I am going quote Dr Ambedkar where he says, “I shall have no faith in Rama and Krishna who are believed to be an incarnation of God nor shall I worship them. I thereby reject my old religion Hinduism which is detrimental to the prosperity of humankind and which discriminates between man and man, which treats me as inferior,” So I would just encourage all of them to acknowledge their privilege and come to a place of working with it being cognizant and opening up the spaces that they occupy to Dalit folks.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think the piece about listening to another one of our previous guests spoke to that it is very hard for dominant caste people who are trained to centre themselves to de-centre themselves, even when they de-centre themselves they are still re-centring themselves. So, sometimes it is just about taking a pause both in terms of practice and process to be able to find new ways of creating, curating and building conversation in the community and that’s what I heard in the Row House example when a community drives its own representation the sites of art completely change as well as our points of view and conversation might potentially come out of it. So sometimes there is some real active courage that we need to take as a field to say what is happening right now is not working and we need to experiment and we need to try and we need to have investments in those experiments because artists are really the dreamers that create the world that can be and you know we know that castes exist across so many different faiths at this point so our goal now is to look at what does it take to create a society free of caste, what kinds of dreams do we need to have, and who are the dreamers who are helping us work towards that.
I think that’s the potential of liberatory curation that it is inter-caste and inter-faith with the centring of artists who have never had the national or global table around these issues so I hope that’s the stuff that we can continue to build a conversation around because I know that you have been a very important person who has been intervening to lifting up caste-oppressed voices so for that work we really want to thank and thank you for joining us today.
Jaishri Abhichandani: I am always in love with the work you do and the wisdom and clarity with which you bring your perspective to us. Just very humbled and honoured to be with both of you. I have to tell you that you are women that I look up to every single day to strengthen my own moral compass. You are incredible!
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Thank you, Jaishri. We really appreciate you being here and some of these art world issues that can be hard for us to see. Bringing the Savarna people perspectives has been crucial for this series so thank you so much! It’s also very important to know that art doesn’t shy away from controversy and I think as communities that are South Asian we have a legacy of genocide, caste apartheid, and we have legacies of gender-based violence. It’s important that instead of hiding them or silencing them, we need to lean into them with compassion and empathy but also very deep insight from those who can speak to the violence most closely. When we look at that from the lens of that vision we see that what would have extinguished millions of voices have allowed for millions of voices to now boom. And that’s really the power of art so I just want to thank you again for joining us and we look forward to your next exhibition and show. And we look forward to having you again on our show in the future, so thank you.
Jaishri Abhichandani: Thank you!
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: We want to thank all of our listeners who are listening online and we look forward to bringing you on for our next episode. So until then Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri.
Transcription by Pritha Bhattacharya.
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