The world her canvas

Meenakshi Thirukode, creative director of DakshinaChitra, brings to her new job the experience gained at art institutions across the globe

August 15, 2014 08:33 pm | Updated 08:33 pm IST - Chennai

STORIES THROUGH ART Meenakshi Thirukode. Photo: R. Ravindran

STORIES THROUGH ART Meenakshi Thirukode. Photo: R. Ravindran

Hers is a tale across three continents and 10 years, united by one vision: to never be pigeonholed. From a quiet and protected Chennai upbringing, into the depths of the film, theatre and art world in Mumbai, to an education in the ‘art market, connoisseurship and criticism’ at Christie’s, London, and finally to her years in New York weaving between mainstream curatorship and alternative projects, Meenakshi Thirukode has returned to Chennai this year, to come full circle.

Seated cross-legged in her Indira Nagar home, swiftly swinging conversation between the stray monkeys outside and contemporary art, Meenakshi is bubbling over with excitement, fresh ideas and the same curiosity to explore that took her around the globe a decade ago. Only, now, at 32, she’s the newly-appointed creative director at DakshinaChitra.  It’s been a welcome homecoming.

Meenakshi’s foray into the arts began as a young girl learning dance. But her love for films took her from a degree in Fine Arts at Stella Maris, straight to Mumbai’s advertising industry, where she grasped the ropes of production, crisscrossing the city for casts, set designs and shoot locations. It was here that Meenakshi delved into theatre with Alyque and Quasar Padamsee’s plays, and first worked with contemporary art, organising the Kala Ghoda Festival. “I loved Mumbai’s spirit of enterprise! It led me to look for ways that could somehow interconnect all the different art forms I was involved in,” she says.

While her heart lay in the non-commercial art world, Meenakshi observed that on a global level, it all seemed to come back to business, to the diktats of the art market. And to understand “the nature of the beast”, she enrolled at Christie’s, followed by an internship at the auction house and a two-year stint as gallery manager at Guild Art Gallery, New York.

Europe and America opened Meenakshi to the histories she inhabited that unwittingly defined her. “In the art world there, I found I was instantly functioning under the labels of ‘brown woman’, ‘first-generation immigrant’ and so on. And you’re often the token ‘coloured person’ who’s often asked for the ‘Indian-ness’ in your work. While there are artists who are comfortable in these spaces, there were many who struggled to break away from this Western-white-male outlook and choose their own histories.” It was these artistes, particularly South Asian women, that Meenakshi centered her work on. For instance, one of the shows she curated ‘Structures Within An Intervention’, took the work of South Asian artistes and changed the context they were displayed in at the gallery every two weeks. Essentially, various curatorial teams would “intervene” in the way the art was arranged and presented, thus breaking the stereotypical moulds it was otherwise housed in.

Meenakshi’s fight against these labels is best epitomised in a multi-platform project she helmed titled ‘Isha — A Tell-All Tale’. Scripted to resemble a soap opera that unfolded in episodes, the project tells the partially-autobiographical story of a South Asian woman trying to make it big in New York’s art circles. Partly performed on stage, and partly filmed, the project takes all the tropes of Indian television, its wild histrionics, tear-jerking plot twists, multiple camera zooms and dramatic background score, to reveal a narrative that makes one question race, class and gender roles. “I wanted to take everything of an exoticised brown woman, and turn it around to tell a different story.”

‘Isha’ debuted at the Bushwick Film Festival in 2013, where Meenakshi went on to become director of its New Media Department. In Bushwick’s next edition, Meenakshi reworked ‘Isha’ as an urban game, where participants followed clues spread across artist studios in New York to unravel interlinked plot lines that culminated in watching either staged or televised episodes of ‘Isha’. Both Isha and Bushwick took Meenakshi out of curating for the ‘white-wall gallery space’ and brought her back to where she’s always wanted to belong — to an interdisciplinary practice that also deeply involved the community, blending art, film and theatre, expanding each’s boundary into the other.

In 2010, Meenakshi left Guild to begin the work she is now best known now for, ‘Project for Empty Space’. Co-founded with American-Indian Jasmine Wahi, PES turned vacant lots in economically-disadvantaged neighbourhoods into spaces for contemporary artistes to create pieces that reflected the flavours of the local community. For instance, PES’ first work in Lower-East New York, with Pakistani architect-artist Tehniyet Masood, used the reclaimed wood from nearby buildings, electricity from the local liquor store, and the bright, brilliant colours of Puerto Rican culture to build an installation that eventually became home for the children and adults there, to have conversations with each other and visiting artistes, as well as for the art lecture series ‘Informed by the City’. After Tehniyet, artist Alex Callender turned the lot into a mural of herds of migrating deer, an idea that resonated with the largely immigrant population around. “I remember the lot as it first was, filled with trash, syringes and condoms, to what it transformed into, and eventually symbolised. It was just our way to take art out of secluded galleries and to the people.”

While PES continues into its fourth year in New York, it is Meenakshi’s passion for community and education that brings her to DakshinaChitra.  Her role coalesces her past experiences as artist and curator to re-imagine future pathways for the museum. Two of her projects launch this September; the first a six month-one year research fellowship that will bring artistes “with a certain rigour to their practice” from across the globe to engage with DakshinaChitra’s craft, folk and festival traditions through their art, and the second, a shorter-term artist residency. Her pet plan though, is to use the museum’s space as an incubator for ideation and conversations with artistes from different walks of life. “We tend to think of museums as staid heritage. But I see this place as an organism that’s being shaped and reshaped, where we find answers to issues in the art world outside the market. This can become a living, experimental and alternative space.”

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