The mediator

Visitors at the Rupa-Pratirupa The Body in Indian Art Exhibition at the National Museum in New Delhi. Photo:R. V. Moorthy

Visitors at the Rupa-Pratirupa The Body in Indian Art Exhibition at the National Museum in New Delhi. Photo:R. V. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: R_V_Moorthy

Curators are now coming into their own in the world of art and artists

“The curator is not a socialite. The curator is not a network. The curator is not an articulate in-between an institution and an artist. The curator is not a therapist. The curator is, etymologically, a care-taker. One who understands deeply the concerns that drive an artist in her context, who might be able to place and displace the work in a larger (art) history and one who reads and sits up on the backbone of the present-era, in order to fully criticize and politicize the now.” This is how Himali Singh Soin explains her job of a curator, a profession that has steadily, over the years gained significance in India. While in the West, curators have always been a big deal, in India, it is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“In Europe, the systems of production, exhibition, collection, patronage are several centuries old. In India, art activity as we know it today is barely 170 years old,” says Ella Datta, an art historian, critic, writer and curator. In her latest outing, she sought to disseminate knowledge about the great Bengal artist Jamini Roy through an extensive exhibition that opened in National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Delhi in 2013 and travelled to NGMA Bengaluru last month. Datta says that the term curator began to gain currency from the latter half of 1980s, emerging as a full-fledged phenomenon from the 1990s, although people like Ebrahim Alkazi were putting together shows without donning the label of curator.

A curator was always there, whether or not the role was described so. And what has happened since then, is the gradual emergence of a well-defined role of a curator. “The role of a curator was semi-defined. He could get buyers, he could even hang the show. There is not a refocus but a focus for the first time on the role of a curator. There is a renewed energy to find a curatorial voice and we need to sustain it,” says Prateek Raja of Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery. The gallery is giving a thrust to the voice through its five-year old Curators’ Hub, where every year 10 curators are invited from different parts of the world to discuss the thought behind some of their major exhibitions. While last year the theme was collaborative practices, the upcoming edition in July will have curators working in both historical and contemporary context. “Curators like Natasha Ginwala, Naman Ahuja and several others are pushing the frontiers. In India, curators so far have restricted themselves to the geography of the region but for these people it is about the practice and not the region,” adds Prateek.

In the absence of academic programmes of curatorial studies for one to pursue — with the exception of School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has consistently produced curators — galleries and art outfits have floated initiatives to keep the momentum going. Shrine Empire in collaboration with Take On Art magazine has instituted Art Scribes Award to promote young contemporary art writers/curators from India. The winner gets a chance to attend one month Theertha Curator Residency programme in Colombo where he/she will get the opportunity to work on a curatorial project.

In 2012, Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) invited applications for Research Fellowship 2012 in partnership with The Delfina Foundation (DELFINA), Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) and the Goldsmith’s Department of Visual Cultures and the PhD. Program in Curatorial/Knowledge, London.

The fellowship provided an opportunity for intensive research in the field of visual arts by curators and researchers who have an innovative visual culture project.

Then Khoj with support from Charles Wallace India Trust and Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation, DF is offering a three-month residency (July, 2015 to October 2015) to an Indian curator under the age of 35, who is seeking an opportunity to develop their practice and the concepts of their curatorial work. In 2011 too, Khoj in collaboration with IFA launched a Curatorial Residency followed by an exhibition.

“We don’t have trained curators, they have gained expertise through experience. In such a scenario, programmes in art and such initiatives are bound to help,” says noted artist Atul Dodiya who was recently invited by Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts to talk about the culture of curation in the context of staging diorama.

Roobina Karode, Director and Chief Curator, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) on how private spaces are pushing curatorial practices

“When works enter a museum, the context they will be seen in is given by a curator. He/she is a mediator between a work of art and the viewer. I think private museums push your limits more as a curator. A private museum gives me freedom to work and experiment. I know I can confidently put up any proposal and it will be considered. Several responsibilities get rolled into one. I have to think of putting an entire show together and also think of doing activities around it that will enhance the visual experience and bring more people to the museum. Audience is a huge consideration for me, every time I put up a show. I try and do different kind of shows — Nalini Malani, Nasreen Mohamedi, just because I want to cultivate different sensibilities. There is no one kind of art. In the latest show “Construct: Deconstruct” which goes across generations currently on at KNMA, I have tried to gently move from one generation to another. On one wall, there is just a small work by F.N. Souza because it itself has tremendous amount of energy that the space can’t have anything else apart from it.”

One of the most significant exhibitions mounted at KNMA in 2013, “View to Infinity Nasreen Mohamedi: A Retrospective” (she was Roobina Karode’s teacher at MS University, Baroda) would be soon travelling to the Reina Sofia, a museum for Spanish 20th Century art collection in Madrid.

“A curator is needed to bring a large body of work with works in varied disciplines together, a mega exhibition to give a unique experience to the viewer. And in such exercises, curator has the most crucial role to play,” adds the Mumbai-based artist. Like in the case of India Art Fair, which in its eight edition decided to have a curator on board (Girish Shahane) steering its special projects, Speakers’ Forum, layout and gallery selection.

Berlin-based artist Sarnath Bannerjee feels that though the scene can’t be compared with the West where a curator is an all powerful entity pushing artists to the background, especially when it comes to grand international expositions, curators in India are coming into their own. “They create styles, they set trends. They are gatherers of thought and creators of meaning. Non-collectible art like video etc. is given shape by a curator. My understanding of conceptual art is that it can happen in partnership with a curator. But having said that curator for me is not a new emergence. Amir Khusro was a grand curator, so were Dara Shikoh and Akbar. Jitish Kallat was the face of Kochi Biennale and for all the right reasons. He didn’t eclipse the artist but by transforming the space through his approach which was essentially artistic.”

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 6:14:28 AM |

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