Re-imagining the South Asian Curator

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Natasha Ginwala and Defne Ayas were selected to curate the Gwangju Biennale in September 2020.

By Devana Senanayake

“I am not entirely comfortable being bracketed as “a South Asian Curator,” says curator and writer, Natasha Ginwala. “Maybe this fluidity which I have structured my life around is one way to break out of these codes which are opportunities, but they are also ways of defining you.”

There are limited curators of colour working in the cultural field. Natasha feels these specialized positions are a welcome development, yet at times situate curators in prefixed categories rather than provide them an opportunity to reshape and push the boundaries of their occupation. In 2015, the Mellon Foundation released the first comprehensive survey of diversity in American Art Museums. It cited only 16% of leadership positions held by people of colour. Of these positions: 38% of Americans identified as Asian, Black, Hispanic or multiracial. There are limited curators of colour, much less South Asian curators, in Europe and America.

Firi Rahman, Taste Karanthethé (2019). Performance. Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin de Silva.

“The whitest job in the entire cultural community in New York is curator,” Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs told the New York Times last year. “That’s changing.”

In response to criticisms of limited diversity, large scale museums have created full-time positions to bring in more diverse curators. In 2015, the MET created a position for an “Assistant Curator of South Asia” and appointed Shanay Jhaveri to it. The TATE appointed Priyesh Mistry to the “Assistant Curator of Research for South Asia” position. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum appointed Siddhartha V. Shah as “Curator of Indian and South Asian Art.”

“I see these positions from a distance, and I wonder what it does to you because you are still slotted as “The” South Asian Curator. I am feeling more at ease because it’s my relationship with the artists I work with, my thinking, and my writing which defines how I am seen in my field,” she says of her journey as an independent curator, an alternative to the traditional role as a full-time curator in a museum.

Curatorial roles based solely on location oversee the cultural richness, diversity, and complexity of the region. Generalized names such as “South Asia” fail to capture the multiracial, multiethnic and multilingual identities that inhabit those regions. As an area, South Asia is large. It includes India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives just to cite a limited number of countries. None of these elements are taken into consideration by the generalized South Asian Curator labels.

Natasha studied at Jharwala Nehru University’s School of Art and Aesthetics in Delhi. She then pursued a specialized curatorial course in De Appel Arts Center in 2010. At that time, she had been the only South Asian participant in the course. As a student in India, she found a lot of “hierarchies” in local art circles, so she found her experience in the Netherlands, despite being an inexperienced curator, to be a liberating and educational one.

After the conclusion of her studies, Natasha stayed in Europe to pursue the role of an independent curator a decision that ultimately helped her host several biennales such as the Contour Biennale 8 Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium and Documenta 14 (2017). Her projects have also been featured at the 56th Venice Biennale and KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Smellarchive children’s workshop by Sissel Tolaas. Colomboscope 2019. Photography by Ruvin De Silva.

As India’s economy has risen, Indian art has enjoyed greater levels of local and international popularity. Iftikhar Dadi, Associate Professor of the History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University, commented on this phenomenon on the Guggenheim blog:

“A new generation of curators has emerged in India, and curating is now considered a serious and competitive profession. India also overshadows other South Asian countries in its international exposure, its artists and curators having recently enjoyed more opportunities to exhibit both domestically and internationally….

Other countries [in the region] are also developing analogous infrastructures including museums, galleries, journals, training programs, and periodic exhibition platforms such as biennials.”

Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin Da Silva.

It is only natural that Natasha stayed connected to her South Asian roots as it is an area hungry for exposure, strong management, and reinterpretation. She is currently based, simultaneously, in Berlin and Colombo.

“I think it’s great that it’s so self-organized. I think there’s much more room to experiment, and there’s an opportunity which we need to harness and not see as [lacking]” she says of the potential held by the art scene in Sri Lanka.

She also singled out friendly people full of interesting memories and personal anecdotes in the Sri Lankan art community. Natasha first came to Sri Lanka, the home of her partner, in 2014 and co-curated Colomboscope a year later. She is currently Artistic Director of the festival that exhibits contemporary arts and encourages an interdisciplinary dialogue. In 2018, the festival ran over seven days in January in several Colombo locations such as the Rio Complex, Barefoot Gallery, Grand Oriental Hotel and Galle Face Green Hotel.

Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin De Silva.

As a curator responsible for a local festival, Natasha understands that the festival needs to be a “sustainable and context-responsive environment for cultural producers to continue generating path-breaking and genre-defying approaches in the field.”

“A lot of the work happens through writing, studio visits with artists or workshops with younger artists. We want to think about how we can equip the community,” she says of the larger role the festival plays in nurturing the local art scene through its focus on intimate gatherings and relationship building.

The festival featured several local artists such as Anoli Perera, Isuru Kumarasinghe and Jasmine Nilani Joseph; and international artists such as Hira Nabi, Armine Linke, and Henry Tan and partners.

“We think of [the festival] as a platform to try new vocabularies; and where new kinds of approaches can be laid out and explored.”

Cooking Sections, CLIMAVORE: On Mangroves and Mudflats (2019). Performance. Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin de Silva.

Iftikhar Dadi encourages curators to take the South Asian diaspora into consideration in their exhibitions: “The South Asian diaspora is enormous in cities such as Dubai, London, and New York. Curatorial initiatives in these places have also been instrumental in reconceiving South Asia beyond the restrictions of national borders.”

The Sri Lankan diaspora exists in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Europe, Australia, and the USA. The festival has provided a foundation for artists such as Sri Lankan-Swiss performer, Robin Myer; and Sri Lankan-Australians, Amara Raheem and Cresside Collette to exhibit their practices.

Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin De Silva.

“These are artists who have lived away from the island and are finding their way back through the arts,” Natasha says.

For upcoming festivals, Natasha hopes to explore the rising interest in set forms of publishing (like zines and artist books), multimedia (like film and video), and identity politics that happen in the local art scene.

“There is more consciousness with gender, race and class-based questions in the way artists are producing work. In terms of a post-war society, how do you tackle these questions?” she says about the festival’s evolution and her responsibility as a curator in a country undergoing reconstruction and focused on reinterpretation for progress.

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