Flying in the Face of Authority
(This article was first published in Vol. 23 / Issue 4 of ART India.)
The intellectual labour of curators plays a significant role in influencing how art is historicized, circulated and consumed. Curators are often called on to leave the safe confines of their academic training, and immerse themselves into research-intensive processes that push them into new directions. Curatorial practices go beyond drawing from art history. They include gathering ethnographic data, sifting through archival records, cultivating relationships with communities, and even participating in social movements.
The curatorial note shows us how they are constantly redefining the scope of their interventions in political and pedagogical terms. An interest in these discursive choices led me to the Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2019, hosted by Priyanka Raja and Prateek Raja in Kolkata from November 28 to 30. It was the tenth anniversary of this annual gathering that invites curators to talk about their experiments, place their work in the context of larger trends in the contemporary art world, and learn from each other. The audience was a mix of people who could be broadly characterized as cultural workers since not all of them identify as curators.
The speakers were Naomi Beckwith from USA, NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati from Nepal, Nora Razian from UAE, Anita Dube from India, Devika Singh from the UK, Paz Guevara from Germany, Zoe Butt from Vietnam, Tarun Nagesh from Australia, Lydia Yee from the UK, and Shaina Anand from India. The Hub was moderated by Natasha Ginwala from India, the Co-Artistic Director of Gwangju Biennale 2020.
Curators often challenge geographic affinities, pursue cross-border collaborations, and live nomadic lives. However, it is impossible to overlook the fact that access to networks, funding and travel opportunities is often determined by the passport one carries. The curatorial voice is not an abstract, disembodied phenomenon. It is shaped through the making of difficult decisions, including trade-offs, especially by curators who work with art that is sharply critical of authoritarian governments. They have to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, the indignities of surveillance, and threats to personal security.
The opening speaker was Naomi Beckwith, a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, who raised important questions about the exclusionary practices of public art institutions. The work created by people of color, women, and individuals from the global south, is kept out through protocols of gatekeeping, which deem as ‘bad’ and ‘substandard’ what racist historians and critics do not understand. The lack stems from their perceived supremacy, and ignorance about the long and robust legacies of art-making they have not bothered to engage with. When there is an unwillingness to examine seriously how power constructs knowledge, prejudice is reproduced even in forums that take pride in being anti-establishment. Queer and trans bodies are fetishized, and face a greater risk of violence, because they threaten established ideas of what constitutes normal. Since race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation do not operate in isolation, she emphasized the need for an intersectional approach to understand how discrimination takes place.
She also highlighted the ethical dilemmas that curators have to navigate with respect to the money funneled into cultural production. They need to do background checks on philanthropic organizations, which dole out funding to museums in order to cover up their shady dealings. The campaign led by American photographer Nan Goldin against the Sackler family came up as a powerful example of a cultural worker who called on museums, art galleries and universities to refuse monetary contributions from the Sackler family because of their involvement in Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company held responsible for the North American opioid crisis. Her work grew out of her own recovery from addiction to OxyContin, and she has since been able to mobilize artists, activists and addicts who believe in direct action. They organize online as well as offline protests to ensure that the Sackler family is held accountable.
NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, co-founder of Nepal Picture Library and Photo Kathmandu, carried forward the theme of accountability and looked more specifically at contexts of sexual harassment and sexual violence within the art community. As an artist, curator and activist, she feels invested in practices of justice and healing that can emerge through community conversations rather than knee-jerk responses that focus on calling out. In keeping with this, she has been curating a discussion seminar series called ‘Imperfect Solidarities’ along with therapist and educator Prathama Raghavan. She pointed out that this ongoing initiative is meant to generate a dialogue about harm and repair, and the forms both can take, instead of forcing people towards reconciliation — a choice they may not want to make. There are alternatives to retributive justice that do not require forgiving or forgetting but asking individuals to acknowledge their actions, accepting non-carceral consequences, and making amends in ways that would mean something to those who have suffered.
Zoe Butt, co-curator of the 2019 Sharjah Biennale and Artistic Director at Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City, spoke about focusing on building critically thinking and historically conscious artistic communities, and on fostering dialogue among the countries of the global south. This lofty vision is grounded in the simple and relatable idea that home is not where you are born but where all your attempts to escape cease. The desire for home is addressed while recording the memories of ancestors, reconnecting with those who migrated for survival, studying the impact of colonization, and recovering evidence that makes it possible to refute hegemonic narratives and write alternative histories.
Confronting violence is an inevitable part of this process, and it is both physical and visceral. It has meant learning how to process stories of rape and murder, and to negotiate the tenuous relationship with a state that is perpetually suspicious. The work of a curator is not restricted to audience engagement though it might appear to be the most visible part of what they do. Being a curator can sometimes feel like being a warrior.