Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Preface to Curatorial Practice: A Curator and His Students in Baroda Part I

In this series of small essays I intend to capture the essence of the curatorial workshop that I conducted in the Fine Arts Faculty of Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda from 11th to 23rd September 2017. This workshop came as a part of the curriculum for the Master of Visual Arts first and second year Art History and Aesthetics students and there were twenty four students both the batches put together (eleven from the final and thirteen from the first year including two international students Mohammed Rafiyan from Sri Lanka and Marzanah Mimi from Bangladesh). I was invited by Dr.Jayaram Poduval, the Head of the Art History and Aesthetic Department. It was a very special occasion for me because after passing out from the same Department around twenty three years ago, it was the first time that the Department thought of inviting me as a Guest Faculty and I took it with happiness and pride. It is always good to be back in your alma mater not just as a hanger on but as a Teacher and a Guide.

When I declared in the social media while posting the pictures of the curatorial projects realized (and unrealized) by my students in Baroda that I would be writing about the experience in details a few well meaning friends advised me against it; their fear was that the methodology which they thought was successful in achieving the educational aims that I had developed for this course would be copied or imitated elsewhere without any acknowledgement. While I am thankful to those friends for warning me about the possible perils of plagiarism of a methodology which has been very personal and developed out of my personal experience as a curator for the last two decades, I would like to reiterate the fact that however explicit I would be in this series of essays, the projects and methodology would remain inimitable mainly because the ones who would ‘imitate’ wouldn’t be the same students as I had in Baroda. Each person who approaches a curatorial project with an open mind would have different ideas about it depending on the intellectual as well as spiritual circumstances that the educational institution provides. I should also add that the success of a project depends on the enthusiasm and intellectual ability of the students who in fact become the mediums as well as ‘curators of such projects. Above all one should not overlook the fact that success of any educational workshop or activity is directly proportionate to the infrastructural support and friendly atmosphere that the institution provides for the guide.

I would say, the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Baroda had it all and it lavishly showered all these things on me. A huge, visible and burdensome lack in students’ fund was palpable yet I could see how the joyful spirit of the young students overcame such impediments with so much grace and dexterous manoeuvring. Dr. Poduval had already informed me of the lack of funds, perhaps as a curator who had initiated projects with no funds in late 1990s it was not a thing of worry for me. The University was paying for my teaching and I had decided that in any circumstance I wouldn’t be forcing students to spend from their pockets. As the projects were progressing and a general curiosity around it was increasing from other faculty members and students, Dr.Poduval told me that they were stroke players (the permanent teachers) and people like me were Big Hitters. I couldn’t have agreed more. If the permanent teachers in any educational institution are not preparing the students’ minds in a positive way to receive new ideas and practices, they wouldn’t be accepting experimental approaches. Baroda always had it. Even when the most conventional teaching methods were practiced during my student period in Baroda, the ways in which the teachers like Dr.Ratan Parimoo and Dr.Deepak Kannal prepared us were comparatively exceptional considering the kind of limitations within which we were taught. It has become a part of the Baroda lore that we all studied at time, as a student critically put it to me, ‘yes sir, we accept that you all studied Fauvism and its colours by looking at black and white reproductions of Fauvist paintings.’ The manual archive in Baroda was a pre-Google phenomenon and when I walked into the archive I could smell the fragrance of inertia and see the modified boxes like educational coffins carrying the slow putrefying corpses of reproduced masterpieces. But there is nothing to complain about from within that morgue of research and erudition as the technology has rendered such old and beautiful spaces perhaps obsolete and a thing of curiosity and nostalgia. I am happy to learn that this archive is now in the process of being digitized. Good for the future students.

Let me come back to the topic; the curatorial practice, a module designed for giving a quick learning occasion for the art history and aesthetic students to become curators in case if they want to become one. Though we say that it is a highly competitive field in India, my experience as an independent curator tells me that it is not so. Anybody who could put together a few paintings and sculptures on the wall and floor of the galleries call themselves curators. Anybody who ‘organizes’ an exhibition calls him/herself a curator. A person who has been working as a journalist or a public relation officer for cultural matters could one day come up as a curator. A gallerist can definitely claim herself to be a curator. The ‘C’ word has become so lucrative and fashionable that anybody puts things together calls him/herself a curator. If so our mothers and fathers are the best curators that we should learn from. The marriage broker, caterers, chefs, dancers, bands and what not, anything that is thematically arranged could automatically raise the arranger of it into the heightened position of a curator. At times, certain programs are simply ‘curated’ even without a curator. So if you say that today morning you had a curated morning walk I wouldn’t be surprised because curated morning walks are already there!

To take rounded view of things, there is nothing wrong in their claims. As the Steel Authority of India Limited advertises its claim that ‘there is a little bit of SAIL in your life’ (yes in some way a piece of iron comes to our life even in the form of a key every day), there is a little bit of curatorial practice in everything that is passed off as ‘curated’. But parts do not make the whole. A curatorial practice is a process, which involves intellectual ideation, infrastructural organisation, design based execution and adequate outreach exercises. In this way a curator is more or less an artist. S/he conceives, ideates, puts it on paper, looks for funds, finds artists, locations, infrastructure, transportation, design, outreach and what not. It is easier said than done. Looking at the easiness with which I explained the components one would tend to say, big deal. True, it is not a big deal but it all depends on how or who does it. One could buy a few steel vessels and weld them together but it wouldn’t become a Subodh Gupta work or the person who does it wouldn’t become another Gupta. Each person does it different; like a kiss. What is there in a kiss, a peck, a mere lip lock or a full all over French variety which would lift your leg up and force the eyes shut. But each time it is different, done differently. So dear ones, even kisses are curated by you!. But anything done subconsciously or biologically cannot be a curatorial practice. Given a chance the rich and powerful would even have curated child births.

There is another variety of curators in India. I would call them the ‘stencil curators’. They go around all over the world and see a variety of curatorial approaches in art fairs, biennales, Documenta and other large scale art expos. Also they visit private galleries and museums where new works are exhibited in highly sophisticated curatorial modes. Besides, they go to see the other extremes also or read about them as in the case of experimental curatorial practices that happen from the curator’s kitchen or drawing room, artists’ studios, abandoned places and any possible space that you could conceive of, and which are hailed as non-artistic spaces. Our curators charged by these experiences come back and try to replicate such experiences here. Anywhere in the world at any given time you would find such fashion mongers in the cultural field who would like to be the replicas of anything foreign and interestingly the young and impressionable minds are everywhere in the art scene who would follow these curators. I don’t want to say that there should be a home-grown organic curatorial practice for the fundamentalist reasons. I wouldn’t even ask for a nationalistic curatorial practice so that we could take our country’s pride all over the world. What I am suggesting is that curatorial practices cannot be replicated for the sake of its newer or strangers forms.

Like a work of art, curatorial practice also has form and content. When we speak of language, words are not seen as building blocks of a language nor as containers of fixed meanings nor even as containers where one could fill in the meanings that s/he wants to fill in. On the contrary words are taken as units capable of holding a particular meaning in the given space and time and completely lose its sheen in another space and time. Similarly, a work art that has a particular form cannot be having the same form all the time even if the content remains the same. A form could be spoofed for a different content but still it remains a spoof. To put it in other words, curatorial practice is a creative one as what an artist does and it is not about replicating or imitating any other universally accepted form. Hence, except for the traditional museum curatorial practice, one cannot have a fixed school of curatorial practice. The way teaching performance art is foolish and giving a degree to it is a mammoth stupidity (though we could study and research on performance art), curatorial practices cannot be ‘taught’. While a teacher could unleash the curatorial potentials hidden in the minds of the students, s/he also could teach the fundamental technicalities of curatorial practice academically, exactly the way a master painter would teach his students how to hold the brush and how to load paint in it and also how to make strokes and create a form. Rest belongs to the student.

I do not want to go in detail about the methodology that I adopted in preparing the students who came up with wonderful ideas. As teacher my intention was to release them from the stereotypical thinking. From the learners and practitioners position I wanted to make them imaginative and creative. Art history students anywhere have the tendency to believe in the written word than the visual facts. They often believe in the spaces defined by the structures than the spaces lying outside. If you give a guide book of any famous curator who has written extensively on curatorial practice (like Hans Ulrich Obrist), they would prod themselves to imitate something from the book. It is easier to do because there is already a model made successful by a successful curator. But let me tell you all the readers of this essay that none can reproduce a curatorial project because a curatorial project is based purely on the imagination of the curator, the location in which he finds himself, the spaces are made available to him, the funds, the artists, the materials, the permissions, the people’s behaviour, friends’ circles and so on. There are innumerable visible and invisible factors that liberate or limit him or her. But unfortunately we have young curators in our country who blatantly imitate their foreign experiences here. It is exactly like a painter painting like Damien Hirst or making an installation like Tracy Emin. Or in the worst case it is like someone who went to Vangogh’s museum and came back to Delhi to do only Post-Impressionist works.

I can tell very clearly and with a lot of love for all that what I did was liberating the students from their own issues regarding their ability to speak in English, their economy, their intelligence quotient, their social and familiar background, whether they have dark complexion or fair complexion, whether they were tall or short, whether they were friendly or reticent and so on. I lectured them for two days and let them talk since then. I was just a witness in their transformation from larvae to butterflies (yes butterflies because the projects they did were beautiful but short lived leaving the beautiful memories and fragrance all over the campus). As a keen follower of the educational systems propounded by Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Jiddu Krishnamurthy, I let the students to work on their weakness rather than strength. I asked them to talk, work and rework on the concepts, abandon certain of their fixations and ideas ruthlessly, I asked them to re-invent themselves, I asked them to confront the doubts in their minds, I told them to speak in whichever language they wanted to speak and asked the fellow students to translate it for me whenever I found difficult to understand their languages or voices. When some student said she couldn’t do something, I just asked her to drop it. I did not want any of my students to do an ‘assignment’. I wanted them to sing and dance through their ideas. They did. Out of the twenty four students eighteen of them came up with projects and realized. The four students however were not just witnesses or sulking imps in the fairy land of curatorial practice. They like the seven dwarfs for eighteen Snow Whites, stood shoulder to shoulder with the student curators and put in their creative and physical energies to see the projects realized. On 21st September 2017, Dr. Deepak Kannal inaugurated the projects in the presence of Dr.Jayaram Poduval, Dr. Rita Soda, Gita Parmar, Indrapramit Roy and so on. In his inaugural speech Dr.Kannal remembered that I was one among the first students in the year that the Faculty had introduced curatorial practice as a module. I was there in that batch. But as an art history student, I was not allowed to do the curatorial practice. It was given only to the Art Criticism students (then they were two disciplines). So I played the role of a supporter and helper to my fellow students. Somehow, I did not want to reveal it in my speech on the opening day. Now, welcome to the series.

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