Art, exhibition, and its audiences: South Asia, Britain and beyond

The art of South Asia, exhibitions, and installations related to this region has recently been at the forefront of scholarship. Both in Calcutta and London, a series of exhibitions and the Paul Mellon Centre and Asiart Archive conference, ‘Showing, Telling, Seeing: Exhibiting South Asia in Britain 1900-Now’ have explored how this diverse area has been represented, consumed, and engaged with through visual means.

In Calcutta, Sujaan Mukerjhee’s visual investigation, ‘Chance Directed: A Guide to Calcutta Tourism’ was part of ‘Accessing the Archive: An Exhibition of Three Exploratory Projects’ presented by the India Foundation for the Arts in collaboration with Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. Using the Centre’s range of visual documentation including stereoscope views, postcards, photography, and tourist ephemera, Mukerjhee explored Calcutta’s visibility and memorialization from the perspective of the ‘outsider’. The installation, which offers a retrospective overview included the recreation of a 19th century stereoscope and established that the city matured, unfurled, and unfolded across the decades.


In her article for The Conversation, Cleo Roberts reported on the value of such retrospective overviews. The piece discussed Tate Modern’s Bhupen Khakar retrospective, ‘You Can’t Please All’ and related his career to India’s contemporary art infrastructure. The piece, which included interviews with Roobina Karode director of Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, and the artist, Nikhil Chopra, discussed accessibility to the arts in India and noted the tensions involved in establishing a global circuit and network of exhibition.

This tension, and entanglement of asymmetrical perspectives formed the nexus of discussions at the ‘Showing, Telling, Seeing: Exhibiting South Asia in Britain 1900-Now’ conference. The two day series of panels, opened with a poignant discussion about curating and the burdens of representation. Iwona Blazwick (Whitechapel Gallery) and David Elliott (writer and curator) discussed their experiences at Tate Modern and The Museum of Modern Art Oxford retrospectively and addressed the methodologies they employed to create conversations between modernisms during the 1980s. Geeta Kapur (art critic) picked up on these questions and spoke about the Festival of India 1982 launched by Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi. She reflected on the reduction of a nation-space to city-space and spoke about the importance of the analytical frameworks and forums provided by the launch of Third Text in 1987.

The discussions which ensued, including Deepak Ananth (Ecole Supérieure d’Arts et Médias) and Sharmini Pereira (Raking Leaves), highlighted how these series of exhibitions had shifted the conceptual landscape and as Blazwick stated, in reference to the seminal Century City in 2001, had been ‘cross-pollinating’ and provided audiences with comparative cultural experiences. This notion of presenting hybrid expressions and negotiating artistic frameworks was further scrutinized in the second panel by Susan Bean and Sria Chatterjee (Princeton University). The papers historicised the process of display and used a series of European exhibitions, over the long twentieth century, to explore the role and reception of a selection of Indian artists and their work. Bean challenged the notion of vernacular and modern through the artists Ganpatrao Mhatre and Jadunath Pal while Chatterjee closely analysed the rhetoric and visual archive of the Festival of India, an umbrella series of nineteen exhibitions including the Hayward Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, British Museum and Royal Academy. Chatterjee problematized the institutional relationships manifest in the enterprise and in particular, her focus on the Royal Academy component of the Festival, showed that there was a web of viewing with multiple registers of meaning.


Zainul Abedin, ‘Santal Couple’, 1951

The subsequent papers expanded upon the role of institutions. Holly Shaffer (Dartmouth University) offered a detailed reading of institutional space through ‘Nehru: His Life and His India’ an exhibition of 1965, and Dayanita Singh’s, Museum Bhavan. Inter-linking these exhibitions she spoke of the thread of memorialization and myth embodied in images. The subsequent paper given by Lotte Hoek (University of Edinburgh) and Sanjukta Sunderason (University of Leiden), focused on institutional supported travel and the transit of two East Pakistani artists, Zainul Abedin and S M Sultan. Through these artists and the ‘journey as form’, London was shown as an influential meeting point of hybrid practice and informal exhibition. The responses, led by Nima Poovaya-Smith, considered how these papers used forensic memory, which could be both treacherous and telling, to  access asymmetrical perspectives.

The concluding panel moderated by Lucy Steeds (Central Saint Martins), series and managing editor for Afterall’s Exhibition Histories book series, discussed how exhibitions can be transposed to the page. The group including Emilia Terracciano (Ruskin School of Art), Zehra Jumabhoy and Shezad Dawood, considered writing as an afterlife, which offered a different and multi-textured form of engagement.

The second day opened with a series of papers, which teased out how Indian modernity had been exhibited in the United Kingdom and competed with and destabilised Western audiences and frames for viewing art. Brinda Kumar (Metropolitan Museum of Art) explored a show hosted by the Burlington Fine Arts Committee in July 1931 and discussed the grounding and contours it provided for a subsequent Royal Academy show mounted during the period of Independence. Kumar spoke through the exhibition texts, which framed the showcase through formal analysis, which privileged the ‘ancient end of the spectrum’. Hilary Floe (University of Oxford) moved the discussion to Myth and Reality: Oxford and India held in 1982 at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, and a contrasting approach, which sought to ‘avoid totalizing claims’ and resist being a survey show. As the respondent Daniel Rycroft (University of East Anglia) surmised, both these papers pointed to competition within institutions and the non-neutral space of cultural politics, which should create legacies to inform future curatorial practice.

Naiza Khan (University of Karachi) and Karin Zitzewitz (Michigan State University) gave insight into how these contemporary circuits and networks of display were formulating. Their paper, ‘Nodal Connections: Triangle Network, Gasworks, and South Asian Artists in the UK’, discussed how the residency format offered by these spaces impacted on visiting artists. Case studies such as artist Abhishek Hazra gave insight into the artistic freedom and ‘reorientation of practice’ this time allowed. Eva Bentcheva (SOAS) followed focusing on an participatory commission by Motiroti for the Science Museum’s ships gallery in 2007. Her paper discussed the manifestation of the ‘Priceless’ installation and considered it as a fleeting and momentary engagement, which highlighted slow moving institutional agendas. These moments were none the less important and as Geeta Kapur stated, the platforms created by cultural institutions in India, particularly the Goethe-Institutes, were vital for artistic development.

The ability to untangle the interests of institution, artist and audience and how to conduct exhibition research was discussed by Saloni Mathur (UCLA), Carmen Julia (Tate Britain), and Sarah Turner (Paul Mellon Centre). The panel considered a number of methodologies; Mathur suggested that a legal case study approach and forensic reading of exhibitions coupled with self-consciousness was valuable. Turner impressed the need for imagination when digesting archival material and encouraged researchers to think about audience encounter and how to repopulate the exhibition space.


The concluding panel considered examples of groups kept at a distance and marginal to mainstream displays. Alice Correia (University of Salford) looked at South Asian female artists including Chila Kumari Burman, and a collection of self-initiated shows such as In Focus at Horizon Gallery in 1990, which articulated their experiences and dissent. Shanay Jhaveri (Metropolitan Museum of Art) used a show mounted at the Camera Club in the 1930s to interrogate the work of Leon Wendt. The paper discussed the moments of confrontation on show and generated a discussion about the consistent allure of art canonization.

The plenary panel and concluding remarks drew attention to the need for ongoing collaboration and as Sonal Khullar (University of Washington) stated, the ability to think about South Asia and Britain as metaphors rather than nation states. Nada Raza (Tate) highlighted that criticality was required and the exhibition could be seen as a laboratory and preamble to further questions. There was as Hammad Nasar (Asiart Archive) commented, the need to problematize the tendency to fetishise the exhibition as event.

As can be seen, this stimulating conference along with the work of Mukerjee and Roberts, highlights the enmeshed histories and narratives held in exhibitions, objects, institutions, and reflects the importance of exploring South Asian visual culture. As the first public event of a three year collaboration between the Paul Mellon Centre and Asiart Archive, there is all the more to anticipate and given the animated exchanges and charged conversations, it is certain that further and necessary initiatives will emerge and develop. These will be invaluable for capturing missed histories and regions, and problematising the relationship between South Asia and Britain’s visual relationship.


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