Entrance to the Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2017, Kolkata, India. All photos by Kevin Jones for ArtAsiaPacific.

Aug 04 2017

Curating the Curator: The 7th Edition of the Experimenter Curators’ Hub

by Kevin Jones

Bengalis have a fiercely guarded tradition known as the adda. The exact meaning varies depending on whom you talk to, but it is largely accepted to be a freestyle intellectual conversation. Kolkata is the epicenter of the adda. It is a storied city known for being a hotbed of intellectuals of all stripes, home to a constellation of universities, coffee houses, tea stalls and sports clubs—all breeding grounds for the impromptu, free-flowing and, yes, contagious adda. Kolkata’s singular claim to this manner of debate—at times political, occasionally fiery, potentially prickly, endlessly engaging—is upheld by the title of locally revered book The Argumentative Indian (2005), by resident Nobel Prize luminary Amartya Sen.

Woven into this argumentative heritage is the Experimenter Curators’ Hub. Now in its seventh year, the three-day Hub is the brainchild of Priyanka and Prateek Raja, husband-and-wife founders of Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery. As big believers of discursive complements to their artistic program, the duo set out to correct what they perceived to be a misperception of the function of curators: “The curator was thought of as a person who organizes events,” bemoaned Priyanka. A spontaneous email to ten curators whom the gallerists know, suggesting to engage them in a gallery-hosted discussion or debate—“as an experiment,” confessed Prateek—led to nine swift acceptances, an initial session and an intellectual momentum that has never looked back.  

The format is rather straightforward. A curator presents highlights of his or her practice, followed by questions from the moderator (this year’s was the thoughtful Natasha Ginwala, fresh from her experience at Documenta 14), before the audience weighs in for the much-lauded public debate. The third day sees the entire group clustered together for an open Q and A. The audience is encouraged to intervene, all in the spirit of what Prateek Raja prefaced in his introduction as “multi-dimensional intellectualism.”

Threading through a number of these diverse practices—ranging from Roobina Karode’s deeply personal Nasreen Mohamedi monographic retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi, to Palestinian curator Reem Fadda’s exhilarating approach for the Palestinian Museum in Ramallah—is the notion of resistance. There was a simmering impulse to challenge reigning methodologies, to interrogate conventions and to take risks.

Roobina Karode presenting images of work by NASREEN MOHAMEDI and the artist in her studio.
Roobina Karode presenting images of work by NASREEN MOHAMEDI and the artist in her studio.

“The exhibition is a form of protest,” exclaimed Karode in reference to the group show “Is It What You Think?” she masterminded at the KNMA in 2014. Featuring controversial works such as Vivan Sundaram’s Memorial (1993/2014) based on the photo of a dead man in a Mumbai street, and Amar Kanwar’s The Lightning Testimonies (2007) foregrounding sexual violence, the show was revealed as a potent curatorial act of courage, flying in the face of censorship and political backlash. Activism and agency were questions central to Australian curator Pedro de Almeida’s show “Mass Group Incident” (2015) at the Sydney-based 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. Springboarding off the “social protest novel,” emblematized by James Baldwin’s early writings, the dynamic detailed by de Almeida illustrated his pursuit of alternative paradigms and new methodologies. Rounding out the Hub’s first day, London-based Pakistani curator Hammad Nasar (who was present via Skype) illustrated how his work, such as his show “Rock, Paper, Scissors: Positions in Play” for the UAE National Pavilion in Venice this year, continues to challenge everything from patrilineal art history and even the convention of the static, self-contained exhibition, with his itinerant and shape-shifting “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space” (2005–13). He concluded with a rallying cry for curators to “develop a mode of work that is propositional, speculative and generous.” 

Reem Fadda presenting her work on Marrakesh Biennial 6 with moderator Natasha Ginwala.

If one participant single-handedly channeled the will to challenge convention, it was Reem Fadda. With merely a month to go before the opening of her show “Jerusalem Lives” to inaugurate the Palestinian museum, the curator seemed to be propelled by the force of her own personal intifada. Intent on sidestepping a “reactive” approach to exhibition-making in the charged Palestinian context, she is also careful not to fall into being “symbolic,” and thus reducing her entire enterprise. Following Fadda’s advocacy of feisty, radical stances in curatorial practices—on the final day she rallied the crowd to “break the methodologies”—came the more demure Lauren Cornell, newly appointed as the director of the graduate program at the Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) at Bard College in New York, where she is also chief curator at the Hessel Museum. Speaking of her 2016 show “Invisible Adversaries,” she detailed a tech-driven practice that revels in non-resolution and contextual contradiction. London-based Nada Raza, currently research curator at the Tate, spoke of her monograph exhibition on homosexual Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar, concluding that “it was interesting to see where we could push the boundaries, and where we couldn’t.” Lastly, Olivier Kaeser, co-director of Paris’s Swiss Cultural Center, illustrated how he considers his institution “a laboratory.”

Lauren Cornell presenting a still from VALIE EXPORT’s 1977 film Invisible Adversaries.
Lauren Cornell presenting a still from VALIE EXPORT’s 1977 film Invisible Adversaries.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing presentations was by Ruba Katrib of New York’s SculptureCenter. Shedding traditional curatorial thinking through initiatives like co-curating with an artist (in her case, Camille Henrot) or challenging the very concept of sculpture, Katrib’s hallmark project was the Congolese Plantation Workers’ Art League, which questioned art’s potential as a means of instigating social change. Polish curator Barbara Piwowarska’s quietly subversive “Footnotes” is an ongoing project in which she “makes comments” within institutions through small-scale, collaborative shows on the margins of other ones.

Looking around the curatorial landscape, there doesn’t seem to be a model quite like this Hub. There is a whiff of the Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meetings, and perhaps echoes of gatherings by the Independent Curators International or at CCS at Bard, although they tend to look more at exhibition histories. Of course, there is Dhaka’s Asian Curatorial Forum. But nothing seems to come close to the sheer intimacy of this event. There were some missed opportunities in terms of interrogation—for example, both Raza and Katrib referenced complex “critiques” of their shows, yet the question of how a curator engages with critique remained sadly unanswered—but the conversation widely lived up to its Kolkatan standards of spirited debate. Aside from the window into practices for the public, though, the Hub presents an opportunity for the curators themselves to exchange and explore: it’s hard to imagine how such personal insights could rise to the surface in the daily grind.

Kevin Jones is ArtAsiaPacific’s UAE desk editor.

The Experimenter Curators’ Hub took place at Experimenter, Kolkata, from July 27 to 29, 2017.

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