Sep 06 2017

Reimagining Collections: Profile of Avani Tanya

by Cleo Roberts

Portrait of AVANI TANYA. Courtesy the artist.

Through the new curvilinear Exhibition Road entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, hidden in the Sackler Centre, are a series of artist studios designed for short-term residencies. Since the beginning of August, Avani Tanya has been using the space as her base and access point to the museum’s South Asian Collections, a bountiful loot originating from the East India Company’s presence in India from the late 18th century until late 19th century. Tanya’s work at the V&A is part of the Delfina Foundation’s themed program “Collecting as Practice,” and the artist aims to explore the processes that have, over time, governed the conduits of this collection, its public face, presentation and private dimensions.

I visited Tanya’s workstation at a time of intense research: “Every day is a new discovery,” she told me. Much of the materials in the collection have rarely been investigated, so the artist has been developing a systematic method of working with the objects. Letters and reports from past custodians who administered the collection flickered across the screen of her laptop, forming a bureaucratic record that was a grounded counterpoint to an idiosyncratic collection of ephemera laid out on her desk or affixed to the wall with sellotape—the poems of Sujata Bhatt describing the challenges of migration, a tiny toy of a Native American shooting a bow and arrow, a pine cone and rolls of photographic film.

As the current V&A South Asian Collections Resident, AVANI TANYA is accessing the museum’s collection of objects from South Asia, as well as a trove of letters and reports from past custodians who administered the collection. Photo by Cleo Roberts for ArtAsiaPacific.

The artist explained to me her fascination with the collection’s paper trail, much of which documents the exchanges from a period when certain objects—such as what was described as a “so-called Mogul Throne”—were destroyed in the 1930s after consultation between Eric Maclagan, then director of the V&A, and George Villiers, Earl of Clarendon and Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household. She is appreciative of this insight and finds joy in reading the correspondence, which was certainly never intended for an Indian woman’s eyes. “William Morris was consulted about purchasing things,” Tanya tells me, before explaining how she is conscious of her nationality and gender when interacting with the notes from another era.

“My work is rooted in India,” she said, as we looked through her photographic catalog of Bangalore, The Snapped Rope and Other Stories from the New Bangalore (2012). Tanya is interested in telling the stories of places through objects, and the experience of compiling the images for The Snapped Rope has led her to be critical of installations that try to do the same. She recognizes that the identity of a space is not fixed, and often juxtaposes perspectives and relationships that coalesce for indeterminate periods of time. The objects she includes in the book—such as the bark of an African tulip tree, a catapult painted to match the Karanataka nationalist flag, and a matchbox label featuring film actor Rajkumar—point to this multiplicity.  

We spoke at length about her work with the catalog of the V&A’s South Asian Collections, which includes objects that are NIPs—“not in place,” or lost. She laughed, “It is so comical to me. It is a mammoth collection and I am starting to think about how futile it all is; well, this is the phase I’m in this week.”

AVANI TANYA, Snapped Rope and Other Stories from the New Bangalore, 2012, photographic collection. Courtesy the artist.

The artist studios in the VIctoria and Albert Museum’s Sackler Centre is AVANI TANYA‘s access point to the museum’s South Asian Collections. Photo by Cleo Roberts for ArtAsiaPacific.

Tanya’s reactions to the objects have been varied. The artist told me that her primary impulse is to make beautiful things, but has found herself frustrated by her “limited skill set,” so she has been pushing herself to expand it. Her immediate resolution has been to find solace in the museum’s library and embrace the V&A as a place of learning. She has been absorbing knowledge through reading and connecting with the museum’s curators to build a rigorous understanding of the objects within the collection that surrounds her.

In her studio, a monument to her reading practices is on display. Humorously placed on a plinth is a miniscule clay sculpture of the artist sitting at a desk, immersed in piles of books behind a small library lamp. She stands by this and giggles about its naivety and lightness. “I have to look at this all with humor,” Tanya tells me. “It is my strategy, otherwise it can become hard to respond.”

The academic papers, series of books piled on her desk, and visual references splayed out on her wall show how the artist reached the point of jocularity. A dose of levity keeps Tanya motivated, but all of her responses are considered, measured, weighed. I examined the highlighted and circled sections of text that suggest where this month’s investigations may take her. She reads and researches in snippets—so far, these snatches of information include the history of the Gwalior gateway, a study of an embroidered map shawl of Kashmir recently exhibited at the “Fabric of India” exhibition, along with a poster made by the Alliance Against Fascist Dictatorship in India. These were accompanied by personal sketches (some of which were made at the Tate’s Giacometti exhibition that was on view from May to September this year), as well as a drawing by Sarnath Banerjee recording their evening conversations, and photographs taken from museum trips in Berlin. There was a fictional and perhaps idealized institution coming into being in Tanya’s studio, one that will find its final form as the artist wraps up her residency in mid-September.

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