Institutions on the Move – Conference lecture at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice, Italy

The definitions what an institution vis a vis innovation would mean has significantly altered from the turn into the twenty first century where the forums in which culture is produced have expanded way out of the conventional premises of the museums. While the boom of the Art Fairs and Biennales opened up a unprecedented circulation of people, practices and ideas across the world, the self initiated, small and medium scale organisations have fuelled a new foray of artistic and curatorial innovations expanding the horizon of contemporary art to a variety of fields and imaginaries. In the Indian context for instance the turn of the century saw the establishment of Khoj – International Artist Association in 1999 and Sarai Media Lab in 2000. Engaging with the questions of urbanism, ecology and the rising of media infrastructure these instituions generated what one would call an alternative institutional platform where designers, painters, filmmakers, journalists, writers could congregate and co-produce. The merging of these various disciplines was central in the formation of a new cultural landscape in Delhi in the past few decades.

In the backdrop of this proliferation Devi Art Foundation was established with a vision to engage with some of the cutting edge artistic and curatorial practices from the south asian sub continent. The aim was fill an important vacuum noticed in the infrastructure of contemporary art in the Delhi capital region especially in the context of a paucity of museum level instituions of contemporary art. While beginning with a commitment to mount museum-scale exhibition, the foundation was also envisaged as a fluid site where themes and mediums (experimental and otherwise) will be explored without strict ideological and material limitations.

With eleven exhibitions until now, we the foundation examined and presented diverse artistic and curatorial processes from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, among others. While some of these exhibitions emerged out of the pre-existing collection, most of them were commissioned anew, necessitating extensive research and rigorous curatorial conversations between the artists, curators and the foundation team.

The diversity of these exhibitions spanned a wide range starting from Still Moving Images (2008) -Video and Photographic practices from India, curated by emerging curator Deeksha Nath. Where in the World (2008- 2009) – An exhibition following a curatorial conversation involving the professors and students of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. Resemble Reassemble (2010) – An extensive selection of Contemporary Art from Pakistan, curated by artist Rashid Rana.

Parallel to its engagement with Contemporary Art from South Asia, the foundation has also aspired to create new conceptual premises for the vernacular practices of India arguing for their place in the contemporary. Works emerged out of these efforts were mounted in two large-scale exhibitions, Vernacular in the Contemporary Part 1& 2 (2010- 2011) under the research and curatorial supervision of Jack Fruit Foundation, led by art historian and critic Annapurna Garimella.

While continuously engaging with students, academics, critics, young and emerging curators, we have also worked with practicing artists and designers in curatorial roles. Elephant in the Dark (2012) – A decade of formal and conceptual practices by Iranian artists living within and outside of Iran curated by Amir Ali Ghassemi Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition (2012- 2013) – Mobilising the idea of “art as a place”, curated by the members of Raqs Media Collective, the exhibition marked art as a site where different kinds of intensities and ideas are co- produced in a prolonged duration of time. Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations (2015) is an extension of the Foundation’s interest in other contemporary practices of the country. Curated by Sanjay Garg, Rahul Jain and Mayank Mansingh Kaul, the exhibition emerged from a three-year dialogue between the curators, design practitioners, filmmakers and visual artists, culminating in a variety of approaches to the tradition of textile in India and the question of its making.

While the texture generated by all these projects has widened the foundation’s field of engagement and the diversity of its collection. The question that concerned us in the recent years was the question of the public. The physical effort, financial resources and process with which these exhibitions were mounted were not matching with the intensity of audience footfall we aspire. In this light, we have reoriented our curatorial vision to much mobile structure of operations and initiated conversations with different cultural instituions for potential collaborations.

As a beginning to this venturing out, we mounted in collaboration with the Gujral Foundation, new Delhi a show reflecting on the partition of India and Pakistan curated by Salima Hashmi. Premised on the poem by celebrated Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz the exhibition was conceived in the abandoned building in the central part of Delhi, conceptually linking the scars on the building with the ones that still lie as residues in the memories of people who witnessed partition. The show was very well received and we have received a audience foot fall in one month that is equivalent to the 5 month long exhibitions we use to do at the Gurgaon space.

Following This Night Bitten Dawn, we have began a project with Gati Dance Forum, one of the leading spaces for Contemporary Dance in India. Titled as #INTERSECT our collaborative project brings together three visual artists and three dance practitioners to come together to produce new work. The outcome of this intersection will be premiered in two weeks in Delhi as the beginning moment of IGNITE – Festival of Contemporary Dance curated by the Gati Dance Forum.

From the very beginning we have been committed to look at South Asian region as our central point of focus by bringing in artists and curators to engage with our collection. For the first time in the history of the foundation, we have few weeks ago sent out an open call that invites curators from Japan to realise a exhibition in collaboration with the Devi Art Foundation. The curator will engage with our existing collection of the foundation and will develop a conceptual framework that also encourages to bring in references from their local contexts.

Other than the institutional collaborations our other parallel focus is on the field of art education. Entitled as Learning @ Devi Art Foundation we are developing modules of art education that can be amenable to different age groups beginning from the high school to the University level, potentially accessible on a digital platform from any corner of the world. While our collection becomes the preliminary archive we will be working with, the conceptual framework designed for us by a education design firm based in London will define what the final form it is going to take.

In extension to Learning @ Devi Art Foundation project we will be mentoring a exhibition curated by three of the students of Ashoka University, India in their campus premises with ‘Politics of Color’ as a conceptual theme. Interlacing questions of caste, race, taste, religion and gender this exhibition will investigate the multiple entry points in which once can speak of the color both in its material and symbolic sense.

In conclusion, the question of innovation in a institutional context as i tried illustrate from our experience seems to be dependent on the flexibility that instituions can adhere to by taking up challenging collaborations and walking out of their comfort zones and familiarity.

The question of why doesn’t the public come to us should rather be inverted by provoking, why don’t we go to the public. While the challenge of going to the public in each case and context is enormous, the collaboration with existing cultural instituions, schools, colleges and universities for us is a small beginning step towards that end. It is a recognition that the institutional cultures have to adopt flexibility and mobility as their fundamental curatorial attitude, both in their visions of form and future.