Transnationalism in Practice: Strategies of Affect

Priyesh Mistry summarises a panel convened by Nada Raza, Research Curator, Tate Research Centre: Asia, at Tate Britain on 7 December 2016. The seminar looked at the invited panellists’ Sunil Gupta and Grant Watson’s different approaches to transnational artistic and curatorial production in London and India.

Sunil Gupta, Untitled #11, from the series, Homelands 2000–3

Sunil Gupta
Untitled #11, from the series, Homelands 2000–3
Archival ink jet
© Sunil Gupta / Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi / Sepia Eye, New York / Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

This seminar brought together Grant Watson and Sunil Gupta to discuss their curatorial practice through the lens of alternative models of organisation. The event was informed by Leela Gandhi’s influential book Affective Communities, in which Gandhi asserts that different marginalised groups – in particular, queer and postcolonial communities – can come together to form international networks of friendship and shared solidarity. As exhibitions become increasingly international in their scope, both Watson and Gupta have employed the networks they have developed, through friendship and research, to produce curatorial projects that have challenged the Western institutional structures that they inhabit.

For Watson, Gandhi’s theories not only help to frame the methods of working internationally through developed friendships, but also act as ‘extra-institutional’, providing the means by which institutional collaborative practices can be both complicated and questioned. Since the mid-1990s when Watson first encountered Indian art, his curatorial projects, whether delivered from within the institution or as a freelance curator, have operated between geographies and different cultural contexts. As a result, Watson’s networks and relationships are the enduring foundation upon which his curatorial practice has been built, and developing and maintaining them has been especially critical. Situating his curatorial practice within a context in which art from the sub-continent is increasingly being collected and exhibited, Watson advocated exhibitions as an effective form of resistance against Western-centric structures for presenting art.

Watson’s paper then moved on to a presentation of some of his curatorial projects. He began with his exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (MuKHA), Santhal Family: Positions around an Indian Sculpture, which was produced in response to an invitation to curate an exhibition on Indian art. Avoiding a national overview of contemporary art from the region, Watson chose to explore networks that related conceptually to a sculpture by Ramkinker Baij, Santhal Family 1938, which he had encountered at the Kalabhavan at Santiniketan on one of his first trips to India. Taking the historical context of the sculpture as the starting point of the exhibition, the accompanying constellation of art works connected on the themes of left-wing politics, subaltern conditions, social change and avant-garde art, reflect on by artists both working from within and outside of India. Similarly, Watson’s 2012 exhibition at INIVA, Social Fabric, was structured as an archive, this time with two art works at the centre: Alice Creischer’s handmade installation Apparatus for the Osmotic Compensation of the Pressure of Wealth during the Contemplation of Poverty, and Sudhir Patwardhan’s painting of Mumbai’s urban proletariat and post-industrial gentrification Lower Parel (2001).

The alternative approach of exhibition making in Watson’s past curatorial projects highlighted the methods in which he elicited connections internationally through the inherent themes and social significances of the art works. This practice has continued into his most recent project How We Behave. First presented at the Showroom in 2014, How We Behave is an ongoing interview project in which Watson draws upon his extensive international friendship network of artists, activists and cultural producers to ask them questions about their artistic and political practice. Watson noted that the feminist and queer dimensions that have emerged in the project have become more explicit in recent interviews that have taken place in India due to the restrictive laws of the state. It is through this documentation of differing life practices in one project that Watson is able to presents them as a collective.

Watson’s paper was followed by a presentation by Sunil Gupta. Gupta’s curatorial practice is rooted in friendships that he has developed through his multifaceted role as artist, photographer and queer activist. In his presentation on the curatorial projects he has mounted since the mid-1980s, he discussed the connections between his identity as a gay man from India living and working across Montreal, London, and New Delhi, and the networks he has become involved within. Finding parallels with the intersection between queer theory and post-colonialism, in particular those drawn in Affective Communities, Gupta drew contemporary examples from his work in which he privileged artists from marginalised backgrounds for his collaborative projects. He discussed his preference for working with artists with whom he found friendships rather than commonalities in the themes or media of their work – often these friendships were formed on shared queer or marginalised identities.

Gupta’s presentation began with a recollection of his graduate exhibition at the Royal College of Art in which he and fellow students from minority backgrounds presented their work collectively in a separate space. Gupta then went on to describe his curatorial projects that followed his graduate exhibition: Same Difference at Camerawork in 1986 showed exclusively LGBT artists from varied cultural backgrounds; Fabled Territories presented work by migrant artists working in the UK; and Economy of Signs displayed the work of eight contemporary photographers from India. These projects triggered his interest in the work of black (African, Carribean and Asian) photographers in the UK, with his research culminating in a contribution to the launch of Autograph in 1988. In 1991, Gupta co-curated the exhibition Autoportraits as a form of cultural activism in which artists of black backgrounds presented self-portraits. As the curator of OVA, a franchise of INIVA sponsored by the Arts Council with a focus on presenting projects that promoted the cultural diversity of artists practicing in the UK, Gupta organised the exhibition Disrupted Borders at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. This exhibition bought together a number of artists from across the world that Gupta had encountered and formed friendships with including Samena Rana, Millie Wilson and Stan Douglas.

Gupta then went on to outline the work he carried out during the AHRB Fellowship he had received from the University of Southampton to conduct research in India for his own photography practice. From 2004, Gupta lived in New Delhi and engaged with queer activist groups, which led him to produce his seminal photographic series, Mr Malhotra’s Party 2007, a series of portraits of individuals living in Delhi who identify as queer. Gupta described how Gandhi’s ideas on friendship and the shared experience of coming out were a way of surmounting both colonial and heteronormative narratives of dominance. Gupta’s latest book Delhi: Communities of Belonging presents a series of portraits of seventeen people within his network of kinship, and speaks to the solidarity they share through their queer identity.

Nada Raza chaired the ensuing discussion, during which the panellists explored ideas of how these alternate models of curating through their international networks of solidarity could challenge the dominance and hierarchy of institutions and pedagogies. For both curators, the main effort of their work is in undoing the epistemology of a Western-centric view and the structures that perpetuate nationalistic representations of other cultures. However, both curators noted that this is growing increasingly difficult as institutional support for this kind of collective curatorial practice is in decline. Gupta stated that this was due to some institutions adopting a more risk-averse stance; however, Watson suggested it was also in connection with the tightening of funding. They both recognised the change within the past ten years in comparison with the early stages of their careers in which funding opportunities and initiatives, for example those run by the UK Arts Council, were much more amenable to smaller and more exploratory endeavours.

For Watson, who now works independently, institutions would favour the development of new relationships over the preservation of older connections in order to expand professional and academic networks. Rather than work on the larger more ambitious transnational projects proposed by museums and galleries, Watson advocated for smaller projects produced through sustained relationships, which are more suitable to the personal politics of collectives in opposition. As the expression of transnationalism becomes increasingly problematic as a term often associated with the accumulation of shared global capital, both curators described the development of their networks as a way to connect artists who claim a certain form of political agency within their own contexts in resistance to these global economies. With significant changes to the contemporary global political climate, it is now essential for institutions to consider the importance of these established networks and the shared solidarity of their activism, and what role they could take in their promotion and visibility of these communities.

Priyesh Mistry is Assistant Curator, International Art, Tate