It is extremely urgent that the Indian art community reaches out to local audiences: Shanay Jhaveri
Met curator Shanay Jhaveri on sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee’s vision and narrative, being the first curator of Modern and Contemporary South Asian art at the Met, state of the South Asian art and cross-regional conversations.
Late Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee’s evocative retrospective “Phenomenal Nature”, the first comprehensive display of Mujherjee’s work in the United States showcased at the Metropolitan Museum in New York infuses life into fabric and the entwined fabric sculptures explore the domains of abstraction and figuration, celebrating the age-old craft and Indian textile traditions as well as her tryst with ceramic and bronze along with inspirations the artist drew from nature. Knotting became Mukherjee’s primary technique and it transformed into sculptures with three-dimensional volume bringing in a sense of monumentality. Using hand-dyed as well as natural ropes sourced from a local market in New Delhi, where she lived and worked, the forms Mujherjee created are enthused with sexual imagery, while some of her large anthropomorphic pieces revisit the classical Indian sculpture styles.
The 57 pieces in total by Mukherjee is curated by Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator of South Asian Art in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, looking at Mukherjee’s long-term relationship with textures and forms, her primary inspirations and the powerful narrative it holds. Made possible by Nita and Mukesh Ambani and the Reliance Foundation, Phenomenal Nature celebrates Mukherjee’s idea of innovation, sexuality and how she weaved ancient tradition and modern design connecting the past with the present and sharing a dream for the future.
Says Jhaveri, “I think it is Mukherjee’s intuitive, labour-intensive process of working with her hands, working alone, without preparatory drawings, and was able to create these unusual, mysterious, sensual and, at times, grotesque and unsettling forms is incredibly compelling to me. I would like the show to highlight that Mukherjee’s abiding interest in nature as well as her knowledge of Indian sculpture, folk arts, modern design and local crafts and textiles underlie her sculptural expression. The diverse references that populate her imagination go well beyond the illustrative and explore the divide between figuration and abstraction. These are commanding in presence and scale and resist naturalism; through their artifice, they draw attention to the marvels of growth and fruition of the natural world.”
In an exclusive interview, Jhaveri talks about sculptor Mrinalini Mukjherjee’s vision and narrative, being the first curator of Modern and Contemporary South Asian art at the Met, state of the South Asian Art and cross-regional conversations. Some excerpts from the interview:
Q: Sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee’s retrospective “Phenomenal Nature” at the Met Breur is doing phenomenally well and creating a lot of engagement in terms of narrative and concept. How did you identify with her involvement with textures and forms?
Mukherjee was a committed sculptor who worked intensively with fibre before making significant forays into ceramics and bronze toward the latter half of her forty-year career. While nonrepresentational forms of fibre art emerged in the West in the 1960s and ’70s, Mukherjee was never part of the fibre art movement. She worked instead in near isolation, in an Indian context, and chose to integrate craft techniques with a modernist visual vocabulary. The works presented in The Met retrospective demonstrates how Mukherjee staged a series of radical interventions in her adaptation of craft and her approach to the modern. Imbued with a powerful, contemporary ethos, her sculptures bask in undoing the distinction between the traditional and the modern.
I am keen for audiences to appreciate and understand how Mukherjee came to make her distinctive work, that while she received pedagogical and ideological direction from legendary artists like K.G. Subramanyan was close to J. Swaminathan, and the daughter of artists Benode Behari Mukherjee and Leela Mukherjee from Santiniketan—all of whom impacted and encouraged her--the artistic choices she made were definitely her own. Her choice to work with fibre was personal; the decision to draw on classical iconography and interpret it in an abstracted modern idiom was all her own achievement and her enduring legacy.
Q. What were the primary challenges and what interested you the most while curating Mukherjee’s work in the present times?
In April 2016, I joined The Metropolitan Museum of Art as its first incumbent curator for Modern and Contemporary art from South Asia and immediately proposed Mukherjee’s show. The Museum’s Modern and Contemporary department under the leadership of Sheena Wagstaff has been committed to reconsidering a received art history. This has manifested in our exhibition programme as well as our collecting approach. The Met Breuer was inaugurated with a solo show of Nasreen Mohamedi and since then Modern and Contemporary Art from South Asia has been consistently represented at the Museum. Mohamedi set the pace and spirit for the programme. I felt that Mukherjee would be the right artist to follow Mohamedi, with a solo retrospective at The Met Breuer; they are two artists occupying the furthest ends of the artistic spectrum in their visual idiom, particularly in relation to the breadth of the modernity projects cultivated and nurtured in and through Baroda.
The logistics surrounding the show have been demanding, because of the sheer scale and weight of the works. However, the biggest challenge had been confirming the loans from the smaller regional museums in India that are not accustomed to lending works internationally. We are also very grateful to a number of private lenders who live with Mukherjee’s works in their homes, and for agreeing to part with them so that they can be shared with the an international audience. We also had a remarkable group of conservators who worked diligently or helping to present Mukherjee’s work as close to her original intentions and forms, and it was demanding but an ultimately very rewarding experience.
Q. South Asian Art is gaining momentum internationally. How do you approach it and what drives you the most to create a well-rounded dialogue around it?
Being the first curator of South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met was daunting, but what it offered me was the possibility to engage in a more embodied manner with some of the discursive concerns I had been formulating in my practice as an independent writer and art historian. The question I had to ask myself was, how do you begin to introduce modern and contemporary art from South Asia into the already fairly well-established chronology of the museum in which it has been a persistent blind spot? My primary responsibilities at the museum are to actively build the museums holdings of South Asian Modern and Contemporary art, and to contribute to its ongoing exhibition programme at both the Met Breuer and the Met at Fifth Avenue. These activities have to be done with an ear to what is happening in the region first and foremost, but also keeping in mind the museum’s own historic collections and wider exhibition programme.
Since my arrival as the first curator of Modern and Contemporary South Asian art at the Met, work from the region has been consistently been represented in our exhibition programme and permanent collection galleries. We hosted a retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi in 2016, this was followed by a presentation of Ranjani Shettar’s work at the main building on Fifth Avenue, Huma Bhabha on the Mets roof in 2018, a collection display of the Bangladeshi master Rashid Choudhury and now alongside the Mukherjee show we have a recent acquisitions display that is headlined by a work by Zarina Hashmi and takes its title from that work Home is a Foreign Place. It includes the work of other South Asian artists like Prabhavathi Meppayil, Rasheed Araeen and Anwar Jalal Shemza.
Q. How do you view the current art climate in India? Is there enough initiative to involve local audiences and engage them with artworks and artists?
What one has to factor in before making any blanket assessment or generalisation is that curators, wherever they might be located, have to position and orient themselves in relation to the cultural arenas in which they practice, and also the historical conditions which have defined them. So with regard to curators working in India, with the absence of a very active institutional infrastructure, and very few private museums, they have to demonstrate great agility and resourcefulness. Also, curators in India have greater issues negotiating with the state and fundraising than their counterparts in the West. These are ground-based realities that alter and inform the exhibition-making the process and make something like the Kochi Muziris Biennale even more remarkable. It is extremely urgent that the Indian art community find a way to engage and reach out to local audiences. The other real challenge the country faces is with regard to its National museums. They need to be activated and synergised, and directors like Sabyasachi Mukherjee of CSMVS need to be encouraged. Also, I feel that it is important for a cross-regional conversation to be initiated and a platform like the Dhaka Art Summit is an exemplar in this respect. By creating a context in which a more robust regional art history can begin to be understood and written.
Q. What is your take on the way art is communicating with the masses, visually and textually in India and globally? Do you see any parallel in terms of the process and interaction?
Currently, ours is a restive cultural moment, and this restlessness and desire not to submit to what has been the status quo or been taken for granted for so long is reflected in those contemporary artworks that I think are of great import. Artists who work in the region or are from the region can choose to engage themselves with a plethora of concerns in multifarious ways, and collectively these works in all their heterogeneity can be appreciated as to affirm that ours is a pluralistic society and one that is not and should not be defined by dominant monotheistic discourse.
Q. What would you like to share as a piece of advice for aspiring curators?
In my career what I found instructive was to gain hands-on experience and seek out opportunities to engage with individuals or organisations that are inspiring. I think this not only provides practical insight into how the art world operates, but also can help in articulating to some degree and measure what would be an aspiring curators research question and interests.
Q. What’s next for you?
In the Fall of 2019 we will be hosting a major live 8-day continuous performance by Nikhil Chopra, it is the first event of its kind at the Met where our Live Arts Department is working with visual artists in this manner. Following, Nikhil’s project, we are putting on view Amar Kanwar’s powerful and searing 2007 work The Lightning Testimonies which is a gift to the museum. Next year, I will be curating the newly inaugurated Met Façade commission that will open in September.
Parallel, to my work at the museum I have edited a new book that I have edited called America: Films from Elsewhere, which will be published in August and will be accompanied by a film programme at Lincoln Center in New York. The book examines films made by non-American filmmakers in or on America, from JFK’s assassination to Trump’s election.
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