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Curing curators!


Art curating in India has become the province of ex-mistresses of painters, wealthy gallerists, arrogant art critics and housewives who put up shows for anyone who pays

It was the bane of my journalistic life: landing up at an art show with a view to reviewing it. You looked for the artist who was often not present. You looked for the curator who was not there. You looked for a catalogue and a curatorial note: it was ALWAYS there. And in normal circumstances that should have been enough to find clues to artistic intent/ quest. A sharp insightful curatorial note would have woven apparently disparate works together and made the jigsaw puzzle fall into place for the visitor/ commentator.

All that one needed to do thereafter was to agree/disagree/evaluate for oneself and then offer considered opinion. Contribute one's journalistic ha'penny / tupenny bit as they say!

Alas it was never easy. And still is never easy! Mainly because of the sheer gobbledygook, the absolute tripe that passes for curatorial note in most art exhibitions. Which brings us to the question. Do these so called curators understand the meaning of the word? Let's look at the dictionary meanings of the word "curating". W E Hoyle referred to the word in The Museum journal in 1906: "I think it will be generally agreed that the business (or may I say profession ) of museum curating is one which demands special technical training. " Lately, however, the verb 'curating' has been bandied about freely and if one may say so, pretentiously, and come loose from its museum moorings.

Now stores "curate" merchandise, websites "curate" content, nightclubs "curate" entertainment! In the context of the art scenario curating implies editing, sifting through, presenting a coherent, cogent point of view or artistic premise through works of art. And the choice of works is dictated by the curatorial premise/logic underpinning those choices.

No artistic premise/logic/argument/ point of view even uniting thread seems to inform nine out of ten art exhibitions. Curating implies some knowledge of art history, socio-political context, meaning, nuance, underpinnings. And works on display would illustrate that argument, foreground those concerns. But that would happen only if there were curators in the business. Curating today, at least in the Indian art context, is the province of ex-mistresses of prominent painters whose claim to fame was not knowledge, depth of understanding, training or discrimination but rather indiscriminate proximity to the hapless artist(!) or wealthy gallerists labouring under hubristic delusions of being "curators" : their brash confidence stemming from knowing the artist rather than knowing his work. Indeed the late Bhupen Khakhar was stunned into speechless outrage when one member of the self same tribe trilled happily in front of a bunch of fellow artists: ". . . Now Bhupenbhai bhai, please don't do any of your nangu pangus for my exhibition. "

A lifetime of work, an artist's ringing political statement, his lifelong stance of courage dismissed in a single airy statement. It's the kind of na?vetê that reflects on gallery walls. Then there are the arrogant housewife/ art critics/ authors moonlighting as curators. Their brand of "curating" involves calling up artists saying, "Doing an exhibition so send me one work. " Studio visit, what? Explaining the curatorial concept, what? Seeing the work and understanding the time and mindspace an artist is occupying, what?

They fly from biennale to triennale, one art fair to another, usually at the expense of the overseas cultural centers that dot Delhi. Their strategy? Pick upon fashionable curatorial theme/argument of the day: gender, transgender, eco awareness, cross cultural, migrations, consumption . . . . The art they curate around these themes literally strains at the leash to somehow conform to the theme. The connection is often tenuous, even negligible. Hallmark of such exhibitions? Art that might be a dot on the wall (Yes! No exaggeration there!) and a curatorial note/ artistic statement that fills up a whole wall! So what do you do? Read the art?

Finally there are housewives who "curate" ! The works they put up have as much in common, thematically, as Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. Curate translates as Collect-Found-Objects in their airheads. Work unworthy of primary school painting exhibitions finds pride of place with them. These are Number Queens - 20 exhibitions with 200 artists which they will put up for a fee for any fool who pays. USP? Address books and phone numbers! Secret of their success? Willingness to display ANY crap since they are congenitally incapable of distinguishing chaff from grain anyway!

There really seems to be a strong case for curating curators these days.

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