The exhibition „Hello World. Revising a Collection“ at Hamburger Bahnhof was developed by a team of 13 international curators. We asked everyone involved six questions. Natasha Ginwala curated a part of the exhibition that focuses on Indian Modernism.
Which main emphasis or blind spots did you find in the collection of the Nationalgalerie?
Natasha Ginwala: While the Nationalgalerie has chiefly focused on developing a collection of Euro-American Modernism and Contemporary Art, this exhibition considers global networks produced throughout colonial modernity and the agency of the artist as a cosmopolitan figure. While a belated attempt, it is crucial to form more critical frameworks and curatorial languages that open up the museum into an apparatus for re-thinking the collection history that it has been consolidated around, and what it chose to exclude from narrativization.
Which objects did you choose to link your chapter to the collection?
The chapter “Arrival, Incision. Indian Modernism as Peripatetic Itinerary” includes several works of Modernist Indian painting from the collection of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, which were acquired between the 1960s and 1980s by archaeologist and curator Herbert Härtel during his directorship of the Museum of Indian Art. This includes works by seminal artists such as Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Satish Gujral, Biren de and Laxman Pai among others that were lying in storage for several years. The Berlin public is hardly aware that these works were part of its institutional history. I also attempted to trace the visits and exhibitions of poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore in Berlin and the ‘lost works’ from the Nationalgalerie during Nazi rule. Another example is Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, 1000 Names, that is displayed amidst works that chart a speculative relation with Indian abstraction and sacred philosophy of Tantra.
Which perspective does your chapter offer for the exhibition as a whole?
This chapter reveals the circulation of artists from the Indian subcontinent in Paris, Mexico, New York and London, in the post-independence decades and the internationalism that distinctively charged Indian modernism. It does not shy away from addressing political nuances of the Nehruvian period, and the trauma of partition, while also addressing the influence of Indian philosophy, sacred literature, cinema and collective production in the artistic vocabularies on view. As a guest curator, I have attempted to bring in works that weren’t part of the collection inventory of the Asian Art Museum and the Nationalgalerie to re-imagine aesthetic and socially grounded relationships as well as produce the exhibition as a dialogical space.
What are the connections to your previous curatorial work?
The curatorial approach I have embarked on in this exhibition chapter aligns with the work that was undertaken as part of the curatorial team of documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel, and earlier with the 8th Berlin Biennale of Contemporary Art for which the largest venue was the Dahlem Ethnological Museum: Examining aspects such as erased and overlooked trajectories in modernity, particularly of the global south; actively addressing the politics of display structures and formal representation while also dwelling upon speculative and transhistorical connections between cultural practices and knowledge frameworks.
Why is it especially necessary to challenge art history and the idea of a canon today?
As Chinua Achebe has reminded, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter“. Let us always be aware of „who is speaking for whom“? There is an urgency to decolonize art historical narratives — to find new starting points and zones of contact — while also investigating aspects such as gender imbalance, institutional racism and class hierarchy that will allow us to implode and re-think the cannon today. The inherent challenge to art history is that it necessarily needs to take into account the history of violence and dispossession, without which it remains a flawed narrative.
Is there anything in particular that a museum or a collection can contribute to that?
There have been attempts at repositioning collection building practices across museums in the Global North in recent years, with museums slowly changing their research orientation and encouraging the involvement of expertise that is more representative of our globalized context. But there is still a long road ahead, and these approaches must include the lived histories of diasporic and displaced communities. Certain bolder museums are also pursuing strategies such as deaccessioning parts of the collection in order to build a more nuanced and balanced representation of artistic practices in our milieu. In times of great disquietude, the museum must remain a place of debate and correspondence rather than an ivory tower—a communal platform where longer trajectories of cultural difference, polyphonic language and dissonance can play out.
The exhibition “Hello World. Revising a Collection” is shown at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin until August 26th 2018.