A large congregation of artists, curators and scholars came together at the recently concluded Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) 2020. The biennial event was an investigation and reflection on how forms of artistic productions and practices impact our lives. Deepali Dewan is the Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art & Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Her research interests include colonial, modern and contemporary visual culture, knowledge production, art education, decorative arts and historiography. She also teaches at the University of Toronto and is affiliated with the Centre for South Asian Studies. She is the author of Raja Deen Dayal: Artist-Photographer in 19th-Century India (2013, co-authored with Deborah Hutton), Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs (2012), and the editor of Bollywood Cinema Showcards: Indian Film Art from the 1950s to the 1980s (2011). Ziaul Karim caught up with her recently to understand the challenges of representation of South Asian art in the West and to know about the shows that are playing important role in showcasing art practices of the region during her visit to Dhaka.
Could you elaborate on some exhibitions that are instrumental in educating people about contemporary South Asian art?
A few art exhibitions have done a good job of laying out major themes in contemporary South Asian art. These include: the Asia Society's Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions / Tensions (1996), curated by Apinan Poshyanada, which took a broad view of Asia, and the Peabody Essex Museum's Midnight to Boom: Painting in India after Independence (2013), curated by Susan Bean, which covered three generations of artists and major trends. In terms of photography, I find myself going back to When Three Dreams Cross: 150 years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (2010), curated by Sunil Gupta for the Whitechapel Gallery, which catalogues essays that take a deep dive into certain themes. It is interesting that these exhibitions mostly proceeded the emergence of the art biennials in Kochi, Dhaka, Karachi, Lahore, and now Goa, which have come to be major stages for the presentation of contemporary art of the region. I think that contemporary art practice has become diverse and wide ranging, with an increasing number of artists. In fact, we can get a sense of the overall trends in contemporary art through multiple platforms today. Having said that, I think that exhibitions that present an overview of South Asian art are in many ways, an invention of the West. They have the effect of looking in from outside or above and are more relevant from outside of South Asia. In that sense, there is an element of 'othering' built into such exhibitions.
Which exhibitions were the most challenging for you to curate?
So far, all the exhibitions I have curated were stimulating in different ways. But I would say that one of the most challenging was Between Princely India and The British Raj: The Photography of Raja Deen Dayal (2013), because the research that went into that exhibition and the execution took nearly ten years. Dayal had a prolific career, with over 40,000 photographs to his name. His studio also remained active after his death in 1905. For this project, my colleague Deborah Hutton and I looked through many archives and clues from different places and years. Sometimes, we found an important document just before we were scheduled to leave and so, we had to work quickly. Another project, The Family Camera (2017) was equally challenging, but for different reasons. For this one, I managed five co-curators, multiple interns, and a tight deadline to arrange the exhibition in time for Canada's sesquicentennial celebrations.
What are some of the main hurdles you face in representing South Asia art to Canadian audiences?
One of the main challenges in representing South Asian art to Canadian audiences is to figure out ways to make the material relevant to people from different backgrounds. As a curator of South Asian art at a North American museum, I think a lot about the people and how to address their varying degrees of familiarity with the region of South Asia. Locally, there is a significant South Asian diaspora population in Canada, and there are non-South Asians who have extensive connections to South Asia. There are also audiences who know very little about South Asian culture. My curatorial approach is to provide people with basic information but also to challenge them with depth and complexity. I also try to present information that challenges stereotypes. Moreover, I think we need to shift from the mode of explaining things to a predominantly white audience to consciously choosing to address the South Asian viewers.