It was in the evenings, while unwinding together after a day of work, that a simple truth dawned on the motley group of Fellows at the Curatorial Intensive of South Asia (CISA). Close to half were Indians, and they would break into snatches of Hindi when addressing one another. Fellows from the other countries would pick up on some words and find similar-sounding ones in their own languages.
“This really makes you realise that we in South Asia, are a part of a larger, shared cultural ecology,” says Anuj Daga, 33, an architect and curator based in Mumbai. In 2018, Daga was a Fellow at the CISA, a two-week residential workshop that Khoj International Artists Association, a Delhi-based arts non-profit, holds annually along with Goethe-Institut in India. Currently, CISA open to early-career curators, is inviting applications from prospective participants from all South-Asian nations, including Afghanistan and Iran, for its third edition that starts in July.
The idea to utilise the museum space, for national self-fashioning, to make crucial socio-political points, or to offer spaces of historical and cultural reflection, is slowly gathering steam in the South-Asian region. With this, so is a demand for curators with well-rounded perspective and training. “We realised that there is a gap specifically in curatorial training…outside of the western paradigm,” says Mario D’Souza, programmes manager and curator at Khoj.
For CISA, Khoj brings in weighty names from academia and the art industry as trainers and guest speakers. Natasha Ginwala, independent curator who recently worked on the Coutour Biennale 8 in Belgium; Naman Ahuja, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics; curator Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective; and Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India Magazine, are some of the Indians on faculty. Leonard Emmerling, curator and director of programmes South Asia from the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan joins them, along with Benjamin Mayer-Krahmer, a professor of art history, visual culture, and cultures of the curatorial at the Academy of Fine Arts Liepzig, forming the programme’s international faculty.
As with any programme though, some of CISA’s alumni have found parts of their two-week residential course redundant.
Khoj’s jury has already laid down the basic requirement that applicants either come in with a background in the humanities, or have experience with realising a few curatorial projects. The first category welcomes the deep dive into art history and curatorial theory, the latter not so much. Some also hope that the programme reaches more areas and people outside the fraternity.
“I’d expressed in review that it would help to get in scholars from other South Asian countries too,” Daga, who is currently an assistant professor at the School of Environment and Architecture in Mumbai, says. Another fellow, NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, 37, from Nepal agrees, noting that “a few mentors from around South Asia would make it feel more like a regional programme and experience.”
Both fellows have extensive prior experience in curation. Daga had worked as assistant curator on the ‘Young Subcontinent’ project for the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, while Kakshapati co-founded Photo Kathmandu, Nepal’s first international photography festival among other projects including the Nepal Picture Library.
Both however stressed how the programme’s role as a platform in bringing together like-minded people from a diverse range of practices, and more importantly, how it allowed them space to reflect, question, read, and widen their horizons, was valuable to them.
CISA’s scope ranges from the origins of the museum, understanding the biennale model, and thinking and theory. “The nuts and bolts, really,” says D’Souza, adding that it even teaches fellows how to write a curatorial note. They are then given six months and a budget, space, mentorship, and assistance to develop their own exhibition, giving many a launchpad to become independent curators.
Last year, 70 people applied to CISA. Only 13-15 make it as fellows. With sustained interest and quality participation from neighbours, the space for developing this conversation is only becoming more open.