In 2009, when former corporate employees Priyanka and Prateek Raja established Experimenter gallery in Kolkata with an aim to showcase art of our times and act as “an incubator for an ambitious and challenging contemporary practice”, there were innumerable related aspects and particulars that they intended to discuss — including curatorial programming, which was both perhaps undermined and misunderstood in India. “From the beginning, we saw our role to be very different from what the standard white cube gallery does. We never felt limited from what is expected out of a gallery, and found our own ways to define what we wanted to do,” says Priyanka. Within days of discussing a forum where curators could be in conversation with their audience, the couple sent out emails to the curators they knew, floating the idea of a gallery-hosted discussion, and received an immediate and overwhelming approval. “We wanted to get into the curator’s mind,” adds Priyanka.
Eight years on, as the duo prepare for the ninth edition of the hub that opens today, the excitement and relevance of the event — often cited as taking forward Kolkata’s adda culture — only seems to have increased. A long wait-list for entry is always put on hold, and to see a serpentine queue of people outside the venue is not unusual. “It is an intense coming together of people that allows a free-flowing conversation. There is introspection, discussion, debate,” says Prateek.
While there have been innumerable learnings over the years, the statement released right before the inaugural edition in 2011 perhaps still holds true: “Curatorial practice in India is at a crucial juncture and it is important to talk about its current state and future development,” says Prateek, “The conversations organically flow from one hub to the other, though here many not be a direct link.” Intended to initiate and promote critical discourse, the annual hub does not have a theme, but there is an inclined focus — if in 2014 it centered on collaborative practices in curating, 2015 saw curators who have worked across time. “We make very careful choices about who we are inviting because we somehow try and match particular individual agendas, which is not easy to come about in curating,” says Priyanka.
This year, at a time when we find the term ‘dissent’ to be part of everyday discourse, the hub has curators whom Priyanka notes have worked on socially and politically conscious projects. The three-day event will begin with moderator Natasha Ginwala (writer and curator) in conversation with Naomi Beck, Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and former senior curator at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. The following days will see Ginwala in conversation with Anita Dube, artist, curator of the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale; Devika Singh, curator of International Art at Tate Modern, London; Nayan Tara Gurung Kakshapati, Kathmandu-based artist, curator, activist, co-founder of Nepal Picture Library, Photo Kathmandu festival; Shaina Anand, artist, filmmaker and curator based in Mumbai, co-initiator of collaborative studio CAMP; and Zoe Butt, co-curator of 2019 Sharjah Biennale and Artistic Director at Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City.
The model is simple: each day sees the speaker make a presentation, primarily related to their practice, followed by a discussion that is open for audience intervention. In attendance are gallerists, artists, writers, collectors and students, among others. “It is a very democratic model, with no hierarchies,” says Prateek, “The energy in the room augments criticism and theory as a starting ground.”