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Cultural Theorist Nancy Adajania on her Curation of Bawwaba 2020

After the successful debut in 2019, Bawwaba returns for its second edition and is curated by Mumbai-based cultural theorist Nancy Adajania. The section showcases solo presentations by artists from Peru, India, Vietnam, Mexico, amongst others, to demonstrate the distinctive, location-specific explorations from which contemporary art draws its inspirations.

Nancy interprets the section descriptor ‘Bawwaba’– meaning gateway in Arabic – as an invitation to annotate the ‘offsites’ of global contemporary art, without creating a binary between art from the west and the so-called non-west. In the lead up to the fair Nancy shares insight to her curatorial vision for Bawwaba 2020:

Adeela Suleman, Seduced by a Promise, 2019, Courtesy of Canvas Gallery

How would you describe the approach you took in curating this edition of Bawwaba?

I was immediately drawn towards the title Bawwaba, meaning ‘gateway’ in Arabic. It suggests acts of traversal and kinesis, of welcoming an interplay of familiarity and surprise. Its symbolism does away with the fixities of the centre-periphery model – which retains a phantom presence in the global art world, despite having been dethroned by Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002), with its emphasis on post-colonial ‘off-sites’ of contemporary art-making and nomadic discursive platforms, a breakthrough moment in global exhibition history. And while these ‘off-sites’ have been increasingly perceived as radical and disruptive nodes of contemporary art production and reception, art from the ‘off-sites’ has still had to knock hard at the doors of Euro-American institutionality.

This is why I was intrigued by the promise of Bawwaba  to bear witness to the ‘off-sites’ without creating an implicit binary between artistic positions from the West and the so-called ‘non-West’. Although this section was initiated last year, its choice of name is especially prescient. When gatekeepers across the world – whether Brexiteers in the UK or the Hindu Right in India – have slammed the gates and sealed borders, it is important to keep our doors open and our minds free of prejudice.

It would be immensely useful to think in terms of the entanglement of our various subjectivities. Entanglement speaks of a richly layered form of being and making, situated in the in-between spaces between cultures and epistemologies, where multiple histories, ideas and imaginaries intersect.

For Bawwaba 2020, I looked for such points of intersection as I researched potential galleries and artists. I was, of course, responding to the work I saw from my own research concerns and existential anxieties, which are related, variously, to the political possibilities of abstraction, and to the Capitalocene and its effect on lives and landscapes.

Tanya Goel, Mechanism, 2019, Courtesy of Nature Morte

Can you tell us a bit about the selected exhibiting galleries?

In Bawwaba 2020, we have 10 solo artistic presentations from wonderfully diverse galleries – Vermelho (Sao Paulo), Vadehra Gallery (Delhi), Canvas Gallery (Karachi), Vin Gallery (Ho Chi Minh City), Galleria Giampaolo Abbondio (Milan), Nature Morte (Delhi), Galerie Peter Sillem (Frankfurt), Revolver (Peru), Blueprint 12 (Delhi) and Saradipour Art Gallery (Los Angeles). I see these galleries as observatories or weather stations, their antennae finely attuned to seeking out practices at the leading edge of artistic inquiry and formal experiment.

In my selection of the artists, I was alert to the instinctual and sensuous provocations of form as well as to the way in which micro-narratives relayed larger histories in compressed form. I responded to the presence of dust, skin, light, the space between land and sea, the unending journey, the tormented earth with its heart torn open.  One of the emergent foci of Bawwaba 2020 is the landscape sedimented with the memory of humankind but also the cumulative memory of the elements. Another focus is the productive interplay between archive and materiality, research and fiction.

The Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s video installation is a pilgrimage through landscapes of desolation in which – accompanied by a sound track rich in volcanic seething, hooting trains and plangent elegies – we glimpse many catastrophes. Kaleka suggests we are as vulnerable as the species we have hunted into extinction, and our haunted pasts prefigure our threatened future. The Cuban-American artist Maria Magdalena Campos Pons revisits, through works that are immensely tender, elegiac yet redemptive, the sea as a membrane between perilous voyages and hazardous landfalls. She works at the shifting border between figuration and abstraction, gently pushing us into uncertainty. We cannot tell whether we are looking at driftwood or bodies washed ashore.

The Peruvian artist Elena Damiani bases her work on rigorous geological, edaphic and meteorological research, creating grids or atlases based on evidentiary material – views of the earth’s surface, evocations of weather activity – only to question the scientific unassailability of the mapping. Damiani’s poetics of drawing, collage and engraving unsettles the archive and evokes visions of impermanence. The Indian artist Tanya Goel combines a robust material engagement with a reflection on urban expansion. Goel’s seemingly abstract chromatic grids reference the modernist artist-pedagogue Josef Albers – her colours are, in fact, made from construction-site materials, powdered into pigment. Goel also exhibits architectural fragments, composing a portrait of contemporary Indian metropolitan processes of decay and recycling.

The Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman’s works carry us into a realm of what seem to be mediaeval histories or magical story cycles. Here, we encounter headless warriors and martial elephants. As we engage with these images, exquisite and fierce, we recognise them to be fables for a present in which warfare remains endemic across the world. The Yemeni-Bosnian-American artist Alia Ali’s artworks fuse photography, textile and wax print together to evoke archetypal figures and cosmic landscapes. At the same time she signals, through her materials and patterns, towards colonial histories of exploitation and migration. Through her optically stimulating strategy of camouflage, Ali merges figure, ground and pattern to challenge the viewing eye. The Japanese-born artist Yohei Yama creates large, immersive works based on the patterns in nature, evoking light, clouds, sand and currents. These works imply a cosmic scale and convey it through a sense of optical tremor, inviting viewers into a condition of rapture.

The Mexican artist Tania Candiani works at the confluence of linguistic and musical systems, often taking formal correspondence or analogy as her cue. Viewers will be surprised by a musical instrument Candiani has improvised from a Calicut string loom. This work, at the cusp between music and weaving, was made in a transcultural and collaborative manner by the artist with musicians from Mexico and Kerala. An interactive work, it invites viewers to play it. The Nepal-born artist Youdhisthir Maharjan creates works that are intimate in scale yet cosmic in tenor. Maharjan melds aleatory, chance-based techniques with the discoveries of a pensive literary imagination. He uses cutouts, shaped from the pages of books, and an array of sophisticated techniques, to suggest mandalas, star maps, and scores for voices in a universally distributed ensemble. In the Iranian-origin Moslem Khezri’s works, the focus is the classroom, an unlikely theatre in which the act of reading is a powerful, if understated, political statement. Khezri’s protagonists revisit social visions and review the trajectory of history. In each work, an illumination picks out one or another figure. We think of Rembrandt’s group portraiture, and also of Noor, the light of divine grace.

Elena Damiani, Mineral Cartographies (Eastern Hemisphere), 2018, Courtesy of Revolver Gallery

What do you think are the key differences between artists and curators? Do they share the same theoretical background?

An artist’s priorities are really quite different from those of a curator. An artist is not necessarily expected to make discursive interventions in the field by contextualising and critiquing the long arc of art history. By contrast, a curator is always negotiating as much with art works as with contexts, questioning dominant art-historical narratives and received wisdom. For example, my most recent show, ‘Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art’, which is based on many years of research on the ‘pre-histories’ of new media art in India, reads art history against the grain.

An artist can function as a solo actor – although, as we know, there are artists who work in collaborative situations – while a curator necessarily works in dialogue with the artist, as well as other contributors to the field. Their theoretical concerns needn’t be the same, but they could converge at certain points. However, it depends on how you define theory. For me, theory is a practice. It is not an abstraction without a basis in reality.

Importantly, there are points of intersection between the artist and the curator’s practices. You may come across auteur curators who compose the exhibition as if it were their own artwork. And you will equally encounter artists functioning as curators, researchers and pedagogues. Both actors can sidestep their roles, if they so wish. From my experience, in the best case, you will find their subjectivities crossing with each other to form a ‘third thing’ — an aesthetic surplus experienced by the viewer especially when she is not looking for it.

Moslem Khezri, We Keep Reviewing II, 2018, Courtesy of Saradipour Art Gallery

Do you visit a lot of exhibitions? If so, what kind do you seek out?  How do you become familiar with new curatorial practices and approaches?

I respond to a variety of curatorial approaches, even those that may be dissimilar to my own aesthetic or political position. It seems that there is a certain anxiety amongst the denizens of the art world to keep up with the Joneses of curation! To my mind, a fresh curatoriaI approach is not born from an anxiety for novelty or by tapping into global curatorial trends. It is born out of a burning need to make an art-historical intervention; speak to a political urgency; or exhibit that which is unsayable. The approach can be declamatory; punctuated by a stammer; or veined by an enigmatic silence. Thus my work is nourished by curatorial practices as divergent as those of Okwui Enwezor and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. The former for his discursive rigour and the latter for her elusive poetics.

Also, you won’t be able to engender a new curatorial approach by restricting yourself to the field of contemporary art. For me, the adjacent disciplines of cinema or Indian classical music have long been a source of inspiration. In the past, my exhibition mise en scene has carried the impress of Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘polyphonic montage’ or has been shadowed by the penumbral poetics of trauma that marks the Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s deeply moving cinematic epics.

Ranabir Kaleka, Not Anonymous – Waking to the Obscure Fear of a New Dawn, 2018, courtesy of Vadehra Gallery

What is the one thing you’d like visitors to take away after visiting Bawwaba 2020?

That one thing for me would be ‘nuance’, a subtle gradation of meaning or expression which does not get caught in simplistic binaries of self and other, right and wrong. When a viewer encounters this quality of ‘nuance’ in an artwork or an artist’s worldview, her senses are not benumbed by divisive ‘either/ or’ thinking. Instead she catches a shimmer of something that can’t be fully expressed, that remains elusive or fugitive. I take the notion of nuance as an iridescence of feeling and thought from Roland Barthes. In his scintillating lexicon, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1978), he places nuance under the sign of ‘errancy’, as something that is ‘intractable’. Nuance is as nuance does, shifting register kaleidoscopically in different cultural and political contexts, in different mediums, for different generations. I like to think of Bawwaba 2020 as an anthology of nuances.

Alia Ali, Orange Palms, 2019, Courtesy of Galerie-Peter-Sillem

To learn more about Art Dubai’s Bawwaba section, click here.

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