Curation Is Ultimately An Act of Trust: Ushmita Sahu

What makes art exhibitions memorable, what is the science behind it. ushmita sahu, director emami arts dwells on this topic in this exclusive piece


Curation is ultimately an act of trust. From a curatorial perspective, any meaningful project is possible only if there is a dialogue between the artist and curator. Having worked as an independent curator for several years and now as the director of a gallery (Emami Art), I regularly engage with various practices. Yet, working with and curating your husband's work is slightly different from working with other artists. I have found it to be simultaneously more accessible and challenging. 

Previously, I have curated Prasanta Sahu's work within group exhibitions, but this is the first time I have curated his solo presentation for the Emami Art Satellite program at Kochi Muziris Biennale. The Anatomy of a Vegetable – Ruminations on fragile ecosystems started on December 13th 2022, and will run through April 10th 2023. The artist has been working towards realising this exhibition for more than a year, and the show brings together three significant works. The drumstick tree and other stories – a suite of hundred-plus drawings and found objects; Mapping Craters – A table installation of plaster moulds of vegetables and a video work called Tilling Lessons. Prasanta comes from a family of farmers, and his father was still tilling the land a few years back. He is the first in his family to have a university education studying electrical engineering before finding his way into art. Hence it is not surprising that he has, for many years now, engaged with the retelling of the rural saga with an insider's voice in an empathetic, intimate manner. His subject is also extraordinarily topical and immediate in the current socio-political climate. So once he understood the broad area of his plan towards the Kochi exhibition came the laborious process of creating them. His practice has a collaborative aspect, so he documented the local farmers and their produce over a year. 

As I have intimately followed Prasanta's trajectory for twenty-five years, it is easier to understand his ideas at the planning stages. But that does not mean it is plain sailing; we often have differences of opinion, but ultimately we respect each other's areas of strength. An exhibition is also a strategic presentation; in this case, much of the conversation and discussions also revolved around the display and how to create an immersive experience for the viewer. I was involved at each stage to understand his concept and the works he was making in response to a larger context which was constructive in writing the exhibition text. To cite an example of our collaboration - he had made a small drawing with the word 'F' and connected it to various aspects of farming. I felt this was such a powerful visual/text that I wanted this to be part of the exhibition somehow. It ultimately was blown up to look like a sizeable human-sized checklist on one of the walls as a mental interaction with the viewers.

Needing to create an exhibition design where all three pieces were displayed to their best advantage while being in dialogue with each other; even before the site visit to Kochi, a nebulous idea of how to exhibit the works had been forming in my mind. I took many photographs during the site visit, and work on the exhibition design started soon after. I usually like to draw each exhibition plan by hand per the curatorial objective and have a 3D rendering made only once sure of the space design. In this instance, Prasanta gave his input once I explained my vision. Working on this long-distance project was challenging; I was in Kolkata at the gallery, Prasanta in Santiniketan and the exhibition space in Kochi, which the artist had not seen. So much pressure was on me to do justice to both sides of the situation. Once we moved into the exhibition build stage, the onus was entirely on me to display the drawings as Prasanta could not travel due to specific other commitments; this is where my knowledge of his work came in handy. Although it was not easy, I relied upon the conceptual framework and our many discussions. Also, these days, video calling can make life a lot easier. 

The design for the show had to consider the four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old building and the fact that it was impossible to do much to the room's walls. So I planned for two facing wings of partitions that loosely enclose the table installation. Furthermore, the exhibition texts, handout designs, and their placements were carefully considered to create the viewing path. My decision to keep one of the main walls raw without paintwork exemplifies the exhibition design responding to the works. For me, the rawness of the plyboard mimicked the soil's colour. The drawings were displayed on this bare wall, starting in a regular line from one end and moving towards a frenzied burst mid-way, conceptually linking the works to how villages are marked on a map- beginning at the edge of highways and then dissolving into the hinterland. 

The curator's role integrates many areas, such as exhibition designer, editor, facilitator, interpreter of the artistic vision and, sometimes, provocateur. I can truthfully say that the exhibition has been received exceptionally well. Prasanta's works continue to be appreciated and written about, and everyone has praised the exhibition design. It only means that it has been a successful collaboration between the artist and curator, who in this instance also happen to be husband and wife.  

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