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A video excerpt of the “Curating a South Asian Gallery” course taught by Siddharth Sharma to our 2020-2021 Visiting Artist Fellows. Click here for a transcript of the video.

Recently, our 13 current Visiting Artist Fellows from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal gathered in the virtual world for the next edition in a series of four online seminars curated to support their long-term art practice.

In these courses, the artists participate in thought-provoking discussions with their peers and the expert facilitating the class, centering on art history, creative writing, urban design, and more. Dr. Siddharth Shah, Director of Civic Engagement and Curator of South Asian Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, taught the second virtual seminar for the Mittal Institute’s Visiting Artist Fellows on “Navigating the Global Art Market: Challenges and Best Practices for Artists.” He brought the artists together to explore the South Asian art gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum and discuss the thought and research that goes into curating a gallery, down to the keywords and labels that are used to describe and define art.

Dr. Shah has had a long career as an entrepreneurial art professional with wide-ranging interests in South Asian art. In addition to working as an independent curator, Dr. Shah specializes in Hindu and Buddhist art of the Kathmandu Valley, visual and material culture of the British Raj, as well as modern and contemporary Indian art.

“It has always been challenging to put my work across in an influential and authentic way. To narrow down my own expression in simple yet specific words so that the audience understands my feelings and statements better has always been a struggle. Siddharth’s session inspired me to get more precise, to have meticulous use of my words while narrating a story, and to emphasize newness. He also directed me to pay equal attention to the viewers’ interests and backgrounds, including their cultural, historical, and geographical grasp, while indulging in the work.” said Visiting Artist Fellow Pragati Dalvi Jain.

Embracing Nuance

Throughout the lecture, the artists learned how to understand the finer nuances of words that they use to talk about and describe their own practice and artwork. “I have realized how important it is to intelligently articulate your work in a manner to be remembered. I have learned that we should accept the new digital ways to promote our work (which, being old-school, I often avoid). Using simple terms, conveying meaningful ideas, undergoing unique and futuristic inquiries, and seeking unusual collaborations — yet keeping yourself intact in the work — is the key,” said Javaria Ahmed.

Dr. Shah touched on how labels and identities can become reductive concepts — such as how museums and galleries tend to put emphasis on “woman” artists or an artist’s race. “This made me think about representation, given that the art world is so male and so white. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of myself. I am a woman. I am an artist. I am from Nepal. And through my own work, I attempt to question what it means to be a woman. I feel that, for me, there is so much to think about and to self-reflect on,” said Bunu Dhungana.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the art world today, and many artists have turned to their work to convey the shared feelings that we have all experienced in the face of difficult and overwhelming times. “Art in today’s world is not only about an artist, but a social situation and a moment with specific political timing and energy. I, as an art practitioner, need to be able to speak a different language that can help us overcome, adapt, and move forward in these particularly trying times and present my art practice as an amazing source of repair and recovery,” said Insha Manzoor, reflecting on how artwork can become a comfort to many and a way to communicate and relate with one another.

The Shifting Art Market

During the course, Dr. Shah turned to the world of the art market, explaining how artists must understand where their artwork would have an impact — and why. “The discussion helped me to understand my work in different dimensions, and how to market my work globally. At one point, we discussed that the concept of religion and culture can easily be marketed in the Middle East, whereas the idea of suspension and perspectives is more universal and can be used in Western world,” said Maheen Niazi. “Moreover, I learned about the value and concept of ‘middle ground.’ As my work comes from a very personal experience and carries a certain cultural and political background, Dr. Shah helped me to find that middle space between celebration and criticism.”

Niazi noted that the art market has pushed boundaries during the pandemic, challenging the conventions of the art world and encouraging new evolutions in art. “I think for artists from various backgrounds, it has become very easy to market their work and find their place in the global art market,” she said.


Click here for a transcript of the video featured in this article.