Permeability and Regional Nodes: Sohrab Hura on Curating Growing Like a Tree at Ishara Art Foundation
By Global Art Daily Editorial Board
Interview by Daniel H. Rey
Edited by Insun Woo and Sophie Arni
Published on March 21st, 2021
Growing Like A Tree, curated by Sohrab Hura, brings together the works of fourteen artists and collectives to examine regional histories of image-making in South Asia through a thorough visual and sonic excavation. The show runs until May 20, 2021 at Alserkal Avenue’s Ishara Art Foundation, the first permanent space in the Gulf dedicated to South Asian contemporary art. The exhibition considers photography as a locus in an expanded field of art that includes videos, books, found objects, and sound installations. Featured artists engage with themes of changing cities, collective memory, the environment, public spaces, the archive, as well as individual and communal identities.
We interviewed Hura, a photographer and filmmaker whose work has been shown at the MoMA, Kunstmuseum Bonn, and Shanghai Biennale amongst others, about his curatorial debut at Ishara Art Foundation. As the exhibition opened last January, we discussed the show’s focus on interconnectedness as well as the curator’s thoughts on production and reception of images today. In our overall conversation, we found the theme of permeability to be especially relevant to the UAE, a space where individuals from various backgrounds converge and interact, thus proposing new approaches to collective being.
Global Art Daily: What themes are you interested in exploring in Growing Like a Tree?
Sohrab Hura: This exhibition explores nodes, larger denser nodes. I’m rooting this exhibition in the context of an institution which focuses on South Asia, but I’m actually just filling it up with one dense node. But the dense node spills out as well. Even though I’m curating for the first time, these thoughts and ideas have already been there, somewhat growing inside me. From one perspective, my intention is not really to be a curator. The show is meant to build something.
GAD: This is your first time curating a group exhibition.
S.H.: This [is an] articulation of ideas, thoughts, feelings that have already been building inside me for a long time. As someone who is a practicing artist, I also realized what was important in my work, what was pushing my perspective, what was challenging me, what was making me rethink. This reflection wasn’t just happening with me, it was happening with many other people. And it was transgressing boundaries.
When selecting artists, I was not necessarily looking at other Indian photographers. This whole thing of labels, of categories, are usually imposed onto us by the ‘other’. Even though the starting point of the show is the concept of regional histories, what was important to me was to create an experience which would be something more complex than what one might imagine regional histories to be, in terms of rooting it back to geographical locations.
GAD: “Growing Like a Tree”: could you tell us more about this title?
S.H.: At the end of my curatorial statement, I write that my exhibition is a small tree within a much larger forest, surrounded by far bigger, younger, stronger, more generous trees. But together they form a sort of a canopy. This anecdote refers to these other friends who are not part of the show, but they are the ones who took me to a forest and showed me the forest. Only later I got to know that that was one single tree, at some point of time.
My exhibition is a small tree within a much larger forest.
GAD: And this tree kept growing.
S.H.: But it was an old tree, so the tree trunk had died and the aerial roots had become their own trees. In a way, what I’m looking at is a much larger, living, organic node system. What you see here is just one small snippet of something much bigger, this exchange. That’s why I’m talking about osmosis, about permeability, because in the end, whether you are an Indian, Bangladeshi, Myanmar, or Singaporean photographer, it doesn’t really matter.
We included the works from an artist like Katrin Koenning, from Germany. She has been working in the region with many of us. It’s important to reconsider what it really means to be South Asian. It’s not just about someone who belongs to these UN-designated list of countries. We don’t even really know what it means to be South Asian. When someone asks me what it is to be Indian for example, I have no idea, but I can say what it is not.
When someone asks me what it is to be Indian for example, I have no idea, but I can say what it is not.
GAD: So this exhibition is somehow re-questioning regional histories?
S.H.: What is happening inside the show is a re-questioning of what regional histories could be. The goal is not to give an answer but rather to say that this exercise is not as simple as just boxing people, artists, [and] perspectives to geographies. Within South Asia itself, there is a lot of permeability. That permeability occurs amongst different regions, and even within India itself. Identity politics get even more complicated by regional politics.
Although the show is not trying to answer any of these questions by themselves, the exhibition is quite affected and molded by these areas of questions and provocations. What remains important for me as a practitioner are conversations that might pull me out of a certain periphery. I think geography has become a very easy boundary, or a periphery, to articulate. Which is why even though the curatorial premise has been articulated as representing regional histories, the reality is more complicated than that.
Very often this idea of identity comes in relation to the ‘other’. Often, we don’t have discussions of what it means to be an Indian artist in India. These discussions are always located outside the country.
The show is a re-questioning of what regional histories could be. Within South Asia itself, there is a lot of permeability.
GAD: Is this your first time in Dubai? What have you encountered here?
S.H.: It is. I had imagined that Dubai could be a sort of cauldron where different cultures are being mixed—especially different cultures from South Asia. There are divisions that exist, in the region where I come from, but somehow over here, differences are not clear-cut. Listening to everyone speaking in Hindi in a taxi for example, we wouldn’t know whether the person is a Hindi speaker in general, or whether [Hindi] just [has] become a common language a lot of people have taken on to get by or to root themselves in a different way. To me, Dubai becomes like an interesting mix of the many divisions that exist where I come from. So, in a way, I would be interested to know what someone from that region – that extended region – might feel, engaging with these kinds of questions. There is also a caveat. I know that the spaces in which we operate become very restrictive and they don’t really open up very easily to people who might have more of an insight into what it means to have these identities. For us, it’s a bit of a luxury to be talking about all of these things.
To me, Dubai becomes like an interesting mix of the many divisions that exist where I come from.
GAD: Could you tell us more about the individual artists presented in Growing Like a Tree?
S.H.: Major themes include movement and cities. Many of the artists embody these kinds of movements which involves looking back at the place in terms of nostalgia. For someone like [Munem] Wasif, who grew up in Old Dhaka but is living in the bigger city of Dhaka today – to go back to Old Dhaka was also sort of a full circle. Whereas someone like Reetu [Sattar], who is also from Dhaka and looks at the city in her video work, is looking at the present more so than through the filter of nostalgia. Her view of the city is a lot more real in some ways, locating the city in the sociopolitical context of the nation.
Sathish [Kumar] is from a small town like Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. He lives in Chennai, but his work is called Town Boy in which he is referring to himself as a small-town person. In a way, his kind of photography is also alluding to a perspective that is not mainstream. So, there are certain movements happening there as well. Which is why I was trying to say that nowadays there are movements, or circles, happening within the places where the artists are located.
Nowadays there are movements, or circles, happening within the places where the artists are located.
The other idea is one of urgency. For someone like Bunu [Dhungana], this is something that she’s obsessed with. She’s obsessed with color red, she’s obsessed with what it means for her to be a single woman in Nepal.
Sean [Lee] is someone who consistently looks back at the space, the domestic space, in different ways. Which is why this work [Sean Lee, Two People], for me, fits in. When I’m talking about growing like a tree, it’s me growing and other people who are growing with each other too, people who know each other—him and Wasif are good friends, him and Bunu as well. They know each other, they have had these conversations.
When I’m talking about growing like a tree, it’s me growing and other people who are growing with each other too, people who know each other.
GAD: How did you go about finding these artists?
S.H.: I didn’t go searching for them. These are people I have known for many years already. Sean and I for example were both students together in a workshop in 2007. That was the time we all started becoming photographers.
Someone like Bunu, I've been working with her for the last four years maybe. She was not a photographer but this situation is something that she came back home to, and she wanted to take photographs. The most important thing for her at that time was that she was tired of being asked why she was not married. So photography is something that she began on her own, and we have been having these conversations. Even today, she still continues making that work. Except Farah [Mulla] – who I got to know about two years ago – I’ve known everybody else for ten years, fifteen years, seven years, eight years. The works we are exhibiting here are not complete reflections of their full practice. They are all doing many things.
GAD: Is there where the interconnectedness comes in?
S.H.: Yes, all the artists know each other.
GAD: If you had to pick a center, where would the center of the node be?
S.H.: In my curatorial notes, I’ve written that if you were to find a center of the node, it would lie in Nepal simply because Nepal’s the only place accessible to all of us. We can all go there without having to worry about visas. That’s where the exchange happens.
Nepal is the only place accessible to all of us.
GAD: How do you navigate the concept of a group exhibition and your role as a curator, as you have had many personal interactions with the artists showcased?
S.H.: In a space like this, this is a conversation we’ve all been having: where is the line to define where Sathish is Sathish, and how to achieve the balance so that Sathish can be part of something bigger? This is not a fixed exhibition, that is why I don’t even want to label it as an exhibition about gender, or about...
GAD: The exhibition surveys multiple things.
S.H.: It surveys multiple things, at the same time, it could survey nothing at all. It depends on how you look at it. Which is what I also refer back to the beauty of photography, because it has multiple entry points. This is where context comes in. If I were to show this work somewhere else, maybe the exhibition would be reconfigured. It won’t be the same group because maybe this group has been formed because of the space, because of the placements being shown, because of many other factors that exist right here and right now. If the show was to be shown somewhere else, maybe it would have more artists representing different mediums, maybe it would have some different artists while still keeping the conversation about interconnectedness.
I also refer back to the beauty of photography, because it has multiple entry points.
I don’t want interconnectedness to be forced into it, which is why every artist has their own spaces. But at the same time, if you were to go through it, to listen to the sound coming out of Farah’s work, to look at the first crack in Sathish’s image, or to read Jaisingh’s work, to look at Bunu’s screen right in the end, you might sense that interconnectedness in the echoes of the experience. The idea is not to give you an exhibition which explains itself in terms of the conceptual connections, right at the start. I want people to look at each work by itself, but I’m hoping that there is an emotional experience which makes them listen more to the echoes. It’s in the echoes that there are these undercurrents I’m hoping to push like paper boats.
The idea is not to give you an exhibition which explains itself in terms of the conceptual connections, right at the start.
GAD: Overall, what are your thoughts about the apparent democratization of photography today?
S.H.: For me, I’m still not quite sure of where we lie in this whole range. What I see happening – and I think a lot of my work is interested in what is happening today in terms of image – is that there are many things happening at the same time and it is becoming very difficult to find the permutation and combination of each step. On the one hand, people talk about photography being a global language, as the medium that is most familiar to a general audience. People are able to form their opinions [about photography] a lot more than about other mediums, and it is democratizing.
At the same time however, we are also in that place where we still don’t know whether a photograph represents the truth or not. We don’t know whether a video tells the truth or not. Even though the ease of photography liberates people, it is also giving more tools to attack communities. Deep fakes are already being used in politics. [It is] becoming a weaponized tool against communities. And that is what is worrisome for me. The image world is being weaponized, and that is happening simultaneously with the democratization of images.
We are also in that place where we still don’t know whether a photograph represents the truth or not.
We are living in a very image-democratic world. In fact, what you see in the show would be considered the mainstream of images maybe fifteen or twenty years ago. Family albums, studio photography, the colloquial would be, you know, something on the periphery. But today this peripheral colloquial has become the mainstream. This is our new reality on social media, and the well-constructed images you are seeing here in this exhibition have become the periphery. Photographs made with an intent have become the periphery. But I feel like they last longer. Images shared on social media might exist in a strong way today, but they disappear tomorrow.
Growing Like A Tree is showing at Ishara Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until May 20th, 2021. The venue is open Saturday to Thursday, 10am to 7pm.
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The exhibition is curated by Sohrab Hura, marking his first curatorial project as an artist. Participating artists include Aishwarya Arumbakkam, Anjali House, Bunu Dhungana, Farah Mulla, Jaisingh Nageswaran, Katrin Koenning, Munem Wasif, Nida Mehboob, Nepal Picture Library, Reetu Sattar, Sarker Protick, Sathish Kumar, Sean Lee, and Yu Yu Myint Than.
Sohrab Hura (b.1981) is a photographer and filmmaker. His recent exhibitions include Companion Pieces: New Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organised by Lucy Gallun, Searching for Stars Amongst the Crescents, Experimenter, Videonale, Kunstmuseum Bonn, Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, curated by Devika Singh, Kettle’s Yard, Eyes Wild Open: Life is Elsewhere, Le Botanique, Sweet Life, Experimenter, the 11th Shanghai Biennale curated by Raqs Media Collective, among others. Hura’s work has been widely shown in international film festivals and was awarded the 2020 Principal Prize of the International Jury at the 66th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen Online for Bittersweet and The Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook of the Year Award for The Coast in 2019. His work can be found in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, Ishara Art Foundation, the Cincinnati Art Museum and other private and public collections. Hura lives and works in New Delhi, India.