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Contextualizing Contemporaneity in South Asian Art

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

Zehra Jumabhoy  is a U.K. based writer, speaker, and art historian.  She is an Associate Lecturer specializing in modern and contemporary South Asian art at the  Courtauld  Institute of Art, London, where she completed her doctorate and is a former Steven and Elena Heinz Scholar. She  co-organized, with Professor Deborah Swallow, Contemporaneity in South Asian Art, a public seminar series at the  Courtauld’s  Research Forum (2011-2019). In conversation with Zehra Jumabhoy, we map the Progressive past and propose a secular future, with an eye to exploring a contemporary South Asia. 

1. The role of a curator is continuously a developing one. According to you what does it mean to be a curator today?

ZJ: I am not sure if my experience is an unusual one. But, the truth is that I don’t think of myself as a curator. It’s just one of the things that I fell into. I would say I am an art critic and art historian, specializing in modern and contemporary South Asian art. Whilst, of late, I have been curating (and occasionally giving curatorial advice), this was a fall-out of my ‘writerly’ life as it were.

I started my curatorial journey via the Asia Society Museum’s “The Progressive Revolution: A Modern Art for a New India” exhibition in New York. The show was based on my PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, which was called “Homi K. Bhabha’s Concept of National Identity and Contemporary Indian Art”. The thesis explored theories relating to ‘the nation’; in the context of the rise of the Right. Does nationalism always imply and inevitably lead to a narrow, exclusionary identitarianism? Or is there a ‘secular’ alternative? The exhibition was a means of testing out these ideas – an opportunity to travel back to the dawn of the Indian nation-state with its “quintessential Moderns”, to discover what kind of vision of the “secular nation” they had. Where did it go wrong?

I guess in a round about way this is to say that for me the role of the curator has to be part of a larger project – to not only test out ideas but also to make a case for the kind of politics we wish to uphold. If in South Asia “everything is political” – curating, like writing, and art are also part of this “everything”. Never more so than now. My next curatorial projects are similarly political in orientation.

2. The pandemic has brought about a paradigm shift in the global art scene. How has the shift towards a virtual world affected your projects?

Installation Shot of Forms and Figures at Grosvenor Gallery, London

ZJ: Another fascinating question. As you know better than most Urvi, so much has gone online for me out of sheer necessity. I was asked by Conor Macklin, of Grosvenor Gallery, London, and Sameera Raja, of Canvas Gallery, Karachi, to curate a show for them of contemporary Pakistan art. We decided on artists Faiza Butt (based in London), Salman Toor (in New York) and Ali Kazim (in Lahore), as each one used figuration in different ways; pushing the human form in interesting, unexpected painterly directions. The resulting show, Form & Figure: Bodies of Art, was meant to open at Grosvenor in June 2020, with a much-anticipated (on my part for sure) booze-filled party. Because of COVID the show couldn’t happen in a normal way. However, the Grosvenor team decided to install the works anyway, and hold a “Zoom Opening” followed by a discussion with the artists in July. The show was photographed and put online. Interestingly, people from all over the world could actually experience the show virtually and interact with our artists. We got amazing reviews (including yours). We realized that online events provided the chance to reach out to wider audiences.

Birdsong by Sutapa Biswas, 2004; On display in Ben Uri Museum’s Midnight Family

© Sutapa Biswas All rights reserved, DACS 2020

Shortly after this, Ben Uri Museum in London asked me to give them advice, and write the main essay, for their premier virtual exhibition “Midnight’s Family: 70 Years of Indian Artists in Britain”. Recently, I was also invited to be part of Pundole’s panel discussion in collaboration with MASH India on their upcoming auction, “Looking West, Works from the Collection of the Glenbarra Art Museum, Japan”.

I also designed and have been teaching a 7 Week Global Classroom Summer Semester Course, “What’s in a Name? Art, Politics and Identity in Contemporary South Asia”, for Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University on Zoom. None of this would have been remotely (forgive the pun) possible if not for the virtual way in which we have been ‘forced’ to live thanks to COVID. Of course, online exhibitions, conferences and Courses are not a substitute for ‘real’ world interactions. But, let’s be honest: where in the ‘real’ world can creative practitioners from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka come together to share ideas? It would be tough – if not impossible – keeping in mind the current political conditions. Moreover, there is no ‘safe’ space for these discussions to happen in the real world – as South Asian creatives, we are all self-censoring in paranoia all the time. Online events have generated an opportunity that has shifted notions of what it is possible to do, think and SAY. The BNU Course has taught me that those of us in the art-world who really want to make connections across the warring South Asias can use the virtual realm to do so.

3. What do you factor in while finalizing artists / artworks for a group show curation?

Self Portrait in the Studio at Peckham, 2014 by Raqib Shaw

Image courtesy the artist and White Cube © Raqib Shaw

ZJ: This is a tough one to answer because each show is different. Sometimes artists are pre-selected for me by the gallery or institution that invites me to curate; sometimes I build the artist list, sometimes I advise on creating the list (as with the Ben Uri show, where I was insistent that we include London-based Raqib Shaw and the Singh Twins – and probe the idea of who counts as a ‘British’ artist). However, I did not curate the Ben Uri show – I was just the academic advisor. So, my main job was to provide the conceptual framework for the artists selected by the curators, Rachel Dickson and Shanti Panchal.

4. In 2018, you co-curated the first international exhibition dedicated to PAG for Asia Society museum in New York. How did it feel to celebrate over 80 definitive artworks under one roof?

ZJ: Well, it was kind of exhilarating! I was and am eternally grateful to Tan Boon Hui for inviting me to guest curate the show, and helping me along the way. It was certainly an expensive venture for the Museum – and there is no way we could have gathered so many works together, from collections all over the world, if he hadn’t fought for it and backed it every step of the way. But, you know, this show also made me realize to what extent the things we think of as battles already won, have not occurred to those outside our rarefied South Asian art world as even having been fought.

When I was talking about the show at conferences in India, someone said: but surely no one thinks that Indian art is derivative anymore? And yet, it was the first question a New York art critic asked upon entering the exhibition: why haven’t you traced the connection between “Western Modernism” (their term, not mine) and these artists? They are not original, was the implication. I said: “Why should I? You are here to do it for me…”

The show needed no justification for a South Asian audience – this was the first time India’s quintessential Moderns were gathered together like this for an institutional show at an international venue. But, for an American one, there was a constant need to explain and demonstrate that Indian Modernism was not ‘derivative’ of the Euro-American Masters. Therefore, Boon Hui and I decided that we would contrast the work of the Indian Moderns with Asian antiques from the JD Rockefeller III collection that forms part of the permanent collection of the Asia Society museum. We wanted to highlight the Asian sources that inspired these artists, since the Western ones are common knowledge: who hasn’t heard that “VS Gaitonde is an Indian Mark Rothko” or that “MF Husain is an Indian Picasso”? So, in our subversion of this pigeon-holing, S.H. Raza’s Bindu was placed next to a Rajasthani miniature; Akbar Padamsee’s 1950s painting of Lovers was juxtaposed with a statue of Shiva and Parvati (the Divine Lovers of Hindu Mythology), whose pose the painted lovers echoed.

5. Please can you share your favorite piece from your previous curation- the Progressive Revolution

ZJ: Ohh…. This is always a tricky question! I loved almost all the works, but I have to confess that the ones that fascinated me long after the show were the ones that slipped the net.

Game I, c.1970; Image Courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery

I really wanted to borrow one of The Game series by Krishen Khanna, made in the aftermath of the 1970s Bangladesh War. We could not borrow either of the seminal paintings from the series, so we borrowed a small oil pastel from 1970 that Khanna had used as a blueprint for one of the larger images. The second work that haunts me is MF Husain’s Man from 1951 – which was in too fragile a state to travel from its home at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Luckily, it has been restored and will be a pivotal part of the re-hang at PEM.

6. You recently published an essay paying a tribute to the late Zarina Hashmi on Artforum. For the South Asian art-world her contributions were momentous. What are the key take-aways from Zarina’s life that deeply inspired you?

Installation shot of Zarina- A Life of Nine Lines displayed at the KNMA, India in January 2020

ZJ: I don’t know about inspired; I feel that Zarina’s art and life were a uniquely South Asian tragedy. Her work is so much about the after-effects of Partition, of being separated from one’s sense of self, of the death of her mother tongue, Urdu, in the land of her birth: India. I guess one is inspired to think that someone could live through so many small and big losses and still stay true to themselves, and make art like that – which distilled the pain and made it something other, transcendent. But, I think Zarina belonged to a different generation, with a different value system and a different sensitivity to culture and tradition: the Urdu word tameez comes to mind. To live a life with dignity. Not in terms of material comforts, but as an attitude of courtesy, civility to yourself and others. You draw your own lines and boundaries (literally in Zarina’s case, since her art was full of these). I don’t think I would have that kind of courage.

7. What is your take on the relation between art and politics in the contemporary South Asian Art Market?

ZJ: I think this is partly answered in my response above. There is a huge relationship between art and politics in terms of aspiration: whether this translates into any real political change is anyone’s guess, but I fear that it does not. The other issue you have subtly included is the art market. How that is influenced by the Conservative political climate in South Asia has yet to be ascertained. Having said that – there are also some dynamic young collectors who are wealthy enough to use their walls to generate a dialogue between artworks from the different South Asias. Perhaps, these tricky times have given them an impetus to go their own way – and collect art that supports a ‘liberal’ way of looking.

8. Currently #WomenSupportingWomen campaign has taken over the Gram. Which women artist’s works have been that defining moment of empowerment for you and why?

ZJ: I think there are so many South Asian women artists whom I admire than I could curate a vast exhibition of them and still feel that I had left people out: Sheela Gowda, Nalini Malani, Zarina Hashmi, Zarina Bhimji, Shahzia Sikander, Rina Banerjee, Nilima Sheikh, Nasreen Mohamedi, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Mithu Sen, Pushpamala N, Shilpa Gupta, Prajakta Potnis… I can’t stop… But, I do feel strongly that we ought to value artists AS artists rather than as “women artists”.

9. Are there any books that you are currently indulging in?

ZJ: My current favourite is David Gilmour’s biography of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Last Leopard. Gilmour’s biography captures the flavour of The Leopard, with all its deep sadness about the vanishing of a way of life. I guess, to be honest, I got thoroughly obsessed with the biography after I heard about Zarina Hashmi’s death.

Atlas of My World by Zarina Hashmi, 2001, Image courtesy: Met Museum

There are so many parallels between the death of a way of life that Zarina represented, in her prints and mini-sculptures of divided maps and ‘mobile homes’, and the slow displacement of the ‘Last Leopard’ – which was also about a feudal world washed away by the tidal waves of nationalism. Neither the book nor Gilmour’s biography is wholly, or un-questioningly, nostalgic about this loss – and, I think, Zarina’s work at its best isn’t unrestrainedly sentimental either.

Closing note:

Zehra Jumabhoy has created a niche in the South Asian Art market by allowing her in depth research to be at a vantage point for her overtly extensive and detailed curation. Her journey is indeed an inspiring one and and a reminder of the need for a plural, secular politics in the art-world. I am extremely grateful to Zehra for her immense contribution towards South Asian art. Finally ending on a note of thanks to her for taking the time and sharing her life experiences and views with us.

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