Studio Visit - Otolith Group - Stoke Newington - London, UK
Studio Visit 1: 2008
Location: Kitchen of Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun
Studio Visit by Hamja Ahsan
The members of Otolith Group would reside together for the period of editing work before an exhibition. It was mainly the combined ideas of Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun that formed the vitality of the collective (who lived together in Stoke Newington London, with Richard Couzins working as a technical editor and residing with them for several months.) Currently they were producing a work that drew on the unfilmed last screenplay of Satyajit Ray on an Alien visiting Earth (cited the first Indian Science Fiction film and more, controversially, as the hidden precursor to Spielbergs E.T.). They would watch an exhaustively the widest array of Bengali art cinema as preparation for this film essay. They were attempting to watch the entire filmography of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in the process of this. Kodwo had plans to write an imaginary dialogue between Ghatak and Ray. They expressed frustrated at the poor distribution of Indian parallel cinema and the lack of academic groundwork established such as basic monographs. (The group had initially contacted me knowing of my curatorial practice with Bengali Diaspora Arts Exchange and were unable to locate and purchase a lot of Bengali art cinema and required my assistance and my extensive collection purchased from Dhaka and Kolkata). They realised the need as curators to keep marginal histories in circulation, at which point we felt an affinity between our practices.
I identified two strands of inclusion in the contemporary artworld. One represented by organisations like INIVA and the work of Rasheed Araeen and one that emcompasses the emergent regional survey shows of superstar Hans Ulrich Obrist (e.g. Indian Superhighway at the Serpentine Gallery). As practitioners that worked across both divides I asked which one they aligned themselves with. They described Ulrich international survey shows as “vanity projects”. They expressed frustration at the lack of involvement and democratic engagement between artist and curator in his shows. We identified Saatchi’s series of Asia survey shows (The Revolution Continues for his Chinese collection. Unveiled for his Middle-East collection, The Empire Strikes Back for his Indian collection etc. ) as risible and “regressive” with an excessive domination of the marketing department. Even the Tate Britian survey show of British Orientialist painting had been given an Orientalist title (“The Lure of the East”) by the marketing department though we both thought this was a great exhibition. Grant Watson was described by Sagar as “the only good white curator”. His project on Bengal’s Santkhal Family in Antwerp was regarded as the best project on curating India in Europe. We identified its strengths on its focus on a small region (as opposed to Indian Superhighways random superfluity) and its critical examination of Indian modernity and the history of Partition. They said totally they identified with the re-mappings of Okwui Enwezor. Eshun and Sagar felt that after Documenta 11, no one could curate in the same way again. I enquired whether Enwezor was falling into a trap with the contemporary artworld, often seen to represent the whole of Africa (an often its only representative – hence Enwezor total mapping of Africa was Africa in the artworld.) Eshun rebutted this accusation. He felt that Enwezor exhibition of African liberation movements “The Short Century” was unsurpassed, and that it had raised the stakes so high that no one would dare curate Africa after him. Eshun has closely observed the curation of the African region within the Western artworld for over his lifetime. We identified Africa Remix at the Hayward Gallery as an example of a bad example of a regional exhibition as well as the Africa pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Eshun was grateful for all the critical discourse opened up by Enwezor. He also pointed out that his exhibition Archive Fever was not related to Africa or the Global South and that Enwezor was more versatile. The Gujarati curator Shaheen Merali currently working at Berlin’s House of World Culture was identified as another curator producing excellent engaged critical discourse – especially with his latest project Reimagining Asias: A Thousand Years of Separation.
They identified a need to operate tactically in relationship to the white establishment and named themselves Otolith Group (as opposed to say, Afro futurism) as a way to avoid the traps of tokenism or regional pigeon-hole. They said they still encounted racist prejudice across Europe with European curators wondering asking excessively where they came from and being bewildered by their sharpness and intelligence. They identified James Baldwin observations as accurate on this issue. They felt that organisations such as INIVA had falled into a trap and were condemned to showing the same kind of excessively illustrative exhibitions with an instrumental corrective agenda. We also identified how this represented an older generation of black cultural activists of the Kobena Mercer/ Stuart Hall/ Paul Gilroy generation. They found the tricontinentalism that one identifies with post-colonial theorists such as Robert J. C. Young as immensely productive. This, they said they have inherited this mode of thinking from the practice of Black Audio Film Collective. Kodwo has been personally introduced to the history of Indian parallel cinema by John Akomfrah the theorist behind BAFC. Sagar felt that the cultural boundaries of inclusion within music were more fluid and preferable to the ones within the artworld.
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