The writing of histories is about storytelling, which is by its very nature subjective, yet histories are usually taught and presented as inviolable truths. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, “History is, after all, a storying. The French language has it very conveniently in the word histoire which means both history and story.”
In this Feb 28 presentation (via Zoom), Alpesh Kantilal Patel and Yasmeen Siddiqui reflected on the question: What might it mean to shift the discourse around art history to one of storytellers?
A follow-up storytelling workshop organized by Patel and Siddiqui took place in person at Asia Art Archive in America on March 18.
Christina Ko (CK): I will ask one of our first questions. If higher education in the arts adopts storytelling as a prominent way of learning through art and art history discourse, what sort of rippling effects do you think it can have on academia? Do you think it could change how a school approaches diversity within curriculum and faculty? And on a related note, another question asks, I’d be curious to hear the ways you envision how institutions can acknowledge the subjectivity of the art histories being presented?
Yasmeen Siddiqui (YS): Okay. I’ll just say one little thing and then higher ed is not my space. I mean I dabble, but I’m not committed to it.
Alpesh Kantilal Patel (AKP): We’re a product of it.
YS: I’m a product of it and of course I believe in it. Was it the article in the New Yorker this week, Death of the English Major? But whatever. To be enmeshed in oral histories, and to be committed to the social and the human, to be a humanist, where we actually share, we actually take the time to listen to another person, and to respond and have a dialogue is incredibly powerful. It’s Socratic, talking about the classics. Through professionalization we have lost sight of how knowledge is born and knowledge is born through discourse. It’s not through sitting, memorizing a bunch of facts, putting it together in a flashy little statement that sounds clever. It’s literally through discourse. And so one example that I always look to and I’m always in awe of is Tyler Green, who I don’t know from Adam, but I track with Modern Art Notes, which is a podcast gone on for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of episodes. And then alongside this is this very committed and rigorous anti-racist grappling with American art history. I think it is a really solid, tried and tested example of how you can have discourse, and it can fuel everything else. So anyway, that’s my take on it, but I’m not in the Academy [emphasized], so Alpesh [laughing].
AKP: [laughing] Go right ahead and disengage yourself, but you’re so intertwined in it nonetheless. But because right, I teach in an institution, so I guess I’m definitely a part of it. I wanted to offer some examples of some institutions that I think are doing some wonderful work. The Manchester Museum right now in England just opened up a new set of galleries that deal with the South Asian diaspora. That entire gallery was done in collaboration with community members so what is in the museum developed through conversation with those in the community that one would hope would go to the exhibitions, to see what’s there. I’m very interested in seeing how this plays out and how people receive it. There’s been incredible attention at that museum for a while now; paying attention to who’s actually living around the museum and to the people who are most likely to come and visit. And you know there’s not only a huge South Asian population there, but also a Polish population in Manchester. They took an interesting approach. They brought, let’s say, non-experts into a conversation to help build what is the supposedly expert knowledge. I’m really interested in seeing how that works. And so it’s possible.
The Manchester Museum is also like all of art history, a colonial product. And the Manchester Museum comes from the era of cotton industrialization, a lot of its permanent collection comes from very spurious and horrible stories in a way, and they’re trying to reckon with that. In some exciting ways, they are attempting to engagie with the public in a way that still many museums don’t. Museums often behave like ivory towers that don’t acknowledge who’s around them. That’s one nice story about an institution trying to reimagine how one builds knowledge by bringing in stories, by those that live in the area around the museum.
YS: Yes. I just would like to pipe in, if only to mention the University of Kentucky and also at Amherst, in Massachusetts. The University of Kentucky has a really strong program in oral histories. And you know what it means to gather these histories. There’s this one person, Sam Redmond, and he does, vis-à-vis the arts, a terrific job. And there is another organization –I will disclose that I sit on the board — Voices in Contemporary Art(VoCA) that is committed to this and they partner up with the Joan Mitchell Foundation in different instances. And it’s all about crafting stories through the oral and understanding what it is that is learned. Gloria Sutton sits on the board too. And so (they demonstrate) what is learned when you listen closely and you formulate your questions through listening, not a preconceived idea. Which comes back to the basic thing that Alpesh and I share, which is this pushing up against these labels and categorizations that really are so hollow and are like little prisons. So through getting close-up and questioning; this kind of discourse is one productive tactic for dismantling dominant culture and dominant classification systems.
CK: Thank you. To jump off of that point, another question that came in was, thinking about your projects with Tamy Ben-Tor and MIki Carmi and the edited collection Globalizing East European Art Histories, art histories are something that can cross geographical, temporal, and cultural borders, with even its stakeholders as you mentioned in your book holding fluid practices (jumping between being our historians, curators, and artists themselves). In such a context, how do you imagine or begin framing the complexities of these types of entanglements?
AKP: One story at a time. What I love about this idea of storytelling is that there’s always another story to tell. And I love that part. That this is not a project that needs to finish or have an end point, but one that needs to continue, and through that they’ll be untangling and entanglement as well. So that’s one reason I really like this idea of storytelling because it seems to really empower that there’s always another story. There’s your story. There’re so many stories to be told, and maybe Christina, we could talk a little bit about the workshop that Yasmeen and I are doing on the eighteenth of March.
YS: Correct, correct.
AKP: We’re inviting all of you and others to come.
YS: In person.
AKP: Yes, in person to come to Asia Art Archive
YS: In Brooklyn.
AKP: And yes, to use their archives to build your narrative, your stories, and ideally, we’re also hoping that maybe you will narrate that story, and it could become part, you know, of the collection in some way as well. We want to invite you to come in and engage with that archive not just as a repository of knowledge, but as one that can allow you to bring your own subjectivity and viewpoint. We’re really excited about this because it’s something in person that we get to do. And we really thank Asia Art Archive for extending this invitation, and Furen, who’s not here today, but who really helped bring this together tonight and to get us together.
CK: Thank you very much. We are also very much looking forward to the workshop. And I hope some of you who are attending will be joining us, and we’ll be sending out more details closer to the date. Piggybacking off of this idea of archives, I was wondering if you could dig further into the part of your talk where you spoke on how archives play an important role as source materials for historians, but yet archivists are rarely brought to the forefront in their integral role in writing histories. So I was wondering if you could elaborate on the importance of archives in the telling of art histories and share your thoughts on their subjectivity as well?
YS: You go ahead.
AKP: I guess I was just going to briefly say that for my book on productive failure, I relied on some of the knowledge that was available to me through Asia Art Archive that I could never have gotten on my own. A lot of this information wasn’t digitized or available easily, so it provided insight into what was happening when Clement Greenberg came to India to show American-type painting. And again, these were stories that I didn’t know and were fun to then bring into a book project. On the one hand, archives are these repositories of knowledge, but they’re also always shifting and changing too. Archives have rules. They’re subjective, right? And what Asia Art Archive has done, I think, is they filled a void, yes, but I think more importantly for me, they’re providing ways of having and building new networks that might have not been visible otherwise. So it’s not just about omission and filling that void, but it’s also about, hey, now we can see there’s all these connections between what was happening in Asia and maybe was happening in the US, etc., and bringing these out for us. Yasmeen, what are your thoughts on archives?
YS: Of course, I share all of that. I’m not an archivist, but from what I have observed, to be an archivist, it’s this mastery of material. And there’s tremendous power, because the terms are decided from within that institution and that decides what researchers (and) the curious can access. In terms of the oral as well, it’s how our terminology (can) cross borders, languages, generations. What we understand as the key terms is such rich terrain that I think it’s really ground zero for everything. How they’re organized, how they’re disseminated, how they’re accessed, it decides everything and then the market and everybody else follow suit. And that’s just the experience I’ve had with a couple of my little obsessions, with the Futurists, and you know, and farming. And so it’s those that hold that information. If you can’t get your hands on that information, you go into pure imagination, which has its own power. But yes. I think Alpesh what you just said about the networks is really important because of the shared terms. So, if you have an institution organizing data, visual, textual, or whatever and there’s a system and different people come together and look at it and think about those terms it’s really empowering in terms of other new knowledge that can be formulated in projects and so on.
CK: Thank you so much, and thank you for weaving all of those questions together. We have time for one more question. The last question is, I am interested in the relationship between public and private as well, and was curious if you knew what methods institutions use to learn more about the community they are trying to represent in their storytelling? How are those relationships built? And I think you were talking about the collaborative process yourselves, so I think this is a very good question to end on.
YS: Brilliant. That’s a tough [emphasized] question.
AKP: [laughing] There’s so much work to be done in that area that I don’t even know where to begin because there’s such a big divide between the public and private. How you bridge it is still something that I think we’ll see play out over time.
YS: I think it’s always going to be fluid. There’s always going to be a public and a private. Because even as a body, we have public and private. It’s just kind of baked into the living experience, but how it impacts institutions is different because is it gatekeeping or is it embracing?
AKP: I mean I think (that’s) part of the remit of public institutions, by their very nature. There needs to be more thinking about the communities that they’re in. I know there’s been a lot of thinking at least at the Tyler School of Art around that. It’s been really important in terms of even who gets hired to teach and who gets to be at Tyler. But it’s a slow process as well to make these shifts.
YS: Open admissions, free tuition, no tuition that’s the key! Simple solutions exist.
AKP: That’s a great way to end this actually.
CK: Thank you so much, and thank you to everyone who joined this evening. We will be posting a recording of this event in future as well. So please be sure to look up for that as well as our announcement for the upcoming workshop following up on this program. Thank you everyone.
Alpesh Kantilal Patel is associate professor of contemporary art and visual culture at Temple University and curator-at-large at UrbanGlass. He is the author of Productive failure: Writing Queer Transnational South Asian Art Histories (Manchester University Press, 2017).
Yasmeen Siddiqui is the founding director of Minerva Projects, an independent art press. Her work has been published in catalogues, as well as in ART PAPERS, the Cairo Times, Medina Magazine, Flash Art, Modern Painters, and NKA. She is a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute.
Alpesh Kantilal Patel and Yasmeen Siddiqui are co-editors of the anthology Storytellers of Art Histories (2022).
Alpesh Kantilal Patel and Yasmeen Siddiqui: Art History as Storytelling was made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.