AAA Mobile Library, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.


Asia Art Archive Projects in South Asia: A Talk by Sabih Ahmed

April 30, 2016
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Thank you all for coming today. We are particularly pleased to be hosting Sabih Ahmed, an art historian and Senior Researcher for Asia Art Archive, based in Delhi. Sabih has led a number of research initiatives at AAA on modern and contemporary Indian art, including some very intensive digitization projects. An example would be our first major project with Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram, digitizing their personal archive which is now available in part on our website where additional material is continuing to be uploaded as we speak. He and his team have also developed a very extensive digital bibliography on art writing in India, in thirteen different Indian languages. With this and other projects, we were trying to look at the depth and breadth of art history and criticism in India beyond the canonical texts (usually in English) and the typical centers of art. In addition to his projects at AAA, Sabih is a member of the curatorial collegiate with Raqs Media Collective for the 11th Shanghai Biennale. So as you can see, he’s a very busy man and a sought after resource, making us all the more excited to have you and Sabih here tonight to learn about his activities.

Sabih Ahmed (SA): There’s a lot to show you today, and what I’m going to do is not talk so much about everything we have done, because much of it is available online for you to see. I am going to be talking more about the direction that we’re headed, the projects that we are in the process of doing, and the methodology with which we approach them. In other words, my talk will be more about direction than content.

I would like to point out some key words and introduce a sense of how we (at AAA) are defining ourselves. We were fifteen years old last year and this anniversary has brought a lot of self-reflection. As you can see on the screen one of the ways AAA imagines itself is as ‘an invitation to collaboratively respond to the multiple realities that shape our world through the creation and sharing of new knowledge around art in Asia.’ In very practical terms, we’re looking at ourselves not as a passive space where people just come, but also as a way of reaching out, of inviting people, and of extending ourselves to the knowledge that can be unearthed, explored, and produced. Tonight I would like to introduce our approach as tripartite, at least from a panoramic or birds eye view. 1. How can AAA build tools for research? 2. How can AAA provide a sort of infrastructure so our digitization projects lend themselves to colleges and institutions? 3. What kinds of communities are we tapping into and what kinds of communities are our projects producing? These are some of the things guiding the projects that we’ve done so far, and reshaping them.

The picture you see in the background is a séance. We’ve been discussing amongst ourselves that what we actually do at the archive feels like a séance, because of the kinds of people we are invoking.

I would like you to keep the séance picture in mind because on this next slide, in talking about my three projects, I would like you to imagine them as three tables or circles, with people sitting together around the projects and programs. The three projects that we are developing now have lent themselves to building tools, building communities, and contributing to building infrastructure from the ground up. Let’s start with our digitization projects that have been largely of personal archives. The reason we have chosen personal archives is because 1. they’re vulnerable, 2. they provide all kinds of material that is very telling about the field, and 3. while you might find a certain kind of archival material in institutions and libraries in India and overseas, the letters and other kinds of ephemera from these archives are often not circulated, nor are they made accessible. Regarding our selection process, the people we choose for personal digital archive projects are those who have played multiple roles, have had multiple facets in the fields. These projects are not about identifying collections that produce biographies, but actually extend outwards. As canonical as figures such as Geeta Kapur or Gulam Sheikh are, their archives actually point in many directions and to so many other individuals. Vivan, for example, in essence is an archivist; he keeps boxes and folders of lots of pamphlets and things [unrelated in some ways to his and Geeta’s practice]. When we made an artist list of all the people for whom he had pamphlets, there were 1,300! And many were more or less unknown, pointing to a whole art field that has yet been tapped. And we are not here to say what’s relevant and what’s not; this [collection is now available] for a wider community to activate and find points of interest.

We digitized the archives of Jyoti Bhatt, Ratan Parimoo, Gulammohammed Sheikh, and K G Subramanyan. All of these people were the first generation of teachers and students in the art college of Baroda that is located on the Western side of India, above Bombay in a state called Gujarat. This art college was set up in 1950, three years after India became independent and partitioned. Therefore, the kind of ideas that the artists there had concerned art education. How to think of the future of art afresh was a question that also concerned itself with what kind of curriculum should be devised for a new nation, what kinds of subjects should be taught, what kinds of art histories should be envisioned. This is a college that also established its own archive in the Department of Art History, so for us, it presents a very interesting case study. For example, among the material we digitized were proposals for courses they wanted to offer (some of which got realized, some [of which] did not).

Material from the digitized personal archives of Jyoti Bhatt, Geeta Kapur, Ratan Parimoo, Gulammohammed Sheikh, K G Subramanyan, and Vivan Sundaram.

There is also a wide range of material that helps give definition to their milieu. Geeta and Vivan’s project covers, for example, many facets of the field, from curation to criticism, from art making to activism to inheriting archives (because Vivan Sundaram’s life has been that journey). Other material from these collections include letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, magazines (including magazines that artists founded and ran), exhibition catalogs, photographs of exhibitions and art groups, and examples from the early art practice of artists when they were first starting out and experimenting with different techniques. I’ll share an anecdote about one such artist that emerged out of our research projects.

Material from the digitised personal archives of Jyoti Bhatt, Geeta Kapur, Ratan Parimoo, Gulammohammed Sheikh, K G Subramanyan, and Vivan Sundaram.

This is Mrinalini Mukherjee. She has made an incredible body of hemp artworks. The National Gallery of Modern Art organized a retrospective of her [work] after her recent demise, and some of her works were even shown in the 2014 Gwangju Biennale. Mrinalini was trained in Baroda in sculpture and wanted to use this jute material for her work. So, she asked her teacher at the time, K G Subramanyan, how she could pursue working in this medium as it didn’t quite fit in the Faculty of Fine Art’s existing departments. Baroda had painting and sculpture departments at the time, [but nothing that explicitly dealt with textile materials]. So Subramanyan suggested she go to the National Institute of Design (NID), another seminal college in Gujarat which was really at the forefront of design. So off to NID she went, wearing one of her favorite saris, but when she met one of the faculty there, this person asked ‘what a wonderful sari you’re wearing, what is it?’ Hearing this, she immediately returned to Baroda, saying, ‘If the faculty of NID didn’t know what sari I’m wearing, there’s no way I’m working there’ to which Subramanyan suggested, ‘then why don’t you go to the mural department where you can try any medium’ – no holds barred. That’s how her practice with hemp developed, and here we are seeing some of the early instances of when she was trying these out.

Baroda was a place of a lot of vibrancy, and these are the kinds of histories that we have mapped via letters, pictures, catalogs, exhibition photos.

Material from the digitized personal archives of Rasheed Araeen’s ‘The Other Story.’

Another archive we are working on now is Rasheed Araeen’s ‘The Other Story.’ The archive of this seminal exhibition expands our interest in exhibition histories. Wahab Jaffer was a patron and art collector and had amazing exchanges. As much as we like to talk about F N Souza going to Europe, information from this archive points to the connections Souza had within the sub-continent. So here we are looking at what kind of dialogues these were, what kind of influences these created and exerted upon each other.

By doing these digitizing projects, we hope to provide important primary material for scholars. That our materials are being used by them is very exciting in how [this history] gets read, and of course gives us a great sense of accomplishment. But we also want to make the archive work for artists. We want to encourage younger practitioners to think and engage with material that is archival in nature. One such project we did was in 2015 with Shilpa Gupta. We invited her to come engage with the collection and she went straight into the deep end. After spending days going over the material we digitized, she said ‘you have some really important and amazing stuff, but tell me about the love stories, tell me about the fall-outs, about friendships.’ And based on that, and drawing on the AAA collection, she created this installation titled That photo we never got.

Shilpa and I also interviewed other people — artists in Bombay, in Delhi — and visited other archives. This then became an artistic project that not only brought out our own material, but brought new material to speak to the archive. One interesting thread of Shilpa’s project was an exhibition of four women artists in the late 1980s – Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh, Nalini Malani, and Nilima Sheikh. We had digitized the catalog of this exhibition and had some other material, but this great photograph was sent to us through this project.

At the moment, the second iteration of Shilpa’s project is being shown in Hong Kong. In the first iteration, it was shown at the India Art Fair in a white cube kind of booth. At AAA in Hong Kong, however, it was installed amidst the library. (To the librarians great dismay a lot of bookshelves had to be reshuffled.) Its title, That photo we never got, emerged because at the end of the day, the archive is only an archive, it’s always incomplete. There will always be stories and pictures that we won’t know or have. One of the most fascinating gaps in the project was a map that Gulam Sheikh had made based on a lot of hitch-hiking trips he did in Europe. He had gone to all these churches and cathedrals, based on which he made an extensive map where he marked all the important sites for seeing art. The subsequent generation of artists and students in Baroda, whenever they were going to Europe, would ask him if they should take detours to visit these places; it became an itinerary for a lot of people after him. But the map had gone missing and in this installation, Shilpa displayed a piece of graph paper in its place inside one of the vitrines which also included postcards and a story about this map. Shilpa’s project made us alert to the fact that there are a lot of ways of encountering an archive; it’s not just what’s in the folders and files; it’s about a set of stories that can come alive depending on how you think about them and stage the archive differently.

In 2015 we started a collaborative Archival Fellowship with the India Foundation for the Arts, that invited artists, creative practitioners, designers, storytellers — basically non-scholars — to come see what they would like to do with the archive. The fellowship was awarded to an artist based in Baroda who is also a graphic designer. His name is Chinnan, and his project (which will be released soon) is looking at data visualizations for Jyoti Bhatt’s collection of photographs around the Living Traditions. He’s going to make a prototype for a web interface that will guide you through the 35,000+ photographs that we have digitized documenting various rural arts of India. These are some of the Jyoti Bhatt’s photographs.

Other ways we thought about activating the archive is by organizing programs and conferences. This one program is going to happen at the end of June/early July, and looks at exhibition histories, a strength of our archive. Exhibition histories is a fascinating line of inquiry because it captures not just individual artists but how artists were mobilized, what groups they formed, how they were brought together, and from that, how histories developed and styles traveled.

The next project, The Bibliography Project, which Jane mentioned in the introduction, has to date covered 13 languages and has been updated to include over 12,000 entries. It’s gradually growing and you can check it out online at The premise [of this project] is that there’s a lot of material out there that we don’t know, the ‘unknown unknowns,’ so we decided to explore the field of art writing and began mapping what we were finding in different languages, not just in English or even Hindi [the two predominant languages in India]. We began with some assumptions, such as, in Bengal, we knew we would find writing about some of the well-known artists who were active there. Here is our first list when we began research there.

But when we started developing our bibliography, we found many more names. We then began to map not just who’s writing what, but who they’re writing about. One article of course could mention several artists, and these artists could appear in multiple articles. By the end of it, we got this!

The list just went on and on, and now we are confronted with the question of what to do with all of this! Many of the names you see here, we don’t know. So how do we make sense of this? When you have so many unknown names, how do you even begin searching for them? Even with Google you can only search for that which [is] already known. So we approached a friend based in Canberra, Mitchell Whitelaw, who is an artist and writer invested majorly in data-visualization. He is interested in what he calls ‘Generous Interfaces’ that consider how websites can offer other ways of entry, by patterns or visuals. [As I am sure you all know, web interfaces are all very costly, and we are struggling to create one that is robust enough to allow for data visualizations.]

Here is one example. What you see are bar graphs of the languages we have mapped across time, from 1900-2000. If you click on any of them they immediately align and you can see how much material we have in a certain language.

Here’s another example. Say you type the name of an artist. You can see what cities that artist’s name was published in, and when you click on the city (Chennai, in this example), the entire list for Chennai appears. This way you can start seeing that in the 1960s in a particular city [such as Chennai], certain artists are being written about. Or if you search by the artist’s name, you can see where that artist was being written about and how often. These are the ways we can at least give this project some shape, by identifying conglomerations and combinations. Another one of the visualization facets is around people. You click on one of the authors and see which artists that author was writing about. It’s interesting to note when this author was writing about some less familiar artistic figures.

Of course, when we do a project like this there’s no end to it, and what we’ve been doing is just a beginning – a foundation. Crowdsourcing is an interesting possibility to extend this project, particularly to art colleges. For instance, if someone is doing a course on a certain subject, wouldn’t it be interesting to think about an assignment for students to go to a library, make a bibliography among other things? And if they make it using our format, we could immediately add this information to our online bibliography. And we’d be happy to acknowledge the contribution of those students or universities. Along this line, we’ve been organizing workshops, not just in India; we’ve done one in Dhaka [Bangladesh]. In Dhaka, what we did was to identify a moment in the 1980s where art and activism intersected. Students then went out to look for material on art and activism and where they coincided, and we added it to the bibliography. We’re thinking of having workshops at design schools as well, where students can treat our data visualizations as prototypes and build something out of that. We also brought the Bibliography Project to Dhaka Art Summit (Dhaka, Bangladesh) where we had a very different audience. But in general, we work with researchers and always take the guidance of scholars in seeing how this project can be shaped. As pointed out in the beginning of this talk, we constantly keep in mind that triangle shape; all these projects can be connected to each other.

This brings me to another project, the publications project. As we developed the bibliography we started thinking about what texts [from this bibliography] would be worth translating and on what basis we should make these selections. For this reason, we’ve been organizing workshops with various kinds of people. The workshop we had in 2013 at the Clark Art Institute was attended by art historians teaching South Asia’s art history in colleges in the US and Australia — UCLA, Cornell, Wisconsin, Mt. Holyoke, Australia National University, etc. In this workshop we were thinking about how the project could be shaped and what kind of publication we could bring out that [would be] meaningful in the field. Broadly, we have also worked with a wide network of researchers, some doing their PhDs, some doing Masters, some just practicing artists. From this, an extended community has been built, and a growing curiosity and recognition about the importance of the non English-language material we are uncovering. The publication project is now coming together and we have identified a very specific area of inquiry. Rather than think of art as insular, we are thinking about how the field can be imagined differently. In Tamil, for example, the intersection of art and cinema is strong; in Urdu and Bangla, there is the intersection of art and literature. These are of the pluralities and overlaps, so we decided, for our first dossier, to look at the intersection of art and literature across languages. For example, this initial dossier will bring together Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, a painter and Javed Akhtar, a poet.

As we mentioned, community-building is important to us, and it is not limited to the three projects I have just discussed. It’s also about being in conversation with what else is happening now and being attentive to the other urgencies that might not speak directly to our projects. So, concurrently, we have organized or participated in other round tables, other conversations with teachers, for instance, at the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA). We also organize mobile library projects in places where resources and infrastructure are limited. For instance, we have brought our spare copies of books to Jaffna and Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jaffna had one of the largest libraries in South Asia, but it was burned during the civil war and the library was practically emptied. We brought our books there, had workshops with the students and faculty in Jaffna University. This opened up into an exhibition. We did the same in Myanmar.

AAA Mobile Library, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

Last but not least is a project we’re doing right now that is dedicated to performance art. It’s a pilot project and a collaboration with FICA. We’ve been doing it for the past six months and in a few months’ time we’ll start seeing things on the AAA website as well as on the Google art projects page. Connected to this, we organized at the India Art Fair, a panel between William Ray Langenbach, an important artist, activist, and video artist who has donated his archive to AAA and is based in Malaysia, and Nikhil Chopra, a performance artist and someone very involved in the question of archiving. Nikhil documents his own performances extensively and sometimes his documents turn into artworks. These are the projects that are happening right now, and we are going to have lots of conversations around them. We’re very excited about these collaborations and how they are going to develop.

Panel with William Ray Langenbach and Nikhil Chopra at India Art Fair 2016.

JD: Thank you very much Sabih. That was a great overview. Could you please talk a little bit about your team.

SA: We have a small team. At the moment my colleague Sneha Ragavan is spearheading the bibliography project; Lokesh Khodke is looking much more into the publications and translation. He writes in Hindi often. And there’s Avijna Bhattachrya who is working continuously on the backend, because a lot of work goes into uploading and getting copyright permissions, and then there’s myself.

JD: And during the course of the bibliography project, the sort of all-India relay race, how did you find the young people who helped you go through all of these libraries and collections all over India?

SA: No one knows thirteen languages. At the most, people know 3-5, so we tapped into a lot of young people from different states and cities. The members of our team in India have studied in different art colleges, come from different parts of the country, and have their own networks. So by asking them, and by being in conversations with a lot of scholars and senior people, we were able to find students who might be interested in helping with this research. I can’t say it was very systematic; it was case by case — finding out what worked in different languages. It was thrilling because there was an informality to the way we went about it, but at the end of the day, the archive and database has its structure. So, in addition to our core team, we had at least 17 researchers working on those 13 languages. In some regions we needed two researchers working separately, and if you count the conversations with people in the local the communities, the total number on our extended team was even more than that.

JD: In the workshops we have co-organized in Kolkata, Delhi, and other places, it seems that many scholars have been surprised, even taken aback, by the amount of non-English non-Hindi material we have uncovered.

SA: Yes, you’re right. I remember in the Massachusetts workshop, one of the participants – a professor — said ‘oh this is amazing’ because whenever people of pre-modern research areas arrive, we tell them they have to learn Persian, or Greek, or some other appropriate language. Now, this teacher went on to say, if someone wants to study the modern history of the subcontinent, they will also have as a prerequisite to learn this or that language. It’s daunting, but it’s also exciting that South Asian art history may be going in this direction.

Audience Member: Along those lines, are you collecting information, particularly now that the information is online, about who is accessing your material, who’s using it, and what they’re doing with it?

SA: The information is far from complete, but with Google Analytics we can at least get a demographic and geographic picture of where things are being accessed, and bafflingly, there seem to be relatively big users in Brazil and Japan. And we also know that people from the scholarly community are using the material for papers, because they often approach us directly to use this material in their projects and presentations. That includes people overseas as well as students doing PhDs or MPhils who are contacting us in Delhi to access the material that is described but not yet fully accessible online.

Audience Member: Have you also set up a process for people who are aware of material that’s not in the bibliography, for them to say ‘By the way, you missed out on this publication or this article’?

SA: This is such a good point and hits on what we’re really striving towards. It is important to us to think about how people can contribute directly. That’s the crowdsourcing model that we’re hoping to arrive at. Wikipedia and similar [well funded] initiatives have the infrastructure to sort out a lot of issues (like the problem of trolls and such) but we have so far depended on working directly with teachers and students, through workshops. It is, in a sense, a targeted form of crowdsourcing. But we hope in a year or so, as the website becomes more robust, to have more layers of access. For example, if one person has a book in their home and thinks it should be on the bibliography with teachers and students, theoretically he or she could add that entry. We’re in the digital age and we have to use those resources to the maximum. What you’re pointing to is exactly the direction we want to take.

Audience Member: What would be the size of the body of work that is being assembled in the Indian area vs. what is being assembled in China?

JD: Sabih, I am not sure we have made the comparison, or how we do it, but my feeling is that at the present time, our investment in archiving in China and India are about even.

SA: Our approach is not about gaining mass in terms of quantity. Rather we are looking for areas where we can add value, and instigate new knowledge, and our approach is often through pilot projects, step by step, bit by bit. While we might have a much bigger pursuit or goal in mind when we begin these projects, we try to develop them in bits and pieces. Take our performance art project. That project could be huge — with thousands and thousands of pieces of material. But instead of gathering those thousands of pieces, the approach we’re taking is to look at 15 art pieces from a certain time period and consider how they make interesting case studies for different kinds of performance artworks and paradigms, and to build a module around each one. This whole project might have a maximum of 500 documents compared to projects that have 40,000 individual documents, but we’re finding immense value in those 500.

JD: Well on that note, Sabih, I think we have now officially gone over time. Thank you very much for your talk. You have covered a lot of material and I hope everyone here will follow up with a lot of questions and contacts. But now, let’s move on to the food. Thank you all again for coming.

Image credit: All images courtesy of Sabih Ahmed and Asia Art Archive.

Sabih Ahmed is a Senior Researcher at AAA, and has been a member of Asia Art Archive’s Research+ team since 2009. Stationed in New Delhi, he has overseen the Archive’s digitization projects in the country alongside other research initiatives. Ahmed completed the interdisciplinary MA program at the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in 2009, and has organized and participated in numerous conferences and workshops internationally.

Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise

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This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.