Curators Haikaeli Gilliard and Vishal Kumaraswamy sat down to discuss their learnings from the Liverpool Biennial x British Council Curators' Week that took place in August 2023.
Vishal: Hello Haikaeli
Haikaeli: Hello Vishal, how are you?
Vishal: I am good, just wrapping up work as I have early meetings tomorrow .
Haikaeli: oh so it’s night on your side, It’s evening here in Wales. So, I wanted to follow up on our emails regarding our reflections of the Liverpool Biennial and British Council Biennials Connect Programme we were part of in August. But maybe before you do so, you could briefly introduce yourself and tell us about your curatorial practices to set the base for the discussion.
Vishal: It’s really nice to catch up with you again, after all these months, since we last saw each other at the Biennial. My name is Vishal Kumaraswamy, an artist curator based in Bangalore in India. I work across text, film, video, sound, performance and computational arts. I do this both within my own personal artistic practice, as well as in my curatorial practice and these are some of the mediums that I think together with the artists that I work with.
I work independently, collaborating with institutions and managing my own curatorial projects. Currently, I have a two-year role at Arts House, a venue in Melbourne, Australia. I was invited to be the inaugural curator for their Equity Builder Project, which aims to reshape institutional equity building efforts. As part of this project, we initiated the Guest Curator Program, bringing in curators from diverse backgrounds to take over the entire building, a colonial-era heritage-listed structure that hosts performances and artistic development programs. Arts House is not only an artistic hub but also a civic institution, responsible for the surrounding community.
Haikaeli: That’s impressive work that you are doing. On my side I am a pharmacist and a curator, quite an unexpected combination I know! I am from Dar es Salaam Tanzania but currently based in Swansea, Wales. I share my curatorial and artistic practices through Balcony Series, a platform I founded in 2019. Our practices are deeply rooted in communal learning, knowledge generation and sharing which is a central part of Swahili culture.
Our mission is to be a community-driven edutainment platform, celebrating creativity, fostering community engagement, and transforming lives through arts and culture. We focus on three core pillars: creating creative products in collaboration with artists such as films and games, facilitating artists’ development through mentorship and networking, and promoting community development by addressing social issues, especially those related to health and youth.
So for the Biennials Connect Programme, I could really relate to the theme of care because my own curatorial practice is centered around these elements of care, caring for our indigenous knowledge and heritage that’s slowly being lost, care to the artists we work with and most importantly ensuring that we are producing programs beneficial to the community.
Vishal: I mean, some of the, like, the things that you were saying that were really interesting to me, was this meeting point between health and community health, as well as the kind of care towards artistic communities. And it’s definitely something that I also think about a lot. I often reflect on a saying from my community in Bangalore, in South Karnataka, where I’m from. It’s a rough translation of, “Without nourishing the body, you cannot nourish the soul”, emphasising the connection between nourishing the body, soul, and communication with others. This wisdom guides my curatorial and artistic practices, which I think are intertwined like two limbs of the same body.
My role as a curator at Arts House involves decentralising power and translating cultural knowledge from non-traditional systems as they interact with western cultural frameworks. So for me, the significance of care, in both my artistic and curatorial Practice is very much the process of thinking about how do we open up spaces? How can we facilitate interaction and engagements between artists and institutions in ways that are non-hierarchical, that don’t have the acute conditions of access that might otherwise be present, because of the disproportionate size of the entities that are interacting?
It’s very much a process of thinking about what kind of lateral movements can be facilitated, what flattening of hierarchies can happen through the curator as a conduit? And as well as, how do we ensure that institutions are truly committed towards listening to artists and understanding their practices in order to present them or in order to work with them in ways that aren’t harmful, that are actually generative, and careful and deliberate. And that was something that really helped me in trying to think about what that form of care looks like, particularly when dealing with a lot of historical context, but also contemporary expression within the framework of the Liverpool Biennial.
Particularly watching Khanyisile Mbongwa (the curator for Liverpool Biennial 2023) , talk about the responsibility of carrying through stories and of holding a site, the site of Liverpool accountable in some way, for its role in the slave trade. A really beautiful and specific thing she mentioned was that she asked the wind in Liverpool “how did you allow and facilitate something as horrific as the slave trade to occur?”. But again in her tone of voice she was speaking as an insider, like a friend or companion or comrade and some way of asking them honestly, like you would ask a friend honestly. That you know, where was your care? And that was something that really deeply moved me. And then some of the things that you’re saying, I can also understand how you’re putting that into action in some way, like thinking about contextualised care to the specific location that you work in.
And I just wanted to see, what was that experience like for you? Did the Biennial experience expand or reframe your thoughts around care? Or did it change how you were thinking about some of the things that you were already doing?
Haikaeli: Wow that’s deep and it’s an important conversation to have. I also do remember Khanyisile’s question about the wind, how, and why was the wind an accomplice in such a horrific process of the transatlantic slave trade? Again, as you also observed, she used this polite tone that you would use to address a friend. It made me reflect that in the process of caring for artists, history, knowledge or whatever else you can for, there are some topics and some areas that would not be easy topics to handle, they’re not going to be the easy conversations to start. There are going to be topics that are going to be packed with trauma and as a curator it does matter how you choose to interact with the topic and present it. And I did appreciate her role as a curator in the way she chose to present the artist’s works. There were times my emotions were evoked, I felt pain, sadness, relief and excitement but also at the same time, I also felt grounded, like anchored down.
As for the other question, the Biennial helped me articulate what I was already doing. Initially, I didn’t realise I was practicing care, and through my interaction with other curators it further sharpened my understanding of care in my practice.
I appreciate your perspective on self-learning among artists and the importance of creating non-hierarchical systems within the artistic community. In my practice and platform, we ensure artists have a conducive environment where they can freely share ideas and collaborate. This balanced approach respects both the artists’ needs and the institution’s requirements, fostering sustainable partnerships. Additionally, your insights on artists’ self-learning resonated with me, particularly the practice of passing down skills in African and Indian cultures. This tradition, where knowledge is transmitted from one generation to the next, underscores the significance of preserving indigenous forms of learning. As curators, it becomes our shared responsibility to care for and propagate this valuable knowledge to ensure its preservation and continuity.
Vishal: Haikaeli, your insights are incredibly valuable and resonate deeply with my own experiences. The shared cultural practices you highlighted, emphasising the adaptability of care within different tribes and communities, mirror similar traditions in my community in Karnataka. The importance of understanding the origins and connotations of artists’ practices, particularly in connection with cultural, ritualistic, and ancestral heritage, is crucial. I’ve also grappled with the challenge of centralisation, where art from diverse regions is often filtered through European or Western institutions, often separated from the richness of the Asian and African continents.
Your observations about the contested notion of the continent and the impact of dominant forces on diverse cultural practices are astute. The complexities arising from colonial exploration and the need to navigate these challenges in curatorial work are significant. It’s heartening to know that curators, both experienced and emerging, are engaging with these issues. The changing landscape, influenced by technology and increased access to cultural discourse, presents new opportunities and challenges. I share your ambition to engage in ongoing conversations with fellow curators, fostering a supportive community where we can collaboratively impact artistic discourse over time. This slow, impactful work is essential in reshaping the narrative and fostering a more inclusive artistic landscape, and I’m eager to contribute to these meaningful dialogues.
Haikaeli: I do agree that it’s definitely a challenge when curators view or translate African and Indian art through Western lenses it can be problematic. The clash between traditional knowledge passed down through oral and ritualistic means and the formal, centralised Western approach used in presenting art. I believe our role becomes vital in bridging these gaps and preserving cultural practices.
Collaborative efforts, intergenerational dialogues, and recording conversations can help preserve our cultural heritage for future generations. While working with intermediaries and European institutions presents challenges, there’s room to explore hybrid models and find a middle ground. The beauty is that the non-prescriptive nature of contemporary art allows us the flexibility to explore and care for our cultural knowledge in ways that best suit our unique situations.
Most importantly, I echo the importance of remaining in touch and sharing practices within our community of curators. And for me even the time we have taken to share information in co- authoring this blog has been amazing and I learn a lot from your practice. I look forward to many more conversations and exchanges no matter what format they may take.
Vishal: Oh, for sure! I’m excited to have these long threads of discussions even as we are working through other projects because how else can we learn from and propagate the knowledge systems we come from? The curators’ week was such a refreshing experience because I was no longer trying to understand and contextualise curatorial practice only through curatorial texts but through informal ways in which in-person meetings can accelerate the depth of engagement. I’m thankful to be in conversation with you and learn from your practice and I look forward to following your practice as it moves ahead!