Imagine Otherwise: Bakirathi Mani on Curating with Confidence

by | Nov 25, 2020

Bakirathi Mani on Curating with Confidence

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 123

About the episode

The collaborative art of curation is one that takes a complex mixture of confidence and humility. Curators need confidence in their choices and artistic voice but the humility to stay open to learning from others and being surprised by the collaborative process.

 The career of today’s guest, Bakirathi Mani, demonstrates how this dance of confidence and humility enables postcolonial artists, scholars, and curators to challenge imperial visualities while building transnational community. 

In episode 123 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Bakirathi about her journey into art curation and what it offers to her work in the classroom, how postcolonial artists and viewers navigate the colonial history of photography in art exhibitions, and why collectively building a world of representations that are no longer haunted by empire is how Bakirathi imagines otherwise.

Guest: Bakirathi Mani

Born in Bombay, raised in Tokyo, and educated in Japan, the US and India, Bakirathi Mani is a professor of English literature and coordinator of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Swarthmore College, as well as a curator who collaborates with Asian American arts organizations in Philadelphia and nationwide. 

Her newest book, Unseeing Empire: Photography, Representation, South Asian America (Duke University Press, 2020), considers how empire haunts contemporary visual representations of South Asians in America, shaping both the form of fine art photography as well as how diasporic viewers claim and identify with these images.

Bakirathi is also the author of Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America (Stanford University Press, 2012) and numerous articles in American QuarterlySocial Textthe Journal of Asian American StudiesDiasporaPositions, and Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas.

Episode themes

  • South Asian photography and the colonial archive
  • What being an art curator is really like (beyond the assumptions of glamour)
  • Why collaboration takes a mixture of confidence and humility
  • Teaching students about the importance of failure and trying anyway

“Curation means to care for the art, but for me, it also means to care for the kinds of communities that emerge out of these gallery spaces.”

— Bakirathi Mani, Imagine Otherwise

Transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

The collaborative art of curation is one that takes a complex mixture of confidence and humility. Curators need confidence in their choices and artistic voice, but also the humility to stay open to learning from others and being genuinely surprised by the collaboration process.

Cathy Hannabach [00:40]:

The career of today’s guest, Bakirathi Mani, demonstrates how this dance of confidence and humility enables postcolonial artists, scholars, and curators to challenge imperial visualities while building transnational community. 

In our interview, Bakirathi and I chat about her journey into art curation and what it offers to her work in the classroom, how postcolonial artists and viewers navigate the colonial history of photography in art exhibitions, and why collectively building a world and a world of representations that are no longer haunted by empire is how Bakirathi imagines otherwise.

Thanks for being here. 

Bakirathi Mani [01:19]:

I’m really happy to be here. Thank you, Cathy.

Cathy Hannabach [01:22]:

I’m really excited to have you on the show to talk about your amazing new book, Unseeing Empire, Photography, Representation, South Asian America. I really loved working on this book earlier this year. To kick off our conversation today, can you tell our listeners what is that book all about and what got you excited about writing it?

Bakirathi Mani [01:40]:

Oh, thanks. I really enjoyed working with you on this book and it’s a real pleasure to be here and talk with you about it.

Unseen Empire is a book that examines what it means for racialized immigrants to identify with visual images of themselves. Some of the questions that I’m asking are along the lines of, what does it mean for racialized immigrants to see themselves represented, particularly in visual culture and specifically in photography? How do we establish relations of identity with the photographic object and why do we feel so drawn to the images that we think represent us? What do we do with visual art images that repel us or that make us feel unrepresented or alienated?

Bakirathi Mani [02:21]:

Unseeing Empire focuses really on visual representations of South Asian Americans, particularly in fine art photography. My aim in the book is to think about what it means to be represented. 

I am a South Asian immigrant myself, so I know that I’m constantly looking for ways in which people like me are represented on screen or in visual culture at large. Some of the examples that are coming up to my mind now are Mindy Kaling’s new show on Netflix, Never Have I Ever, or even Kamala Harris’s spectacular entrance on the scene of national politics. How do I identify with their images, with these visual representations of South Asian Americans?

Bakirathi Mani [03:02]:

Part of what I’m arguing in the book is that the desire to be represented emerges out of imperial and colonial histories of representation. As racialized immigrants, we often understand our own desire for representation to emerge out of our invisibility in public culture, and it’s an absence that we think can be rectified with better or more visual representations of ourselves. But what if representation itself is a problem, particularly in photography when the history of photography is a history of the documentation and surveillance of folks of color?

Bakirathi Mani [03:35]:

In Unseeing Empire, I think about the problem of race and representation in relation to photograph-based art by South Asian American women artists. I draw upon methods that include ethnographic fieldwork at museums and galleries in the US and in South Asia, as well as archival research into US settler colonial and British colonial archives, alongside close readings of the artworks.

What I argue across the book is that contemporary representations of racialized immigrants are haunted by histories of empire, including empires not of our own time. In many ways, it’s really a book that’s indebted to and builds on queer of color and feminist of color interventions in visual cultural studies, as well as to Indigenous and postcolonial critiques of empire.

Cathy Hannabach [04:22]:

One of my favorite parts of this book—there are many, but for the sake of time we’ll talk about just a few—is the epilogue where you talk about a show that you curated yourself called Ruins and Fabrications that you did a few years ago. What is the story of how you got into curating? Or how did you go from writing about art from the perspective of a scholar to actually curating it yourself? 

Bakirathi Mani [04:46]: 

Yeah, that is actually a really good question. And I’m wondering if I can maybe answer that by talking about how I got into this project in the first place?

Cathy Hannabach [04:56]:

Yeah.

Bakirathi Mani [04:56]:

I started to write or think about the book that became Unseeing Empire about a decade ago when I was in New York City. At that time, I was finishing my first book, Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America. That book is really about the question of belonging: How do South Asian Americans create identity and community? Over that year, I was writing a lot for that first book, but I also started to spend a lot of time—I thought it was time I was spending procrastinating—in museums and galleries that year.

During the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were a number of museums and galleries in New York and elsewhere that were curating work by South Asian and South Asian diasporic artists. 

Bakirathi Mani [05:41]:

It was just this incredible feeling to go into these small nonprofit galleries, as well as commercial art galleries and large museums, and to see works by South Asian artists and South Asian diasporic artists. It really created for me a feeling of being represented, particularly because I don’t imagine myself to be…I’m not the kind of person who’s often represented on the walls of museums and galleries.

It was this tremendous feeling of affirmation. It was like I belong to these beautiful artworks that represented South Asians in diaspora. These artworks were also created by artists who were themselves of South Asian diasporic descent. 

Bakirathi Mani [06:21]:

During that year in New York, I became really mesmerized by how art acquires meaning and how art acquires value, what contributes to the value of a work of art—not just its conceptual or its aesthetic value but also its commercial value. I became really curious about how the space of the museum and the gallery or the way that the art object is displayed can contribute to the sense of value that we accord to a work of art.

That’s how I decided to get trained as a curator, to get a inside look at these questions. In 2010, I trained with an organization called Independent Curators International, which is based in New York. They run these curatorial intensives every summer. I was part of the very first group of people who were trained in that curatorial intensive and I was the only academic.

Bakirathi Mani [07:12]:

I actually am not sure if they’ve had other academic since, but I was the only academic and in the sea of what I thought was really glamorous curators.

When I returned to Philadelphia after my year in New York, I had the good fortune of meeting Aisha Zia Khan, who was the executive director of Twelve Gates Arts, which is a gallery that is right here in Old City, Philadelphia. Twelve Gates specializes in artworks from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and their diasporas. Aisha invited me to work with them.

That’s when I decided to curate a show that was focused on new artworks by two of the artists I discuss in the book, Gauri Gil and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. I titled the show Ruins and Fabrications. But I also want to share with you my experience of curating because it was so different from what I thought it was going to be.

Cathy Hannabach [08:01]:

I’d love to hear that story.

Bakirathi Mani [08:04]: 

One of the first things I realized was that curating is not at all the kind of glamorous job that I imagined it would be. I had spent the whole year in New York going to these galleries where I would see people I think are called gallerinas in these gorgeous avant-garde outfits and just seeming so knowledgeable and able to hobnob with artists, dealers, collectors, curators, and all of that. That’s what I thought of the role of a curator was. But as it turns out, in the context of my curation at a small nonprofit gallery, being a curator meant becoming a fundraiser, a publicist, a grant writer, a public speaker, and an advocate for the artists and their work.

Bakirathi Mani [08:46]: 

I learned so much through that process. Curation of course, means to care for the art, but for me, it also means to care for the kinds of communities that emerge out of these gallery spaces. I’m trying to care for the artists and I’m trying to care for the artworks, but I’m also trying to care for the sense of community that being in these galleries can create. Part of caring for community, I think, means being open to the unexpected relations of identity and representation that viewers craft with the artworks on display and the relations of identity that viewers craft with each other in the act of seeing art.

Bakirathi Mani [09:31]:

Back in 2015, when I curated Ruins and Fabrications at Twelve Gates Art, I thought that that experience of curation would seamlessly translate my academic argument into a public gallery space. But what happened instead was that in the act of curating the show, the artworks created entirely unexpected forms of community as viewers, who included my students, created new relations of identity to the artworks and to each other and to Philadelphia as a space of belonging.

I really feel like curating Ruins and Fabrications helped me to become a better scholar and critic because I could see and feel how important it was, not just for myself but for all the other viewers in the gallery. I could see how important it was to be represented despite or perhaps because of these imperial legacies of racial representation.

Cathy Hannabach [10:27]: 

This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re focusing on the racial, gender, and sexual politics of confidence. I know this is a theme that has shown up for you in your curatorial work and in your scholarship in some really fascinating ways. I’m curious, how have you seen the politics of confidence—the racial, gender and sexual dimensions of confidence—play out in the kinds of community spaces or curatorial projects or cultural productions that you’ve been working with lately?

Bakirathi Mani [10:57]:

Yeah. Your question is really making me think about how confidence relates to the cultural politics of identity and belonging across race, gender, and sexuality, and class. In both my books, in Unseeing Empire as well as Aspiring to Home, I think about confidence as something that’s gained through intimate act of creating narratives of belonging—in Unseeing Empire, to artworks and to communities that you can claim as your own through your consumption of art. But I think getting to that place of confidence is a whole other process.

Bakirathi Mani [11:37]:

In Unseeing Empire, I study photograph-based art by South Asian diasporic artists. One of the cultural productions that comes to mind in relation to this idea of confidence is a series by the artist Annu Palakunnathu Matthew called An Indian from India. In that series, Matthew creates a series of diptychs. The left side of the diptych says Edward Curtis is a friend of Native and First Nations peoples and on the right side, Matthew recreates herself in the style and form of the largely unnamed Native portrait subjects. It’s such a startling series because the images on the left and right sides of the diptych really begin to mirror each other.

But that scene also brings up some really troubling questions. It brings up questions like, how do South Asian Americans and Asian Americans more broadly create narratives of racialized identity and belonging that displace Indigenous sovereignty in the Americas? And what does it mean for South Asian Americans and other racialized immigrants to recognize with humility alongside confidence what it means to be a settler colonial subject in the twenty-first century?

Bakirathi Mani [12:44]: 

I think it takes confidence to say, “How do I reckon with my own imbrication in histories of colonialism or with my own complicity in the reproduction of visual histories of empire as an artist, as a viewer, as a critic, as a scholar?” I think that moment of reckoning with humility and with confidence is really where we can begin to learn from feminist and queer Indigenous writers and scholars who’ve shown us what it means for immigrants to occupy sovereign land.

Cathy Hannabach [13:15]:

The dance between humility and confidence that you’re talking about is something I find super fascinating and it seems to show up in intriguing ways in curation because of the collaborative process. We’ve had several curators come on the show and they’re like, “There’s nothing solitary or individual about curation. It’s all about collaboration for better or worse.” Both the pleasures and some of the challenges of that. I’m curious if you’ve gained lessons about confidence or that dance between humility and confidence from your curatorial work that you found yourself bringing into the classroom or maybe vice versa. How do you bring those lessons across the various realms in which you do your work?

Bakirathi Mani [14:04]:

I think you’re exactly right, Cathy, about how curation is dance of collaboration. In that sense, it’s so distinct from my experience as an academic. I’m an academic who writes monographs, so I tend to write and think by myself. The process of curation really took me out of my head and put me in dialogue with artists, gallery owners, and audience members who don’t share my perspective.

So curation, I think, is really the site where I had to learn how to forward my own perspectives with confidence but also how to confidently engage with perspectives and viewpoints of those who are seeing things differently from me.

Bakirathi Mani [15:01]:

When I think about some of the lessons that I learned from the process of curation, I’ve been thinking about how my work as a curator really feeds back into my work in the classroom.

I’ve been teaching at Swarthmore for the last eighteen years or so, and what my experience as a curator has enabled me to do is to share my own vulnerability with my students much more explicitly. I know that the question is about confidence, but I think that the notion of what it means to be vulnerable or what it means to have the confidence to share your own vulnerability is really important.

One thing that the process of curation has shown me is that doing this kind of work is really rife with the possibility of failure. Maybe your initial idea for how to create a curatorial narrative amongst the artworks on display doesn’t work out, maybe you can’t get the artworks that you want to display in the gallery space for reasons of cost or otherwise, maybe not as many people as you were expecting come to see your show, despite having worked on it for months.

Bakirathi Mani [16:16]:

Certainly these were all parts of my experience as a curator alongside these profoundly confidence-boosting moments like people who support you and who care for you will come and see your gallery show. Artists can be extraordinarily generous. Gallery owners can want to partner with you in the future. All of these things are happening at the same time. What I try and bring into the classroom is sharing with my students a confidence to be more deeply collaborative in the work of learning from each other. What does it mean for us to participate in the work of learning truly together?

Bakirathi Mani [17:00]:

I just want to back up for a moment to say that Swarthmore is a really extraordinary place for me to have a career. It’s also an elite liberal arts college where students are really invested in the work of representing themselves as good, smart students. What I’m trying to foster in the classroom, especially after my experience as a curator, is to say, “It is totally okay to fail in the classroom.” It is okay to fall on your face and pick yourself up and to learn from others. And it’s okay to say, “I don’t have the smartest idea right now in the class because in fact I’m learning from my peers.” All of that is okay. And to accept all of that, I think, takes confidence

Cathy Hannabach [17:45]:

I agree. This is something that I think a lot of students struggle with. They don’t want to have the wrong answer, they don’t want to confess to not knowing or not having a particular take on something or not having finished thinking yet about something, so they don’t quite know their take on it yet. And I think that that lesson of performing vulnerability can be really powerful to say, “Sometimes we don’t know, too.”

Bakirathi Mani [18:14]:

In fact, we don’t know—that’s why we do this work. I start from a place of not knowing but from wanting to know more, and that’s what prompts me to do research. I’m in New York, I’m really enjoying going to these galleries, but I have absolutely no idea what it takes to curate a show. It looks really glamorous to me, especially when you go to exhibition openings and there’s wine and cheese and lots of nicely attired people. That looks fun, but the work it takes to get there is something that I know nothing about and that’s why I trained to be a curator.

Bakirathi Mani [18:51]:

Or I see myself represented in artworks, but I don’t know anything about how those artworks are made. So that’s where I might turn to the work of art historians or that’s where I might learn to engage in conversation with the artists to learn about their methods.

There’s so many ways in which writing Unseeing Empire has made me acutely aware of how much I don’t know but how much I want to know and how vital it is to have an open mind to try out different methods of thinking and feeling and encountering these visual representations of ourselves.

Cathy Hannabach [19:36]:

This brings me to my favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, which really gets at the heart of that big why behind all of the projects that you work on. That’s the version of a better world that you’re working towards when you write your books, when you teach your classes, when you get that spark of desire to learn about something new and pursue it. So I will ask you this giant but important question: What’s the kind of world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

Bakirathi Mani [20:06]:

I love the fact that your podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, because that’s a phrase that has really resonated with me as well from Kandace Chuh’s books by the same name. One of the ways that I think about imagination is as collective social work. I really think about imagination as a collective social project. I’m building on the work of the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who gestured toward this direction. What would it mean to think about imagination as a way of imagining together what our identities and communities look like?

Bakirathi Mani [20:42]: 

I think of Unseeing Empire as a book that participates in that collective act of imagining otherwise. I’m asking the readers who engage with this book to join me in imagining forms and methods of racial representation that are no longer haunted by empire. And to join me in finding a way of coming to terms with our own desire to see ourselves in art that that recognizes us and that turns away from imperial histories of racial representation.

What better place to collectively imagine otherwise than in the classroom? What I’m asking my students to do is to join me in the collective effort of thinking through a world that looks like the world that we actually want to inhabit. I’m asking them, “Let’s think with and through the texts that we’re understanding so that we can map a way of getting to this other world—a world where our humanity and racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized subjectivity is recognized, where we are honored, where we’re made real, and a world in which we can see ourselves and belong.”

Cathy Hannabach [21:53]:

Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Bakirathi Mani [21:59]:

Thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure. 

Cathy Hannabach [22:07]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.

You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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