As part of my role as Assosiate Curator for Delfina Foundation’s Collecting as Practice programme, I co-edited this compendium of artistic responses to the V&As South Asian Collection which came out of artist Avani Tanya’s time as artist-in-residence at the Collection and Delfina. I contributed an introductory text in the form of an incomplete glossary.
This is the text:
Glossary for A Selective Guide to the V&A’s South Asian collection
a: something collected; especially, an accumulation of objects gathered for study, comparison, or exhibition or as a hobby a collection of poems a collection of photographs a baseball card collection: b: the act or process of collecting; the collection of data; the collection of taxes.
The V&A’s South Asian collection appears as an erratic never ending collection of files, folios, letters, lists, maps, specimens and artefacts—kept, ordered and preserved. We know how it came together through an impulse to rule through knowledge: manuscripts and assorted treasures, textiles, natural history specimens, raw products and art and antiquities of the Indian subcontinent brought together so as to ‘understand’ and exploit this understanding into domination.
Avani writes to me: “I, as an Indian woman, am leafing through letters written by British Victorian men deciding the fate of objects collected in India.” White men collected and learnt so as to rule this new place through the manipulation of its own cultures and traditions.
Later, the collection expanded into objects of everyday production in order to encourage the ‘native art manufacturers’ of India. It was also intended that these would provide models of design and ornamentation for British manufacturers and art students. A double-edged compliment that we seek to pull apart.
The taxonomy of the collection is of interest. What fits into the South Asian collection and what, though from South Asia, does not—a pair of jeans from Primark for example, is made in India but not associated to this part of the collection. The museological rationalisation given is both arbitrary and revealing.
Much of the museum’s collection is in storage, covered in Tyvek—a strong, durable, tear and water resistant material. Avani spends time in the storage, exploring. Even when in the museum she is continuously thinking of all the objects hidden away, never displayed. What purpose do those objects have?
Colony and Colonialism
a: a body of people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state; a colony of settlers; the territory inhabited by such a body the 13 British colonies in America; b: control by one power over a dependent area or people; the colonialism of the British Empire; a policy advocating or based on such control; Colonialism was brought to an end in the country.
The collection of objects within the official South Asian collection is mostly from a specific time. The moment when the collection stops stands out; very little is post-colonial and nothing is contemporary. The interest in India seems to be stuck in time. We wish to ask how do these colonial processes of collecting impact our now.
The objects collected during the time of colonisation inevitably hold the politics of Empire; the politics of power and repression. More, the ability to describe these spoils of Empire is itself the language of colonisation. The violence of colonialism weaves through the South Asian collection, not only through the objects, but through the ways the museum choses to speak of them and through the timeline printed on the wall, with its references to English Kings and Queens, foreign invasions and ‘Indian mutinies’.
Avani asks: “Is this India, the image that the South Asian gallery constructs, the India my ancestors inhabited?” How does the India of the gallery relate to that other India—their India?
a: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill; the carpenter’s craft, the craft of writing plays; crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing; he learned the craft as an apprentice: b: crafts plural; articles made by craftspeople; a store selling crafts; a crafts fair.
Artefacts identified by material, method, use, geography and time but not artist or maker. Somehow we brake off the object from the hand that made it, asking it to speak for itself as a generalised thing or a representation of a skill, a symbol of power, majesty or fashion.
Exploring the V&A not as a space of unique objects, made for aesthetic pleasure but as one which houses the replicable and the useful—things made to do something—is a new thing for us.
Actually, many of the colonial collections in the UK came together this way; set up as industrial museums whose remit was to collect samples of objects and processes that had a potential use in the UK and would stimulate exports from the colonies. In this context, the skill of makers in India takes on a different guise. Simultaneously ethnographic and pedagogical, they were seen as a potential source of salvation for British design and aesthetic values. Victorian notions of medieval craftsmanship and a Indian craft-skill were fused in a hybrid aesthetic described by Tim Barringer as ‘colonial gothic’ . 1
Here we return to investigate the actual and the symbolic—what do these specific crafted objects invoke in us? We think about the Gujarati craftsmen, intricately weaving and embroidering textiles, combining traditional motifs with European engraving of floral vases in the 18th century, to make bedspreads for the western market.
a: transitive verb; to imagine again or anew; b: to form a new conception of.
Avani’s project sits within the Reimagine India cultural exchange programme. Set up to develop an ‘intercultural dialogue and strengthen cultural relations based on the exchange of ideas, knowledge, work and artistic practice’. We wanted to create new meanings for objects, to give voice to the anecdotal and magical, to add mystery and out unknown authors and owners, to honour the invisible, the meta and the general. We want to lose the authoritative and anonymous voice of the museum and instead make room for the personal relationships that we have with objects—those that can come through personal and family histories, childhood visits and fairytales.
Avani pushes for the objects to speak in the singular, the personal and anecdotal.
a: a usually official place of residence; b: a state or period of residence; a 20-year residency in the city; c: a period of advanced training in a medical specialty that normally follows graduation from medical school and licensing to practice medicine.
Avani Tanya lives between Goa in India and Bremen in Germany. For a period of time she stays in London at Delfina Foundation. A home away from home with other artists, curators and collectors. Eating, talking, dancing. As an artist in the museum she lives among the objects of the past; objects from India, now in London.
In a previous project, Avani had made her own collection, one for Bangalore; a homage to and a critique of the city in which she lived made through objects intentionally discarded. Trees, pet food and plastic toys were brought together as fragments of a city changing so fast it can not keep up with itself.
There is a constant back and forth between these different residencies. A personal negotiation certainly, but also a way of visiting and re-visiting place. Tipu’s Tiger, for example, lives in the V&A, but Avani also visits its plastic replica, housed where once the original was, in the Sultan’s Summer Palace in Bangalore.
Trade and Exchange
a: the business of buying and selling or bartering commodities; commerce; b: business, market novelties for the tourist trade, did a good trade in small appliances; c: an act or instance of trading; transaction; also, an exchange of property usually without use of money; something offered, given, or received in an exchange; d: a place where things or services are exchanged, such as an organized market or center for trading in securities or commodities, a store or shop specializing in merchandise usually of a particular type.
Creating markets between the UK and India, thinking of the history of the movement of these objects and of the ways in which items were garnered through the Empire, Avani discovers the Rapid Response collection—a contemporary way for the museum to collect things quickly, things that have an immediate cultural significance; a pussy hat, a pair of jeans from Primark, made in India. These cargo trousers connect Avani’s present project to an older work—the snapped rope from a garment factory in Bangalore—a safety rope snaps during a mock fire drill and a woman dies from the fall. More though, they make explicit that ongoing line between India and the UK, the ways in which the vestiges of Empire remain.
Here, we look at objects in the collection and ask what was bought, what was sold, what was given, what was coerced? What was sold under false pretences? What had significance to its original owners and what was willingly bartered away? How might the museum give voice to these nuances?
a: the act or the result of interpreting; explanation; b: particular adaptation or version of a work, method, or style; c: a teaching technique that combines factual with stimulating explanatory information; the natural history interpretation program
The way in which museums make meaning matters. What they show to us, and how it is shown, shapes our collective memory. It determines the way in which history is read. How we choose to define ourselves is crucial to us as a society. How does the museum speak on our behalf?
Interpretation, how the museum talks about its own past and the objects it houses, is integral. On the surface it suggests how we, as audience, should experience our time in the museum. Beneath this, it lets slip the blind spots in our ability to confront difficult pasts and tell home truths.
Within this overwhelming space, Avani asks what the objects were intended to say about India at the time, what they did say, and what they say now. To herself, to others.
We begin by looking at the display, then at the interpretation, and finally we return to our own experience of being in front of the collection. Bringing new context to individual objects, to ‘the collection’, indeed to the museum, becomes a preoccupation. Linking them to contemporary lives, we simply seek to explore how we as individuals relate to each in turn. As such, here we invite others to respond to the objects. To speak of their personal connections, their ways of seeing and their experiences.