Best of South Asia to the world: Smita Prabhakar chats about her vision for Ishara Art Foundation
Smita Prabhakar is the name everybody’s talking about in art circles from New Delhi to New York. We got to chat with the Founder and Chairperson of the new Ishara Art Foundation, about their inaugural show, the potential of art from South Asia in the West.
For a quick profile, Smita Prabhakar is an entrepreneur with four decades of experience, with multiple business based in the UAE. She has now embarked on her next major mission — to make a lasting contribution to the arts and culture scene in the region.
An avid collector and patron of contemporary art, Smita is the Founder and Chairperson of the Ishara Art Foundation, which is being positioned as a space to share South Asian culture with the local community and international audiences in the West Asian region.
Smita’s ambition is to shine a spotlight on South Asian art, and she’s excited about the potential to encourage a deeper understanding of contemporary art trends. She’s also on the Advisory Board of Art Dubai, a member of the South Asian Acquisitions Committee at the Tate Modern, London and an International Patron of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, supporting the VS Gaitonde show in 2015.
In simpler terms, Smita is turning out to be a pioneering figure for the sake of promoting South Asian art for Western audiences. We got to chat with Smita about her grander vision...
“My desire for brilliant work by South Asian artists to be more widely recognised is at the heart of this project,” offers Smita Prabhakar, the Founder and Chairperson of the new Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai.
For an aide-de-camp to her mission, Smita has Nada Raza, as the Foundation’s Artistic Director. Nada was previously Research Curator at Tate Research Centre: Asia, with a focus on South Asia.
In an extended interaction, we got Smita to tell us more about the show, while she also gave us an overview of her efforts to present the best of South Asian art for appreciative audiences in West Asia, and beyond.
In every sense, the Foundation hopes to become a gateway of sorts, for the best of art from the East to gain recognition and attention in the West. Excerpts from the interview:
Take us back to the beginning, and give us a sense of the initial ideas that led to the making of the Ishara Art Foundation. How were the earliest seeds of a plan sown for this monumental initiative?
Even when my collection was simply a private collection at home, I made it accessible to other collectors and patrons from around the world who wished to learn more about Indian art and artists. I was encouraged by their interest and enthusiasm to start collecting works with a view to establish an institution.
As I learnt more through relationships with artists, curators and museums, and also other collectors and patrons, it became clear that South Asian artists are amongst the best in the world, and really deserve more space and international recognition. I am fortunate that it has been possible for me to make a small contribution in Dubai, where I have lived for almost four decades.
Give us your overview of the art scene and art market in Asia — how do you see things changing, and what is the larger role of the Ishara Art Foundation?
Rather than collect merely for private enjoyment, individuals are coming forward to establish public spaces where others can also appreciate and learn about the visual arts.
Not only does this support artists, it sows the seeds to ensure that the next generation continues to join and generate a thriving cultural industry.
We learn from travel and visiting museums, and now that we have the ability, resources and expertise, we must also recognise the importance of making cultural material accessible to everyone.
While there are many initiatives — museums, biennales, festivals — within South Asia, we are the only such foundation in this region located in a global city, and we see ourselves as ambassadors and champions of South Asian art and artists to regional as well as wider international audiences.
Tell us a little about your choice of artists for the inaugural show — Shilpa Gupta and Zarina Hashmi. With their artistic concerns regarding themes of identity and migration, how did they make for an ideal opening exhibition?
Both artists are well represented in the collection, which is the backbone of the programme. Their poetic yet critical sensibility invites you to think with them about the human cost and emotional weight of movement, of leaving homes and identities behind.
In this day and age, these are experiences many people can relate to, particularly in the Gulf, where there is so much movement back and forth from South Asia.
Or even within India, for instance, when leaving home to move to the city and find employment, to leave your ancestral home, is a very relatable experience.
The exhibition explores formal affinities between the artists, in how they use the line and the language of minimalism — which is meant to be pure form — to actually contain a narrative experience through the inclusion of text, or through cultural inflection in terms of their choice of materials — cloth, paper, string, gold leaf and carbon paper. The works look simple, but are quite layered.
We’re keen to learn more about the innovations you’re looking to bring in — what kind of new dialogues do you hope to foster, and how do you plan to explore more regional interconnections, especially across Asia?
As a new space, we have the luxury to define our own direction. We will have a combination of group exhibitions and solo presentations, with a focus on photography as well.
We are also open to collaborations across the region. At the moment, we are exploring all options, but the main focus is to raise the bar and make exhibitions that are more akin to a museum-going experience rather than what you might find at a conventional gallery.
We want the space to be welcoming and for audiences to learn through the art itself, to open up themes and conversations that come through the concerns of the artists and visual thinkers of today.
For a question on the business side of things, how does the non-profit aspect of the foundation work when it comes to balancing out the running of an exhibition space?
As a space supported by a single patron, the idea is to do what we can within the means that we have, to build a strong programme of exhibitions known for their quality, and then develop partnerships as and when we need them for specific programmes. We have a niche, and we will remain focused on it.
We’re interested in the idea of a global-local approach — of sharing perspectives with local and international audiences. How does this approach influence the selections of art and artists, and the curation of shows?
We are within four hours of most major metros across South Asia, so we can do so much across the region based on reach and proximity. We see ourselves as a host, the home of South Asian art and artists, and also a space that is really open to a wide international audience.
As this exhibition shows — the thematics, the language, the poetry — is all deeply rooted in South Asian experiences of the world, but it is open and inclusive. We are consciously not using trendy terminology — ‘glocal’, ‘transnational’ — terms that have already been exhausted.
Instead, we hope to find new links and conversations through Dubai’s potential as a hub and meeting point, through the networks that have been built over many years by the Sharjah Art Foundation, Art Dubai, the museums and universities.
It is amazing how many international curators and museum directors and patrons were here this March, and over the years, we have seen those numbers grow. I don’t think this influences our choices, but it does create the need to develop a programme that appeals to both a sophisticated art audience and also helps grow more local interest.
Tell us about the regions you’re interested in — in terms of art, and emerging artists — across South Asia, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Will you be closely working with the many artist collectives that thrive in these regions?
Absolutely. Our artistic director Nada Raza is well-networked across the region, having worked on South Asian art for over a decade. She hopes to bring in projects and expertise from across the region.
We are not an event-based space, but rather a permanent exhibition venue. For us, the impetus is to provide more opportunities for professional development in the field of exhibition making.
The lack of infrastructure — lighting, climate control, security — has limited certain kinds of exhibition-making, and the art world has always found ways around it. The short duration of exhibitions is partly for this reason.
We will do less, but do it as well as we can, and given our scale, try to develop new frameworks around how people experience art in a museum setting.
How do you see art sensibilities among enthusiasts, collectors and the general public evolving between the West — in Europe and the Americas, and the East — in Asia? How do you see a certain cross-cultural language of appreciation evolving, especially given the benefit of social media?
This is more a statement than a question! Of course, social media connects, but it also flattens difference and makes memory spans shorter.
I think we need to think beyond the art-world jet set, who are at every event, and see the same works based on the increased representation of global art by large galleries. The general public, on the other hand, is hard to generalise about.
We will have to learn, now that the space is open, who our audience is, and how we might grow new interest.
Nada Raza has also stated a focus on photography and on modern South Asian architecture for the year 2019. Could you give us an insight into some of the other streams of art that you are interested in, in the seasons going ahead?
The collection is purely contemporary, but given the richness of approaches and media contained within that umbrella term, I will say that I am particularly drawn to an urban aesthetic, and a refined approach to materials and to artists who have a distinct formal language. I have been particularly attracted to photography in recent years.
As I said, there is a lot Nada and I want to do, we are ambitious, but we have to both pace ourselves and be focused on what we can do best given the space and resources. I won’t give away much now, but we are having some exciting conversations.
Give us a roadmap for Ishara Art Foundation — what other initiatives, programming and cause-based efforts do you hope to engage in? Could you also share the names of a few artists whose works we can expect to see?
I would hate to limit us to a list of names, as there are so many fantastic artists we are looking at! The collection includes artists of this generation that I have found most exciting — Mithu Sen, Dayanita Singh, Sheela Gowda, Jitish Kallat, Atul Dodiya, just to name only a fraction — but the programme extends beyond the collection. Let’s just say, we are spoilt for choice!
Altered Inheritances: Home is a Foreign Place at the Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai is open for viewing until July 13, 2019. For updates on the foundation’s initiatives follow them on social media or visit their website.