Exhibitions must honour the intelligence of audiences

Interview/ Shubigi Rao, curator, Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020

114-Shubigi-Rao Shubigi Rao | Bimal Nath C.

ARTIST AND WRITER Shubigi Rao is a polymath in every sense of the word. Her interests include archaeology, neuroscience, archival systems, global geopolitics and acts of cultural genocide. Shubigi’s complex and layered works use a dynamic arsenal of mediums and practices like drawings, video essays, lecture performances, pseudo-science machinery and metaphysical puzzles.

I will bring my experience from having worked across difficult geographies, hostile environments and dispersed communities.

She has participated in exhibitions across the world and on May 9, it was announced, on the sidelines of the 2019 Venice biennale, that Shubigi would curate the fifth edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, slated to open on December 12, 2020. The selection committee cited her “exceptional acumen and inventive sensibilities” as the reasons for her appointment.

Born in Mumbai in 1975, Shubigi was raised in Darjeeling and Nainital. She is a Master of Fine Arts from the LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, where she now lectures part-time. She lives in Singapore with her husband Samir Sahay and her seven-year-old son, Raoul. After the announcement in Venice, Shubigi went to Rome. THE WEEK caught up with her soon after her return to Singapore on May 13. Edited excerpts:

Your work in KMB 2018 dealt with displacement and cross-cultural experience. What are the issues that you would like to explore as curator?

I believe regional conflicts and decades of struggles and resistance must not be flattened. This is very important and I bear that in mind as I formulate the curatorial premise for KMB 2020.

Since KMB is known as a people’s biennale, do you think you have to keep it simple?

It is an unfortunate assumption that art and discourse need to be simplified to be appreciated. I don’t believe in that classist way of thinking. KMB is very much a people’s biennale, and that wouldn’t have happened if the audience couldn’t appreciate or feel engaged by contemporary art in the first place. Exhibitions must instead honour the intelligence and sensitivity of their audiences. It is only here that we may achieve accessibility in some sense.

KMB 2018 was both admired and criticised for being loud in its politics. Do you prefer an event like the biennale to be subtle or loud?

Politics is inextricable from our lives and choices. So I’m not sure how this can be a point of criticism when art is one of the ways we wrestle with the contingencies and issues of our time and place. Terms like ‘subtle’ and ‘loud’ are also subjective non-descriptors that deny multiplicity in favour of singularity or a dominant narrative. Exhibitions are always divided in the responses they generate, and this may, in turn, generate critical discourse and examinations of an entrenched status quo.

The curator’s job also has a managerial aspect.

I am aware of the scope of the tasks involved in curating a biennale and I will bring my experience from having worked single-handedly across difficult geographies, hostile environments and dispersed communities to tell hard stories over this last decade.