A conversation on the challenges of researching and finding new frameworks for art writing across multiple languages and translations.
A cursory look at art historical and critical writing from South Asia shows that despite the many languages spoken in the region, non-English contributions are often overlooked or relegated to regional variants (or mere supplements to) national discourses on art.
As part of a broader interest in twentieth-century art writing, Asia Art Archive began in 2013 to map, translate, compile, and republish important texts on modern and contemporary art written in the many languages of South Asia. This year, AAA is publishing three dossiers that consider fiction writing and the figure of the modern artist, artist travelogues, and art manifestos.
This conversation brings together the dossier editors—Sabih Ahmed, Sneha Ragavan, Santhosh Sadanandan, and Vidya Shivadas—to discuss their research process and some questions that informed this work, as part of a panel at Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual art book fair FOCAL POINT. The panel was titled “Crossing Borders: Art and Artists’ Writings Across Languages,” and has been transcribed and edited here for clarity.
Sabih Ahmed: In India, there are about twenty-two official, constitutionally recognised languages, and one hundred and twenty-two languages identified based on the 2001 census. Much of the population in the country is, of course, bilingual. And, there is also the debate about languages and dialects. Depending on how many of those you want to consider as languages or dialects, we can end up with a geographic unit that is made of around 1,599 different languages. That is where we began when we started our research on multiple languages in the art field.
Since 2009, my colleagues and I at AAA frequently inhabited spaces that included artist studios, universities, artist archives, and libraries to do our research and digitisation projects. All of these spaces came with innumerable languages in various kinds of historical formations, scarcely available in any consolidated manner to researchers, teachers, and students. Colleagues and friends would often have conversations around how this multiplicity of the field could be mapped and compiled, and several ideas came up in this regard. One of them was to compile an anthology based on important writings translated into English. We began testing this idea between ourselves and soon realised the pitfalls, that we might end up reproducing already known texts, even if at best we were a little bit more inclusive, because of our own limited knowledge of the field. If we were going to begin this endeavour, we had to be clear about the purpose our anthology was going to serve today, and to take into account the fact that we were working with digital technology that is already reshaping knowledge as we know it.
So, instead of beginning with an anthology, AAA commenced the Bibliography Project as an attempt to first map art writing (and the debates therein) across multiple languages through the twentieth century. Through much deliberation and conversations with the community, we arrived at thirteen languages for our project. None of us on the panel here know thirteen languages, so we had the help of friends—researchers, professors, mentors, and students—collectively taking part in this research, visiting libraries and homes, and creating databases of all that we were finding. We were extremely excited about this process because this was perhaps going to be the first online bibliography of art writing, and the possibilities that a digital database opened up in terms of pattern recognitions, testing different parameters, and creating data visualisations were enormous—and could possibly open entirely new entry points to study the field. So, on the one hand there were a lot of dusty bookshelves and crumbling pages, and on the other a huge amount of metadata and black and white Excel sheets you would scroll through endlessly.
We had various inspirations behind producing a large database like this. For instance, literary scholar Franco Moretti looks at “distant reading”—basically an intersection of big data with literary criticism and the history of literature—through which you start identifying patterns that you would not have even anticipated had you relied on older methodologies and tools of research. We wanted to start looking at this large map or database of the field, and to see something that maybe we’re not yet familiar with or have overlooked.
When doing the research, we did not come in with a pre-given disposition towards the large number of artist-writers we ultimately found. We assumed that there were going to be many art critics who maintained a status separate from artists. We had no idea that the field was exploding with artists who were themselves critics and writers. And there were different patterns even among artist-writers, depending on the milieus in which they practised. For instance, in Bengal there seemed to be a lot of artist writing about other Bengali artists in Bengali language; in Maharashtra the artists were experimenting with concrete poetry in Marathi and English; and, among artists who wrote primarily in English based in Delhi or Mumbai, theoretical texts and art criticism were more prevalent. How were we going to find different parameters to enter such a field? That’s why we have been in constant conversation with thinkers from different fields.
Sneha Ragavan: This project had at least seventeen researchers working across fifteen cities, and their research involved everything from having to find writers of different languages, to locating their materials and gaining access to them; and it was actually one of the first efforts at mapping art writing from across so many languages. Previously the Indian Foundation of the Arts tried to put together multilingual art readers, but that was only in about four languages.
The Bibliography Project resulted in an online bibliography in the form of a website freely accessible to everyone, and people could browse by authors or by periodicals with a search bar. But now that we’d compiled this bibliography, and we’ve found over 20,000 texts from thirteen languages that discuss modern and contemporary art from twentieth-century South Asia—what were we going to do? What meaning could we bring out of this research? Were we going to regurgitate the same art historical categories of revivalism, indigenism, abstraction? Would we bring the collections out using those categories only with texts from multiple languages? Or were we going to be able to think of newer entry points into the field?
It might be good to add a bit to contextualise the development from bibliography to publication—maybe mentioning the three workshops as a way to show that during our bibliography research itself we were testing ideas for a publication that would compile translated texts.
Were we going to regurgitate the same art historical categories of revivalism, indigenism, abstraction? Would we bring the collections out using those categories only with texts from multiple languages? Or were we going to be able to think of newer entry points into the field?
As part of our research, we looked at a lot of anthologies, publications, and readers to understand the different approaches that each one took. For instance, Art in Theory works with thematic classifications for its content; Art Since 1900 is comprised of new essays that involved hyperlinking in an analogue book format; Amelia Jones’ Companion to Contemporary Art tries to trace the trajectories of art history but decade-wise—or, for instance, readers like the Whitechapel Readers are a wide thematic collection that largely excerpted important texts. Apart from these was MoMA’s Primary Documents series—looking at how an institution brings together archival documents chronologically, as are many historical survey books on Indian art, classified according to movements (you have the Bengal school, followed by Shantiniketan, followed by the Progressive Movement, followed by the Indigenous Movement, etc.). All of these are the books that contribute to, in a sense, “canon making.” An engagement with such works formed part of our research process.
SA: We were inspired by American working-class literature, which opened up this heterogeneous field of literature. If we thought literature meant novel writing, short stories, poems, classical sort of genres—you might have to revisit literary categories and literary genres entirely in order to think about an American working-class literature. One of the biggest inspirations for us were anthologies that were co-edited and conceived by Professor Susie Tharu, a literary theorist and important scholar in subaltern studies based in Hyderabad. Two of her compilations on Dalit writing in India, one from the South, one from Karnataka, look at this heterogeneous field of writing, of literature. How did artists think about the environment, how did artists think about abstraction, how did artists think about technology? Should we bring out Whitechapel-type readers around all of these words? What we thought was interesting about Susie’s compilation is that she chose to call them dossiers. She did not choose to call it an anthology even though it was sort of a big compilation. She chose “dossier” because of India’s colonial history, hinting at a certain kind of bureaucracy and governmentality in the way things and documents used to get compiled into dossiers, and the resulting homogeneity. These dossiers are in English, translated from multiple languages into English because, according to Susie, it’s important to recognise that English is an Indian language, too, given its certain history. We can’t keep posing the vernacular versus English and the vernacular being one category—the vernacular has its own multiple language politics.
So, with some of these inspirations and drawing from the database, we finally arrived at this triangulation of thinking about art history: the figure, the ground, and movement. There’s a certain relationship that the figure of the artist has had with the field of art. The figure and the ground have had a certain kind of relationship—the social history of art, the biographical history of art and, through that, the biography of the artist. There’s an increasing interest in how ideas and people move around—places, fields, art movements. So, in this triangulation, we thought, let’s try and build up three dossiers just like Susie did.
Shaping the Dossiers
SA: The first dossier is titled Fictional Configuration, and it’s so called because it takes fiction writing as its starting point. Through our research, we realise there was such a large body of fiction writing happening around the figure of the modern artist, and with it the emergence of so many typologies besides the dominant image of the flâneur and the dandy. We found far more imaginaries from different languages, and that’s what we wanted to bring together here.
The second dossier is titled Future Perfect, which is a compilation of art manifestos. While the first dossier is dedicated to the figure, this one is dedicated to the ground, as manifestos have been a way to propose new grounds for the field of art. What is the future of art going to be, and what is the ground that will produce new conditions of practice?
We can’t keep posing the vernacular versus English and the vernacular being one category—the vernacular has its own multiple language politics.
The artist manifesto is of course a well-known trope; it brings to mind a long history of a certain kind of avant-garde declaration in European and American contexts. We were wondering, however, is a compilation of such manifestos from South Asia going to serve as just another insertion into that art history? Upon researching into the field, we realised that there were not that many artist manifestos out there, even though there were certain manifesto-like proclamations being made. So we began opening the box a little bit, thinking about manifestos in a slightly more expanded sense, that included vision documents behind the art periodicals, or artist publications, and even vision documents of institutions. Our question was, what were the kinds of visions that went into the making of a field as we know it? And in what forms did those visions get articulated?
The third dossier of the set is titled Destination Horizon. It is dedicated to movement, and in particular to artist writings that reflect a history made up of various complex itineraries. The dossier is also reflective of the geopolitics of another era, where certain artists got scholarships to go to certain places at a certain time. Such as during the Cold War era when the US and the former Soviet Union were both invested in offering scholarships to artists and cultural practitioners from India. And this is of course the most obvious reference.
SR: With the third dossier, we didn’t want to work with existing tropes like travel writing. None of the texts that we have in this compilation even fall within such easy genres. The idea was to try and put together texts by artists that describe journeys, the infrastructures of movement, the partitioning of “inward’’ and “outward’’ movements, imaginary journeys, and even psychological journeys. It was a way of exploring another route around the notion of rootedness, where insular histories of art get written to suggest that art can be situated in a city, or a country, or a place. Contrary to notions of such static history, movement has played a huge role in the configuration of the field—the movement of images via periodicals, the movement of artworks for exhibitions, the movement of people travelling on scholarships, on research, to study and exhibit their works, and so on. The third dossier looks at how these movements shaped artistic practices and the field.
We have broken the dossier down into different sections—for instance, one section consists of descriptions of various forms of transportations and the infrastructures of mobility, e.g., the first journey of an artist who until then did not have access or social capital to take a flight and his narration of the vulnerability he felt and negotiated with. Another section is based on how movement produces notions of feeling out of place, and how even going to a familiar place sometimes produces the experience of estrangement.
Contrary to notions of such static history, movement has played a huge role in the configuration of the field.
The first dossier is a rather straightforward collection of eleven published short stories. The second dossier is a collection comprised of published editorials, founding documents of institutions that are primary documents, and statements of artist collectives that were circulating in various print formats. The third dossier, on the other hand, has a really wide range of texts. We have within that a selection of short stories, poems, unpublished letters, memoirs, excerpts from diaries, reports that artists wrote, and also images of artworks that serve not as illustrations but as documents as well.
We worked with a timeframe that is broadly the twentieth century. The cut-off point was something more important for us, roughly the 1990s, because we felt there are a lot of things that changed in the 1990s in South Asia—politically, economically, and also within the art field—that drastically changed the dynamics of publishing. So, there are a few texts that go past the 1990s, oftentimes retrospective accounts, but otherwise we’ve tried to keep the time period of the dossiers from the beginning of twentieth century up till the early 1990s.
SA: Together, the three dossiers formed a figure, ground, and movement triad. We were clear that these dossiers were not going to be like anthologies that embark on compiling key texts that everyone ought to know about. Rather, the dossiers for us were like propositions to the field, a view shared by all of us on the editorial team as much as colleagues at Asia Art Archive. How can we start thinking about different entry points and different frameworks for reading the field?
SA: As much as one finds boundaries between the arts—literature, theatre, cinema, and visual arts—still intact within institutions, one of the most interesting discoveries for us was to find that different language milieus maintained different porosities between fields. For instance, in Tamil language the boundary between visual art and cinema was much blurrier than in other languages. In Marathi, there was a robust crossover between poetry and visual arts, and enough number of publications from the 1960s testify this through the experiments in concrete poetry that both artists and poets were trying. These extensions and braiding of fields are things that art history and art criticism in English rarely captured, so much so that artists who prolifically worked across those multiple fields were also seen primarily for their contribution to visual arts, while the rest was relegated into a background.
However, even though we recognise this, it still poses a challenge as to what we should do with that awareness. How does one address those different milieus in art history? A provisional shifting of our attention away from the primacy of the artwork to other sites of art’s discursive production is what brought us to a wide range of practices we are referring to as art writing.
Santhosh Sadanandan: I studied in a Malayalam-medium school in Kerala and am well-read in Malayalam literature. I knew very well that the idea of the artist that my generation in Kerala cherished actually came from fictional writing—the romantic artist, as a case in point. We identified the notions emerging from fiction with the artistic figure, be it of Van Gogh, Picasso, or Souza, and so on. However, the figuration of the artist that congealed in certain literary canons was a result of the informal inter-disciplinarity that existed between artists, writers, filmmakers, and performers of that time. Within that milieu, the figure of the artist was often the hero of a novel, that in turn might have taken elements from a real-life artistic figure. But the way in which those readings etched a figure of an artist onto our imagination and our affective fields was immense.
The fictional writings I am referring to are not considered part of art historical writing, even though they played a crucial role in terms of defining what constitutes a modern artist. Through the process of reading multiple translated works of fiction during this project, what we came to realise is the question: what really constitutes a document for art history? What will allow us to expand the field? There are certain preconceived notions about what is a document of art historical research. As part of our research for the dossiers, we thought it is important to look at the very notion of a document from a different vantage point—to understand the affective fields of language, and the roles they play in the very figuration of artists themselves. In that sense, fiction played a crucial role in expanding the domain of what constitutes the artistic field for us. And as I mentioned above, while bringing together literary writings on the figure of the artist, we also see ourselves expanding the notion of the document, in terms of how one does research. To raise the question around what are the ways in which we can think about the history of dissemination, and about how people experience the figure.
It is important to look at the very notion of a document from a different vantage point—to understand the affective fields of language, and the roles they play in the very figuration of artists themselves.
Vidya Shivadas: On the one hand, we are very much accounting for the fact that artist writing has been a big part of the field, which, however, has not necessarily been evaluated in its various forms. On the other, fiction was chosen because we also want to talk about the stakes that go into the making of the artist and the role of art. There are many other players who have a big investment in this, which includes the literary field. It’s never something that’s only left to the artists to conjure up and imagine for themselves.
For Fictional Configurations, we focused on the short story because that was a manageable form, also within the given constraints of the project. But, more importantly, questions surrounding art historical sites, tradition and modernity, the figure of the artist, returned again and again in so many stories. The painter Bhupen Khakhar, for example, studied art criticism. In his art criticism, he would make points about criteria and judgment, whereas with his short stories he speaks about the milieu and creating a sense of space and place, which is something you can see in his paintings.
I think fiction has this subjective formation, and it also deals with stereotypical representations. We were interested in what these give us access to. In a recent workshop in Guwahati, art college students were talking about what it was like not having language and words the way students in Delhi, Bombay, and Baroda have words. I feel that stories could be mobilised, and other ways in which language can be talked about. These dossiers open that.
On Language and Translation
SA: I’d like to ask the core editorial team on the question of language: Why is there an importance of thinking about language in the field of art?
SS: Language has a very wide-reaching impact in terms of how we think of the global, the national, the cosmopolitan, and so on. For example, simply by writing in English, even though you may be spatially part of a linguistic region, one can claim being national and global. So, language in that sense is not merely about spatiality. It also claims and constitutes spatialities. While one engages with the regional through regional languages, one has at least a three-tier addressee—first, to address one’s specific local population, wherein one’s writing contains certain local referents; second, one has to say that they are not merely regional, they are equally national (in other words, that regional writing has to address the national public as well); and third, one has to say that they are not merely national and local, they are also global (that the writing reaches beyond the national). So, within a language itself, there is a lot of effort the writer has to make in order to make it communicable and relevant across multiple levels of addressees. This complexity reveals that it is not simply about the national versus the regional, or the global versus the national, or vernacular versus the mainstream. These kinds of binary models may not help us tackle the problem.
We have to understand each of these linguistic units as contestatory, hegemonic, and counter-hegemonic fields. What are the ways in which multiple players, multiple subjects, engage with it; sometimes with great resources, sometimes with limited resources. Rather than being judgmental or classificatory, we are interested in the other ways that this writing becomes relevant in the context of art. That is the kind of challenge we were trying to undertake—without falling into the binary logic. How does art writing engage with the regional, the national, the cosmopolitan, the global, and so on?
We believe that the only ways in which we can think about a new global has to start from a new notion of the vernacular—not as a supplement or thinking of it in terms of margins, but the vernacular as something very affective, very concrete, and at the same time carrying the ability to represent the universal. That was the framework in which we thought about languages.
This complexity reveals that it is not simply about the national versus the regional, or the global versus the national, or vernacular versus the mainstream.
Audience: The data here is all in English—did you have some sort of procedure or method by which you translated the original language into English?
SR: The researchers that we worked with were all bilingual. When we had a researcher compiling a bibliography in Tamil Nadu, she would have to transliterate the text into English. We followed very general rules for transliteration, unlike a lot of research libraries based in Tamil Nadu which follow very proper scientific methods of transliteration.
SA: It was a multi-layered process. The kind of research and translations that went into the bibliography project and what you are seeing in database went through another round of translation and verification before they came into the dossiers. We had gone to multiple sets of translators and scholars to verify this translation, to see if it was doing justice to the language and the poetics of the text as well as to the political nuances in it.
SR: In the third dossier, there was a text by this artist called G. Chandru; it was a short story in Tamil, extremely abstract, cryptic, and very onomatopoeic. Translating that was a huge challenge. We found somebody who was familiar with his practice and his writing to take on the translation, but as she started translating it, she realised that it was difficult to find exact words in English, so she started contacting other people to help with specific words and phrases that Chandru used. Soon, there were about twenty-seven people who worked collectively on trying to translate that one text. And what came together finally was still a very difficult text for us to make sense of! So, that translation had to be run through another process of research and editing, and we brought in experts and scholars to read through the original and the translation in order to maintain the abstract onomatopoeic of the original text.
SA: Just to add to this, because we were working on databases and on a digital medium, we did consider (and we are still considering) how we can work better with crowd-sourcing—people who want to contribute to this database, people who also want to help cleanse this data. But that is something that needs much more work before it is put into place.
SA: To go back to a point Santhosh made regarding making claims over the regional, national, and global, there is also a claim to being universal from different vantage points and linguistic fields. This produces different images and vocabularies for the universal. This was certainly the case with modern artists, who claimed a universality in identifying themselves as modern artists regardless of which language field or contexts they spoke from.
VS: Back in about 2009, I had done research on mapping the history of art writing in the Indian context. There was a prevalence of this notion of lack when it came to national discourses, and even in institutional discourse, which I was contending. One was always trying to constitute an autonomous body of art criticism in relation to other kinds of disciplinary boundaries of anthropology or art history. The dossier project has completely complicated this notion because we’re dealing with all these different languages and multiple histories.
The dossiers are also about historicising writing and trying to find a different way of reading the field altogether. One of the things we went looking for were magazines—we found, instead, cultural magazines or magazines which were looking at broader domains of different forms of liturgy and political writing. So, it’s thinking about how so much heterogeneity of material can come together, and provide frameworks for that. I think it’s very interesting that even in the question of artist writing, for example, we are kind of mobilising it. One way is through the more traditional form of the manifesto, but we also complicate that because we are also looking at editorials and institutional documents relating to artists forming collectives and institutions within many South Asian contexts. The other way would be taking a form like travel writing, and thinking about the questions of mobility of a vast range of writings. It could be about an artist who takes a flight from one place to another, as opposed to something much more research-oriented, like artist Nilima Sheikh conducting research on the Nathdwara paintings. It’s also about finding values in different kinds of writing, and trying to think how they could sit together.
SR: Sometimes this figure of an artist-writer seems like such a discovery, and I think our bibliography project really opened our eyes to that. From reading art history texts, we knew of course there were several artists who did write, but I think the extensive scale of it is something that we did not anticipate until we did the bibliography database. We realised that more than fifty percent of all of the texts that we compiled were actually written by artists. This is more so in the non-English domain, and this may tell us something about the field of art.
There is this split between the artists and the critics, with artists being the ones who make artwork, and critics being the ones who historicise and write. I think for a lot of artists, writing itself was part of their practice of constituting the field. It was an integral part of their creative practice, and we find this is such a wide range of writings. For instance, our first dossier has two artists who wrote short stories. We know Gulam Sheikh predominantly as a painter, but in the Gujarati-speaking milieu, he is better known as a poet. Other artists wrote exhibition reviews. Through this process, we also come across different trends and practices of writing even among artists.
In our third dossier on travel writing, we have a short story that Gulammohammed Sheikh wrote, titled Returning Home, which is also the title of a painting of his. When you read the short story there’s this intermingling of the real, the imaginary, the mythic, the folkloric. The landscape that he produces through writing—anybody who knows his work will find some sort of immediate resonances with the artwork and the world he produces in the artwork. Writing becomes another language for the artist, and that was something we found exciting through this process.
For a lot of artists, writing itself was part of their practice of constituting the field.
SA: It was a challenge finding women writing in the field. We had searched hard and we didn’t find that much. There is an anecdote I want to share about this from our bibliography project. When we were working on the bibliography database, we constantly had to keep tagging keywords in order to make the database more searchable, and we had an extensive lexicon for that. In outlining those keywords and tags, we had this long debate about whether we should have “women writing’’ or “woman artist’’ as a keyword or not. Because it was not a category that we subscribed to, and even found problematic, we decided finally that we were going to leave this keyword out of our database and just have artist writing. When we finished compiling the database—and these are now over 13,000 entries tagged—we realised we should have kept an internal keyword that would have helped us data-mine all women writing at once. Now we are having to work back on it.
This is an important dimension of this project. In fact, these dossiers are being published with Zubaan in New Delhi, a feminist collective and a publishing house run by writer, scholar, and activist Urvashi Butalia. The first question she had for us was why out of eleven authors were there only two woman authors in this? We told her that we tried our best. Maybe we will have to change the very parameters of what we think about as artist writing, maybe expand that notion. Maybe the parameters by which bibliographies and artist writing gets read needs to change such that various forms of textual expressions become part of the corpus of artist writing.
Audience: Is the small amount of woman writing also reflective of small amount of women artists?
SR: We need to do more research, but if you look at the history of art schools, for instance, a majority of the students in art schools in India and South Asia are predominantly women students. How many of them go onto becoming artists, we don’t know. But I don’t think the reason for finding less writing by women artists has anything to do with the fact that there are less women artists.
SA: As we conclude, I wanted to mention that this project would not have been possible by an enormous legion of people that included artists, scholars, researchers, translators, students, interns, and institutions. It was truly a collective research process, and on behalf of this panel, I would like to thank them all. We’ve done our best to mention each and every one of them in the dossiers and on the AAA website. I would also like to thank Hammad Nasar, who was the Head of Research and Programmes when this project was being initiated, and he played a key role in offering critical input on these dossiers.
Sneha Ragavan is a Senior Researcher at Asia Art Archive in India.
Sabih Ahmed is a researcher and curator based in New Delhi. Formerly a Researcher at Asia Art Archive in India. He is currently a mentor with Five Million Incidents (2019-20) conceived and catalysed by Raqs Media Collective and organised by Goethe-Institut, Delhi & Kolkata. Ahmed served as a Visiting Faculty in Ambedkar University’s School of Culture and Creative Expression, Delhi, from 2014 to 2019.
Santhosh Sadanandan teaches at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University, Delhi, and has published articles and essays on the question of Dalit politics, technologies, fascism, the city as metaphor, minoritarian aesthetics, and politics and art resistance.
Vidya Shivadas is a curator based in New Delhi. Since 2011, she has been the director of the not-for-profit Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA). Shivadas’ curatorial projects have been ongoing since 2005, working with institutions like Devi Art Foundation, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Edinburgh Art Festival, and Serendipity Arts Festival. In 2009, she received a Research Grant from Asia Art Archive for a project to map the discipline of art criticism, as it has developed in the Indian context.