Researchers Sabih Ahmed and Sneha Ragavan discuss their work on histories, contemporary art, and the South Asia region
At Asia Art Archive, there are seven areas of research and programming interest, called content priorities: art writing, complex geographies, exhibition history, innovation through tradition, pedagogy, performance art, and women in art history.
Sabih Ahmed and Sneha Ragavan illuminate these content priorities by discussing their work. This conversation builds on an earlier discussion between Claire Hsu and Chantal Wong.
Why does AAA use content priorities as the drivers to shape its research and activities?
Sneha Ragavan: It would be wrong to think that AAA has not worked with a set of priorities previously. Even if not spelled out like it is in 2017, there were definite priorities from which we developed the content of its collections and activities. Some of these included building projects of historical and contemporary relevance; looking for collections that don‘t just speak of their makers but provide a window into a larger field, discourse, and time; and championing minor and independent initiatives.
So for AAA to arrive at a set of content priorities fifteen years into its operations indicates that we have grown into an institution—in terms of our collection, staff, our place in the field, and intellectually—and that it is time to take stock of our work and develop a clear set of priorities that define our future roles in not just inhabiting the field, but actively shaping it.
AAA has had a very interesting method for building collections where researchers like myself are entrusted to propose projects based on our own areas of interest, vetted of course by the entire team and advisory body. And so while the projects often reflect specific interests of individual researchers, these ideas get framed within the larger vision of the institution. So content priorities for me are a framing device to ensure our work generates connections and conversations between one another, remains relevant to AAA, and establishes the clarity of AAA's mandate.
Sabih Ahmed: In continuation with what Sneha has already articulated so well, I would add that AAA's content priorities also become a way for us to explore parallel movements and histories of art across different regions. While different cultures produce their own set of concerns, and most often take the so-called West as a dominant point of reference, content priorities compel us at AAA to see a much more enmeshed terrain. And this is enabled because of our shared inquiries, dialogue with research from different regions and languages, and awareness of simultaneous cross-currents that make a field.
What are the content priorities? Can you point to areas in the research collections that align with these priorities? How do these content priorities intersect with your research in India and the region?
SR: As I’ve mentioned, content priorities ensure multiple entry points into the work we do. For example, the Baroda Archives project primarily focuses on the institutional history of Baroda and the work of four seminal artists in developing a pedagogic vision. However, this project substantially lends itself to our current content priorities such as “Innovation Through Tradition,” and histories of art writing and exhibition-making as “Sites of Construction.”
The Bibliography of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Asia project and our Publications Project Writing Art have worked towards mapping, translating, and publishing texts from the rich, multilingual art histories of South Asia. From our content priorities, these speak directly to the importance of “Art Writing” as a site of discourse formation.
Our current content priorities have an important role to play in projects we have proposed in South Asia for 2017 to 2019—whether it’s the collection-building of art periodicals in different languages through our recently announced SSAF–AAA Research Grant, or our ongoing projects on the histories of performance art in India.
SA: Given that AAA’s content priorities are based on broad concerns and urgencies, it is also worthwhile remembering that these priorities will keep changing over time. In this sense, content priorities serve as dynamic prisms through which we also revisit our existing collection, rather than just see what to include from outside. This allows the Archive to be more alert to the blind spots of our time. It’s like proposing and extending new trajectories from the vantage point of our collection, rather than ticking new boxes determined by local and global trends.
This approach was reflected in how AAA projects developed in India since 2010—first around the digitisation of personal archives, with the collection of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaram and the range of initiatives they were involved in. These connected with our wider inquiry into institution-building, artist-run spaces, art publications, and living traditions. More recently, these areas have expanded to projects that focus on artist travels, exchange between artists and between institutions, and how vast geographies connect. This speaks to our content priority on “Complex Geographies,” now unfolding through our London–Asia initiative, which strangely enough emerges in the era of Brexit.
How did we select these particular content priorities?
SR: Arriving at these content priorities has been an organic process of excavating our existing collection and programmes over the past fifteen years, assessing domains that have been over-stressed, those that need focus, redressal, reframing. To give an example, there was considerable discussion around whether or not we wanted “Independent Art Spaces” as a content priority. But we decided we would of course look at such spaces, so long as they highlighted complex geographies or sites of construction in the region. On the other hand, “Performance Art” is a content priority because it enables us to examine an art form that poses questions of how to define the archive in relation to the event, from very specific local contexts and social milieus.
SA: We arrived at our current content priorities based on innumerable discussions among colleagues within AAA and with our wider circle of interlocutors. With the AAA team regularly participating in various conferences and fora around the world, there was also a keener awareness of the pressing concerns among our community of thinkers, where every so often one would hear that an archive of this or that does not exist. Though remaining alert, AAA has also been clear that it is not here to fill all gaps. Upon completing our fifteenth year, we had an opportunity to take stock of our collection, of our work thus far and how we at AAA perceive our place in the field, what people expect of us, and so on. The content priorities were therefore chosen based on what we could meaningfully contribute, and also furthering the directions we would like research on visual arts to move towards.
How do these content priorities serve our audiences?
SR: The content priorities allow different concerns to be pronounced in our work, not limited by existing templates of geography, chronology, or art historical thematics. We hope to see these play out on our new website, as it opens new channels across collections connected through hyperlinks, tags, and keywords.
SA: I think it's quite remarkable a non-profit organisation like ours has persevered all these years against many odds and stayed true to its commitments, and has still received support from the art community even if the trends in the field often pointed in other areas. Perhaps it‘s a testament to the hunger and curiosity among people to see and learn about art from different regions, and to connect with diverse archives in a world that claims to be evenly accessible but isn‘t actually so.
Our work over the years is beginning to show in how our collections are increasingly used by a rather significant community of students, researchers, scholars, artists, curators and teachers—not just within Asia, but also in other parts of the world. I feel it is so because our users know there is always more to the field than meets the eye, and they know they can find more in AAA. Our content priorities are a reminder to us that this is how we serve our community.
Sabih Ahmed and Sneha Ragavan are AAA Researchers.