Saturday, 6 August 2011

Letter to Curators I On Boycott of Deconstructing India show in Tel Aviv Museum I August 2011

Letter to Curators / On Boycott of Deconstructing India show in Tel Aviv Museum / August 2011

Dear Tami Katz-Freiman and Rotem Ruff,

I should have answered your joint reply to the Boycott call some time ago, but I have been unwell.

I understand your anxiety as you feel that you and Israel artists and people are being personally attacked. This is not a boycott of you. This is a misconception. Let me emphasize again that the call for Cultural boycott is only against mainstream institutions supporting state policy and not an all encompassing one. The International call for Cultural boycott is not forever, but will be called off when Israel complies with UN norms and recognises the rights of the Palestinian people. The onus is on Israel to change the system.

Several Israeli artists have been coming to India for workshops and residencies and we have all taken part with them, and welcome it. In fact in November this year there will be a major Performance art festival organized in Bangalore by artists here, where an Israeli performance artist will be coming. I am also one of the invitees.

It is true that dissident Israelis have been trying to work for a “change from within”, as you said. Photographer Ram Rahman sent me the attached news report from Yale Daily News, which writes of more than 50 prominent Israeli actors, directors and playwrights recently issuing a petition declaring their refusal to perform in the state-financed theatres in Ariel in Israel, because they say the settlement violates international law and hinders the Israel-Palestine peace process. (see attachment).

When Israeli officials condemn these protests, the argument they use is that “culture should be separated from politics”.

However, the show Deconstructing India is not organized by artist groups or in dissident spaces. The curatorial note is written on the Tel Aviv Museum letterhead! What the Tel Aviv Museum says about itself on the website confirms that it is a central part of the art establishment in Israel. It is no dissident institution. While it may be a “centre for learning” it is also an important part of the political establishment.

Its history is interesting. Founded in 1932, the Tel Aviv Museum was chosen in 1948 by David Ben-Gurion, the architect of Israel and its first Prime minister, to formally proclaim the Establishment of the State of Israel in a ceremony in the “Independence Hall”. This is the famous Israeli Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948.

David Ben-Gurion declaring independence beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism in Tel Aviv Museum, 1948

It is a major institution, which is on the tourist sites of the country, part of the “central hub of modern Hebrew culture” which by definition, leaves out Palestinian culture! In fact Palestinians will find it very difficult to see the Indian show because of the various blockades and security checks that they have to pass through: the show is not for them.

Is Israel a democracy as described in the curatorial synopsis, or is it a military state practicing the system of discrimination, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing as it is variously called, that has compulsory two- year military service for all Israelis, the main purpose of which is to repress and control the Palestinians.

Tens of thousands of soldiers visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art each year. These young men and women give the most precious years of their lives in defense of the State of Israel. Entrance is free, the Museum’s way of thanking them for their service.

- which means that a large part of the museum  audience are soldiers, who will then go back to man the barricades and security checks!

Elaine W Ng, publisher of Art Asia Pacific magazine sent me this article by their editor at large HG Masters, about Palestinian artists:

Your letter says "this upcoming project at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art reflects a profound interest in the political and critical function of art across societies". While the curators' intentions may be good, it is difficult to believe that a change will come from within this extremely conservative institutional framework. I am not sure what sort of open and critical dialogue can take place in this context.

I think instead, that the show will be hijacked and our presence will be used to vindicate the state. 2012 is the Year of Art in Tel Aviv and also the opening of the New Museum Wing. It will be a highly publicised event. Recently after the condemned raids on Gaza and the attack on the peace activists on the Freedom Fleet, Israel has been busy creating Brand Israel to promote the country as happy and happening and uses cultural events and figures in its promotional material. Singers Paul McCartney and Madonna who performed there have been used in this way earlier.

Nalini Malani sent me this website:

The question is whether Deconstructing India will deconstruct Israel? It will only remain a critique of India by Indian artists in Tel Aviv cheerfully seen by all. The show focuses on the problems of India rather than of Israel. If you say we are in similar post-colonial situations, I do not see the factor of a critique of Israel in this show. I think the whole purpose of this show is to gloss over Israel’s problems by pointing at India’s problems.

In fact the situation will be exactly the opposite of what you say. Instead of the Cultural Boycott playing into the hands of people who do not want critical voices, by participating in this show in the museum our critical voices will be completely lost and we will play into the hands of the establishment.

While one of the arguments is that Indian artists can make a statement through their work instead of boycotting, I wonder how an artist can make a critique of the Israeli situation in a show addressing Indian problems? The entire media around this show will be about covering Indian problems!

I truly believe that by boycotting the show we are more likely to create change, rather than by participating.

Just as the art world and wider society is hotly discussing the issue here, maybe an Indian boycott will give Israelis more to reflect about than an Indian show! I think the debate going on here now, is in fact, to use your quote,  "poignant, critical and irrepressible".


Friday, 5 August 2011

TAKE - Curate I Issue 5 I August 2011

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
For this issue, the Phantom Lady invites her friend, the cultural theorist- curator-art critic N. Rajyalakshmi to interview Archana Hande about her thrilling bicycling tour of Switzerland.


NR  Ms. Archana, I am very curious to hear about your cycling project in Switzerland. Did you know that learning bicycling was an important part of the women’s reform movement in India? It meant modernity and freedom, and even now we can see that a woman on a vehicle is the butt of jeers and jokes, if not outright attack.  A friend was telling me that his grandmother created a sensation in Pune as a young widow, learning bicycling from her teenage son. And there is that hilarious scene in Arun Khopkar’s film Katha Don Ganpatraonchi about the two feuding Ganpat Raos, when the mother arrives on a visit in her nine-yard sari, cycling to military music and doing ferocious lathi exercises at every stop.

AH  (Laughs) In Switzerland I was a great curiosity and known as the “the Indian lady on a bicycle”. The Swiss are used to seeing Indian tourists who love luxury and will not walk a step. On top of Mount Titlies in Engelberg where a song was picturized for the film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, there is a big cut out of Shah Rukh and Kajol as Raj and Simran, which is a favourite place for Indians to take photographs. At the base of the mountain you will find a desi hawker’s cart with vada pav, pav bhaji, idli and chai where Indian tourists crowd to devour the food. While eating, they make enquiries like, whether it will be cold and snowy up at 3,238 metres? They are usually dressed in thin Tshirts or sarees and Hawaii chappals. By the time they finish, the ticket counters are closed so they have to come back the next morning!

NR  (Laughs) What was your project about?

AH  I applied for a residency to Pro- Helvetia and my proposal was that I wanted to become a landscape painter. I was in art school in Santiniketan where we are taught to be landscape painters – we used to cycle around the countryside with our sketch books every afternoon and the seniors used to train us: senior boys training junior girls. And it had to be in a particular style. So in Switzerland I thought I’d cycle around being a landscape painter, or playing a location hunter for Bollywood films. A cycle has more convenient access to places: you can carry it, go along paths and stop anywhere you like.

The idea was to bring back the Swiss landscape to India. It’s like a migration of landscape: first, when the trouble started in Kashmir, Switzerland became “Kashmir” in Bollywood films, later Switzerland became “Switzerland”, and then Switzerland came to India. I’ve seen painted Swiss landscape sets in the Ramoji Rao Studios in Hyderabad. At one point the Himachal and Ladakh areas which had less conflict became “Switzerland”. It was all about the exoticness of snow.

NR  I saw a Hindi film, I think it was Hum, in which the Ooty scenes were shot in Mauritius. The scenery did not look like a hill station at all - it looked tropical!

AH  Before going there, I thought it would be very simple- I’d take a tent and a bike and stop whenever I was tired- and I’d do watercolours whenever I felt like.

Then I realized that you can’t do that because there are a lot of restrictions on camping: you can’t really camp anywhere, there are special camping areas, so you have to find places to stay. I would have to carry food for the whole day. I was told that people in the interiors may not speak English and that Switzerland was divided into cantons, and that a lot of the cantons may have a problem with race, so they might not be helpful at all. The Swiss people I was corresponding with thought that Switzerland was not friendly- they were scared that if I was tired and knocked at someone’s door to stay the night I may not be entertained, and they were nervous that I was a woman and an Indian woman, and that I couldn’t afford to stay in Bed and Breakfasts because it would have cost me a lot of money. They completely ruled out my idea of spending the night in village homes, because they said I could meet a psychopath, for instance.

NR  This sounds like a great adventure, and you did it alone. It must have taken a lot of planning?

AH  It took three months of planning - I bought an 18-gear bike in India and did some trial runs in Bangalore and Mumbai, from Kandivli where I live in Mumbai, to Alibaug which is 75 kms away and back, for example. I had to check the timing and whether I could maintain the energy; on the second day the body gets tired, and then you pick up the energy again. In Bangalore I would cycle from my parents’ home to far off parts of the city every day so that my body was not so unprepared.

NR  How did you work it out? You had never been to Switzerland before.

AH  I met several people by chance, and through friends, who helped me. Surekha told me about Lilian Hasler, a Swiss sculptor who lived in Pune. When I met her and told her about my project, she laughed. She said an Indian doing anything physical was the most hilarious thing! Then Lilian said she would help me and took out a cycling map of Switzerland. She showed me all the low and high areas, and advised me to try and follow the rivers and the lakes because if there was a water body, it meant it was a low lying area. She asked me to figure out the entire route and fix it before I left. She said don’t knock on strange doors, but organize a set of friends from here.

Suresh Kumar Gopalreddy’s friend was a sportsman called Balz Laimberger from Aarau. He’s a cyclist and a sailor. He told me to come with a plan, he’s part of a cycling group and they have a directory with the phone numbers and addresses of about five hundred people from all over Switzerland who are cyclists. So a cyclist can call up a member and ask to stay for one night- but you have to be a member. Since Balz was one, he said that any time I got stuck in a place I could call him and fix up my stay, but I could call only a day earlier.  He helped me with the route suggesting short cuts, more scenic views and mountains to avoid, fleshing out the map that Lilian and I had planned.
Bernard Imhasly, the Swiss brother-in-law of my gallerist Shireen Gandhy and his daughter Anisha who lives in Bern, helped out and later Pro-Helvetia gave me an assistant, Lena Eriksson who started connecting with all these people. She made a list of what I would need for the trip and warned me about sudden rains.

NR  And what happened in Switzerland? Did everything go according to plan?   

AH  In the first ten days I thought I would travel by train and get used to the country.  Art Basel was going on and I met a lot of Indian artist friends there and spent time with them seeing all the museums, but it was raining throughout! I fixed my trip to start on 20th June but the rain wouldn’t stop. I was nervous because I wouldn’t be able to cycle properly or do watercolours and I had to reach my host by 7pm. everyday.

In Basel, people told me about Jean- Frederic Schnyder, a Swiss artist who’s a big star: he’s a landscape painter who cycles and paints.  He has several series of works- sometimes he only cycles up to highways and paints them, sometimes it’s just mountains. He’s older now but he did this till his forties and became famous for it. I was very excited about this but everyone told me that it was very difficult to get in touch with him. He lives in Zug. I realized I could go to his place on my bicycle tour, but that would come at the end as it was near Zurich.

Luckily, the rain stopped on the first day and it was sunny for the rest of my trip. I planned my journey anti- clockwise from Zurich. I had wanted to do it clockwise like the pradakshina, but the route was very mountainous, so it was easier to go anti-clockwise and do the plains first. Someone told me this had been Napoleon’s route when he attacked Switzerland! I thought I could meet Jean- Frederic in Zug at the end and show him all my watercolours. I would call my trip “ Meeting Jean- Frederic Schnyder” and build up a story around it, about being on my way to meet him.

NR  I googled Schnyder and an article says he paints certain banal things over and over again, like series of train stations, and called him an artist- archivist. That’s interesting because you work with the idea of the archive yourself, and this is close to your project.

AH  Everyone told me that it was impossible to meet Jean-Frederic unless I went through his gallery, that he rarely appears in public. He didn’t even have an email id or a cell number, just a landline. Till the day I left Basel, I couldn’t get through to him. So the plan to meet him in Zug was unpredictable.

I stayed at Lilian’s flat in the first month in Zurich. When I reached Zurich, Lilian arrived from Pune and she gave me her 7- gear bicycle to use on my trip. Lilian was still doubtful about me. On the first day she showed me around Zurich, and on the second day she gave me the keys of her bike and the address of her studio and said she was having a barbecue there and I should be there at 6 pm sharp. I googled and found a detailed cycle map. I didn’t realize this was a test! The studio was in the countryside 30 kms. away but I managed to cycle there on time. She was pleased and gave me the green signal.

Between Lena, Lilian and Balz, they gave me everything I needed. I didn’t have to buy any equipment, except my clothes. At my first stop in Aarau my host Balz and his friend Jürg Fritzsche laughed at me when they saw my 7- gear bike and Jürg gave me his new 24- gear light mountain bike to use. I was embarrassed because the bike was really expensive, but Balz told me in an aside that Jürg was very rich and he could afford it!

I had to learn how to repair a puncture, and in Switzerland, even parking a bike is a skill because you have to lift it up high and hang it up by a hook on a pole in the parking areas.

NR  And what happened on the actual journey?         

AH  Swiss people exercise the whole day! They spend their lunch breaks having a quick sandwich and jogging the rest of the time. In fact I hardly saw any place that was lonely because there were people cycling or jogging in the deepest forests. Sometimes I felt silly to be doing this project which was so normal for them.

My experience was the opposite of what we had imagined. In one of the most conservative cantons in Giswil (which I was warned could be racist), where I had no host to stay with, the Hotel Krone gave me a free room. The owner said an Indian woman cycling was a rare thing and should be encouraged! Sometimes when I got lost and knocked at some door, people would give me food and drink and cycle along with me till I found my route. I experienced no racism, and because of other cyclists encouraging me on the road, I finished my trip, otherwise I could have got tired and got on to a train at any time, since I had a free train pass.

The host in every town cooked a fantastic dinner for me and showed me around the city. They would make breakfast for me the next day and pack lunch for the journey. So I saw the events and museums everywhere. One of the interesting things I saw was the Obwald music festival held in the deep woods near Giswil. This happens once every year, when there is yodelling through the night. Groups from different cantons perform different types of yodelling. It was a full moon night and Bernard and Anisha had booked a table there. A guest country is invited each year and it was Mali this time. All night, there were group performances by Swiss yodellers, very formal, alternating with wild Mali dancing, with Mali and Swiss food being served. It was a fantastic experience.

When I reached Burgdorf I saw a huge poster of Subodh Gupta’s show, and
in Thun I ran into Bharti Kher’s show. The museum people in Thun said I could park my bike with all my luggage right inside the building at the reception- it was so funny, like taking Subodh’s work to see Bharti’s show!

NR  Ms. Archana, all this is seems so strenuous! Did you manage to do any watercolours at all?                     

AH  The water colour painting project was very difficult, because I hadn’t calculated that I would need to calm down for some time after the cycling, or that sometimes the landscape would not change for a long time. But I would blog every evening. My bicycle tour is part of an ongoing work called Archana Devi Travels.

Sometimes I would end up taking the wrong route. I once took the hiker’s route instead of the cycling path and I had to carry my bike with the luggage up a steep path beside a waterfall, for two or three hours. A car hit me once, and I had several falls, but nothing serious, just got a few bruises.

NR  And did you meet Jean-Frederic Schnyder?

AH  The night before I was leaving for Zug, when I still had no clue about how to contact Jean- Frederic, my host, a curator who knew his gallerist, managed to get his number. I called him and he was so welcoming, inviting me to come at any time! When I reached there he spent four hours with me seeing my watercolours and bringing out his old paintings, to compare our versions of the same landscapes. He knows every mountain in Switzerland. When I asked him about his reputation as a difficult recluse, he laughed and said that was only for commercial people like curators and gallerists, for artists he was always available. He insisted that I stay with them another day, but when I said I had to leave for Zurich, he gave me all his catalogues and even packed my bike for me expertly. So I did finally meet the mythical Jean-Frederic Schnyder!

Cycled 532 kms.
Starting 21 June to 1 July 2010
Route: Zurich – Aarau – Burgdorf – Bern – Thun – Bonigen, near Interlaken – Mariengen – Giswil via Brünig Pass – Sarnen – Engelberg - Emmenbrucke - Zug - Zurich

N. Rajyalakshmi

( N. Rajyalakshmi began her career as a journalist in the Ideal Times, Bangalore, where she had a regular culture column. She is now widely respected internationally as a leading intellectual in the cultural field, celebrated particularly for her interviews with the artist Pushpamala N.)

Pictures courtesy: Archana Hande

March 2011
issue 5

Monday, 1 August 2011

Arguments for Boycott of Deconstructing India show in Tel Aviv Museum I Pushpamala N. I August 2011


The Indian Artists Boycott of the Deconstructing India show to be held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in April 2012, is in solidarity with the International Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called by Palestinian intellectuals, artists and citizen groups, and the India Campaign. The call for boycott, inspired by the earlier successful international boycott against Apartheid South Africa, is a non-violent Gandhian campaign to pressurize Israel to recognize the rights of the Palestine people directed at mainstream Israeli institutions, and not at individuals. 

Once Israel follows UN norms and recognises the legitimate demands of the Palestinians, the Boycott will be called off, just as the boycott against Apartheid South Africa was called off when the apartheid system was dismantled.

The curatorial note is written on the Tel Aviv Museum letterhead. What the Tel Aviv Museum says about itself on the website confirms that it is a central part of the art establishment in Israel. It is no dissident institution. Founded in 1932, the Museum was chosen in 1948 by David Ben-Gurion, the architect of Israel and its first Prime minister, to formally proclaim the Establishment of the State of Israel in a ceremony. It is a major institution, which is on the tourist sites of the country, part of the “central hub of modern Hebrew culture” which by definition, leaves out Palestinian culture. In fact Palestinians will find it very difficult to see the Indian show because of the various blockades and security checks that they have to pass through: it is not for them. While the curator’s intentions may be good, it is difficult to believe that a change will come from within this institutional framework.

While there are dissident artists and groups within Israel, who may be working in similar ways as us, this show is not hosted by them or in an alternative space. In fact, some of the progressive people in Israel also support the Boycott.

The Israeli government is now building Brand Israel which uses cultural events and figures to promote Israel as an exciting, glamourous tourist destination, to whitewash the actual realities there. Singers Paul McCartney and Madonna who performed there were projected in this way. The Indian artists who will show in the highly publicised New Museum Wing will be used to vindicate and promote Brand Israel. I was not sure whether I was comfortable with that.

Some artists feel that we should keep cultural spaces separate from politics. However, the curatorial note of “Deconstructing Israel” is itself political. It speaks of colonization, partition of India and creation of Israel which are all political events. The artists have been chosen because they “deconstruct stereotypes”. We are not deconstructing stereotypes for fun or interior decor, but to make a political, institutional and social critique. 

Indian artists are making works on political subjects like global and national economic exploitation, poverty, rights of farmers and workers and minorities, religious intolerance, gender and sexuality issues, ecology; and use directly political material and quotations in their work. Many of us have been directly involved in protests and agitations, write eloquently on various public issues, and worked to support and build alternate spaces and platforms outside formal institutions to express our voice.

In fact, many Indian artists are invited internationally to show in biennales and important exhibitions precisely because they are making “political’ work. We cannot suddenly turn around and say we are not political. 

In the curatorial note, the curators compare the histories of the two nations as being victims of colonization, comparing the partition of India with the creation of Israel and the ensuing problems and animosities, which itself is problematic. I do not believe that the cases are similar. The Israeli State proclaims that it is built on desert land, an empty land which it civilized and made fertile. This thesis from the start negates the existence of the Palestinians for centuries on this land and dismisses their culture and civilization. It is not a democracy as described in the curatorial synopsis but a military state practising the system of apartheid, that has compulsory two- year military service for all its young people, the main purpose of which is to repress and control the Palestinians. The Tel Aviv Museum rewards free passes to Israeli soldiers for their recreation after their tiring duties, and they form an important part of the museum audience.

To answer the argument that all governments are repressive and why only target Israel: I believe this is a purist argument that cynically precludes all action. In fact I have not heard of a boycott call against USA, China or other places mentioned by artists as repressive, from people repressed by them. There are specific international petitions like the recent protest against Ai Wei Wei’s arrest that many of us have signed, but it is interesting that neither Ai Wei Wei who worked on the Beijing Olympics, nor other targeted Chinese artists or academics, have actually called for a boycott of Chinese institutions. They may not want , or need a boycott.

There is a misconception that this is just a show of moral disapproval, something “holier than thou”. The Boycott is not about some “good people” punishing some “bad people” for their “bad deeds”. The Boycott is a tactic and a strategy for collective action, most famously adopted by Mahatma Gandhi for the Swadeshi movement, to put pressure on a worst- case situation to change it. As we know, we did get Independence by following these strategies, which have influenced the world. No change is instant and needs to build up over time. However each action is like a building block.

Some artist friends felt that as artists, we had no power to change anything, so what was the point in the Boycott? The answer is that artists, intellectuals and sportspeople are seen as opinion makers which is why they are asked to take a stand on issues. In the earlier successful Boycott of Apartheid South Africa, the strong stand taken by individuals and small groups built into a large movement that pressurized world governments into imposing sanctions, which finally led to the dismantling of Apartheid.

Though others like Nalini Malani had categorically decined to show in this exhibition sometime ago, this was not made public. I felt that the issue should go into the public sphere to provoke debate and bring awareness. To boycott or not to boycott is each artist’s decision, but it is interesting that everybody in the art world is now thinking about the matter, as well as the spontaneous letters that have come in solidarity.

Bangalore August 2011