A museum acts as a space of discovery, an institute that reflects other communities or times, bringing history into context and depicting the lives of people and cultures. But when a museum is assembled by people outside of that culture or community, is it a true reflection?
Through the Tara Books published work titled Between Memory and Museum, editors Gita and Arun Wolf collaborated with 38 tribal and folk artists to explore the concept of a museum juxtaposed to a community’s personal memories. “The idea for this project was to give indigenous and folk artists the space to think about the museum as an institution, to reimagine a cultural space in which their lives and art are represented. We wanted to explore the very idea of a museum, and its relationship to the cultures it represents, by giving artists a platform to discuss and respond to how they saw the museum,” they tell us about the inception of this project.
From books about traditional artists, to museums of folk and tribal culture, these communities end up being subjects of anthropological study, rather than the authors of their own stories. As it is in many other parts of the world, in India, indigenous artists rarely get the chance to express themselves on their own terms, with their own voice telling their tale. In an attempt to turn the tables and pass the microphone to these artists themselves, Gita and Arun Wolf’s inspiration came from a remark by Gond artist Bhajju Shyam regarding an exhibit he made for the Manav Sangrahalaya (Museum of Mankind) in Bhopal, “I helped create a Gond exhibit. We built a house and brought in all kinds of things you find in village homes. We made a Gond house, everything was as it is in the village, but it still felt strange to me. It wasn’t home, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping inside it,” he said. Reminded of the gap between the lived-life and the representation of cultures of people on the fringes of the mainstream, they established this unique project.
Museums vs Memory: The gap in cultural storytelling
“One of the things that this project examines is the difference between how a museum preserves and protects the past, as opposed to how histories are passed on in the oral and visual cultures of different communities. These are very contrasting approaches to memory. A museum tends to freeze time and remove things from the stream of history, by isolating and preserving the objects in its collection. The objects and works of art in an exhibit are removed from their position in a culture and re-contextualised in exhibits that occupy a kind of third space. This is a very different way of remembering, when we compare it to how traditional practices keep community histories alive,” Gita and Arun explain. In contrast, artistic practices of indigenous and folk art forms are rooted in everyday, traditional practices, such as floor decorations or wall murals, and these are passed on from generation to generation within a community. And that’s how the cultural memory is kept alive, through constant and dynamic renewal.
Talking about the power struggle between those who study and those who are studied, Arun and Gita tell us, “While some progressive academics, scholars and institutions have been able to challenge the perception that indigenous communities are primitive, what has, perhaps, been more difficult to avoid is the well-meaning tendency to romanticise them as wise and nostalgic counterpoints to the present. This also serves to deprive them of agency, particularly in the case of creative individuals from indigenous communities who are mobile, urban educated, or have been displaced.” As they see it, the only way to shape accurate narratives is to involve the community in their own storytelling.
38 unique voices and expressions, and the evolution of art forms
Each of the different folk and tribal artists collaborated with for this book enabled them to speak and tell stories from their own locations, in their own voice, something rarely done before while documenting a culture. “For us, the interaction with the artists was a very enriching but also humbling experience. It was quite incredible to see the sensitivity and sophistication that the artists, most of whom have not had formal education, brought to their responses. The speed and confidence with which they worked was also quite astonishing, and we valued the serious but also light manner in which they engaged with the subject of the museum,” Gita and Arun share. With words and images coming together on each page framing the commentary of this book, they also explored the medium of film to communicate more tangentially and directly, giving a closer view of the artists so one can hear and see them speaking for themselves.
Traditional art forms have a vocabulary and visual grammar commonly understood and recognised within a community, and these elements germinate over time through complex interactions. Through influences from outside communities and exposure to other artistic styles, institutional interventions and even technologies that alter lifestyles, these art forms evolve and change with time.
Illustrating this constant evolution, Gita and Arun describe the Bengal Patua tradition: “The Patuas are travelling bards and storytellers who traditionally illustrate their narrative songs with painted scrolls called Pats. Originally, Patua art featured stories from local legends and religious tales.Today, the form is adept at turning a range of themes, from contemporary happenings to political biographies, into narrative art. The Patua artist Manimala Chitrakar describes the effects of changing time on the Patua form like this, “In the beginning there was the Patua performance, which was like a film. A scroll was unravelled, bit by bit, and a story was sung. Now there is a TV in every house. When I go to a house and say, ‘Aunty come listen to a song,’ she says, ‘No, today my favourite film star is on TV.’ But now we are interviewed on the same TV. What brought us down, has elevated us again! In my painting, I show us, the artists; we all love to get together from time to time. I’m singing with a scroll. A camera man is filming. Today, we paint and sing different things, based on what we hear in the news or see in films. We don’t paint only old stories but add our own understanding of things.””
From cities and villages, the varying perspectives
India is one of the few places in the world where traditional artists are our contemporaries, and not confined to our history, creating a rare privilege for those who work with indigenous and folk artists who belong to ancient cultures, but live in the present. “This creates an interesting relationship between the past and present. For example, there are three generations of Gond artists today – those who have always lived in the village, people born in the village who then moved to the city, and their children who grew up in the city. Interestingly, young Gond artists more accustomed to urban life still continue to be imaginatively linked to the forest,as well as to the memory of earlier ways of being. Conversely, city-based artists also feed back into village art.The rapid development of the art form has enabled fascinating conversations between the old and the new,” Gita and Arun elaborate.
Who has the power to put whose work in a museum?
“The question of who can speak for whom is fundamental to cultural politics,” observe the duo. As they see it, when people are invited to be their own chroniclers in a museum, they can gain a degree of control over how their cultural inheritance in represented. It is ironic that in the very cities where these cultures are submerged, indigenous art forms are in fact elevated by museums for being ‘different’. So for a museum to break with old hierarchies and question unequal power relations it has to not just showcase the art forms of “outsiders”, but also find ways of addressing the social and political realities that surround them. “One way of doing this could be to reverse the anthropological gaze, and invite indigenous artists to comment on the museum and on metropolitan life,” they sum it all up.
[Watch the ‘Between Memory and Museum,’ the documentary film here]
[Update: The word ‘authors’ was changed to the word ‘editors’ in the first sentence.]