An octopus. That’s how Priyanka Raja, co-founder of the contemporary arts gallery, Experimenter, sees the space she and her co-founder Prateek Raja have nurtured over the past 15 years. “One head and many arms—even though we work across multiple galleries and different kinds of programming, the vision remains the same,” she explains.
As the gallery, with three spaces in Kolkata and Mumbai, completed 15 years in 2023, Priyanka and Prateek are busy with an array of exhibitions that embody the ethos of Experimenter—to have a politically charged programme, democratise art and show diverse practices.
As part of the ongoing Mumbai Gallery Weekend (on till 14 January), Experimenter has chosen to come out of the white cube space by showing art collective CAMP’s seven-channel installation, Bombay Tilts Down, at the Sassoon Docks. Presented in collaboration with St+art India and supported by the Mumbai Port Authority, the experimental film was created during the covid-19 pandemic, with six CCTV cameras perched atop a 35-floor building on E Moses Road, Mumbai, to descend into vertical landscapes, filled with unfinished construction and sprawling haphazard settlements.
Within its Colaba gallery, which opened in 2022, the gallerists are showcasing a shift in artist Sohrab Hura’s practice with Ghosts In My Sleep, on view till 16 March. Practising photographer Hura is presenting an entirely new language—works on paper made with gouache and pastel drawings based on the short film, Bittersweet. It shows the artist’s continuing engagement with images, albeit in a different vocabulary and medium. This exhibition also highlights the gallery’s long relationships with artists; they first showed Hura’s work in 2017.
At the Hindustan Road gallery in Kolkata, a new practice will take centre stage. A narrative video game, Nobody Knows For Certain (2023), by Goa-based artist Afrah Shafiq, centred on India’s cultural engagement with the erstwhile Soviet Union in the form of illustrated children’s books and magazines during the Cold War years, will be shown from 19 January to 2 March. And at its Ballygunge space—the gallery’s first home in Kolkata—a novel interdisciplinary approach will be on display in the performance, Notes On Becoming, the first solo in India by Zurich-based visual artist and choreographer, Alexandra Bachzetis. Her performance is located at the intersection of dance, visual arts and theatre and looks at the many ways the body can manifest in a conflation of spaces.
The programming shows the fluidity with which the gallery moves across spaces, practices, mediums and messages. It is no wonder then that in November 2023, London-based contemporary art magazine ArtReview hailed Experimenter as a “space for fearlessness”. Priyanka and Prateek are part of its 2023 annual Power 100 list, which picks individuals, groups and collectives shaping the art ecosystem of our times. Artists Bose Krishnamachari, Dayanita Singh and curator Natasha Ginwala from India are also on the list.
“From the beginning, Experimenter has been an extension of our way of looking at the world—the way the world reveals itself to us. The artists add to that by bringing in a certain unique political voice, and we map this collective thinking across our spaces,” says Prateek. The gallerists have carefully chosen the structures for their three spaces—be it the restored 1930s buildings in Kolkata or the 1890s structure in Colaba, Mumbai. The idea of revival and re-use of architecture is important to them, to usher these heritage structures into the contemporary era. The showcase of CAMP’s film at Sassoon Docks is an example. Similarly, Shafiq’s video game is rooted in Kolkata’s fascination with everything Soviet in the 1970s-80s. “We all grew up with Soviet literature; some of my cousins have Russian names like Pushkin. In our programming, we are constantly thinking about the site,” she says.
The seeds of Experimenter were sown in December 2007 during a conversation between Priyanka and Prateek about setting up an independent arts space. At the time, Priyanka was working as India media manager with Proctor and Gamble in Mumbai, while Prateek was an arts consultant in Kolkata. When the gallery opened in 2008, they were clear that the programming would not be limited to Indian artists, but to voices from across South-East Asia, including Naeem Mohaiemen, Bani Abidi, Aziz Hazara and Ayesha Sultana.
Earlier they each had clearly demarcated roles—with Prateek taking the lead curatorially, and Priyanka looking after the logistics and commercials—but things have changed now. Over the years, the gallery has grown like a collective. “With the scale of our operations and countrywide programming, it is no longer just Prateek and I running everything. We run the programme collectively with a group of 30 very talented and dedicated colleagues,” says Priyanka.
It is relationships with colleagues and artists that power the gallery. The couple call them “Experimenter’s nervous system”. Some of the artists such as Julien Segard, Soumya Sankar Bose, Sahil Naik and Prabhakar Pachpute have been working with the gallery since its inception. “It excites us to know what occupies their mind, what challenges them and how they go on to show the mirror to the world. What then gets shown at the gallery is not just our collective vision but also a reflection of the times that we live in. It becomes a contemporary statement,” says Prateek.
Take the work of Aziz Hazara, an artist born in Wardak, Afghanistan, who works between Kabul and Berlin across media such as video, photography, sound and sculpture. His work constantly questions what it means to be born and live in a war-torn world, one which is caught in the cross-currents of political ideologies. “A gallerist’s role is to be as close to the voice of the artist. Our programmes evolve as their work and practice evolves,” says Prateek. Priyanka adds: “Even though we get divergent practices from all over the world, we look at ones that take a strong position.”
While the gallery has always supported moving image and installation practices, the team is now witnessing an interesting moment in art with the advent of Artificial Intelligence. “Some artists are experimenting with AI, some are already working on post-Internet moments. We are interested in the minds of those artists, and how that impacts the medium they choose to express their idea,” says Prateek.
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There are some new developments at Experimenter in the new year. For one, they have signed up a new artist, Christopher Kulendran Thomas. Hailing from the Sri Lankan diaspora and based out of Berlin, the artist is known for politically charged works such as New Eelam, which lies somewhere on the boundaries of art and a startup enterprise. “Apart from such exciting practices, right now my current interest is in everything slow—things that happen within a certain considered pace. For instance, Sohrab (Hura) has been moving towards this body of work for over two to three years. In productions that are nurtured over time, one never knows what direction they will take next. And that is exciting to me,” says Priyanka.