Over 12 years ago, Prateek and Priyanka Raja—high-school sweethearts, now a married couple—stayed up all night, speaking on the phone about an idea that consumed them. They wanted to create a platform for the visual arts beyond the familiar format of the white cube gallery—something that would be cutting edge, not only for the work it would feature, but also the principles it would shape itself by. “Since then we haven’t shifted from a single point of our original discussion,” says Priyanka, as Experimenter, the gallery she founded with her husband in Kolkata, turns 12.
On the Indian art scene, 12 is a relatively youthful age, though Experimenter has carved an identity for itself like none other. From the very beginning, it has lived up to its name, featuring (mostly young and emerging) artists who experiment with form and content, holding up a mirror to society, and enriching the “politically agile programme” (as Priyanka puts it) in a quiet corner of south Kolkata—rather than in Delhi or Mumbai, the supposed hubs of Indian art. “There was never any question of opening our gallery elsewhere,” Prateek says. “The audience in our city is exceptionally well-informed, and remains so to this day—this is where the magic happens.”
The first show the Rajas curated together in 2009—featuring Naeem Mohaiemen, Bani Abidi and Shilpa Gupta—was anchored around the personal and community freedoms experienced by these artists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, respectively. It was curatorial foresight that the theme of the show, as well as the work shown in it, stay urgently relevant in 2021.
“We knew there may not be a market or enough commercial support for the kind of work we wanted to show,” says Priyanka, “but we threw that fear away early on. We didn’t ever worry about selling or asked our artists to make market-friendly work.” The young team the gallery worked with never wavered from the “can-do” spirit. Some of its artists, like Mohaiemen, are now globally recognised names, appearing regularly at documenta and the Venice Biennale.
Over the next few months, viewers in the city, and online, will be able to witness a series of shows and programmes organised by the gallery to mark its latest milestone. From Mohaiemen’s latest work (a movie shot in Kolkata called Jole Dobe Na), to shows by artists like Sahil Naik, Julien Segard and others, to a learning module conducted by Abidi and Priya Sen, the offerings planned are diverse, oriented as much towards disseminating art as increasing the public’s awareness of the questions that underlie its creation.
Since its inception, Experimenter has kept one eye trained squarely on amplifying conversations around the creative process, rather than run itself as a commercial gallery to the exclusion of all else. Within one year of its opening, the gallery started the Curators’ Hub, which has become an annual fixture, where practitioners, theorists and artists from all over the world participate in a vibrant dialogue over several days about the state of contemporary art. More recently, with the onset of the pandemic, Experimenter started the Generator Fund, a cooperative enterprise to redistribute monetary resources to artists who need it most, those hit hard by the coronavirus crisis.
“For us, building relationships with artists is crucial. There has to be friendship and comfort in each other’s company,” says Prateek. “Once we start working with them, they become part of the family.” Priyanka, using the marital metaphor, elucidates the process of acquiring artists for their list. “It begins with slow research into their work and repeated studio visits, followed by conversations with them—like dating, you could say,” she says. “There is no fixed formula to our selection.” Hopefully many more years of robustly fearless experiments await Experimenter.
For more on Experimenter’s forthcoming programming, visit Experimenter.in.