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Looking back at 25 years of Khoj's commitment to social art practices

Since its incubation in 1997, Khoj International Artists Association has placed the ‘community’ and transdisciplinary practices at the heart of its residencies

'Yesterday, Today, Everyday' from 'Threading the Horizon' show. Courtesy: Khoj International Artists Association
'Yesterday, Today, Everyday' from 'Threading the Horizon' show. Courtesy: Khoj International Artists Association

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In Khirkee, a significant exhibition has been on view since November. It doesn’t just bring to fore the quotidian experience of everyday violence by women, queer and trans people, and those at the margins, but also marks 25 years of Khoj—an autonomous not-for-profit contemporary arts organisation, which was incubated in 1997. True to the organisation’s commitment to socially-engaged art, this show, ‘Threading the Horizon’, too brings together 14 community-based projects from across India. “[It] brings to the fore acts of resilience that emerge through artistic strategies of placemaking, building voice, bearing witness, negotiating visibility and leisure, healing and catharsis,” mentions the curatorial note.

In ‘Queer Futures’ by Aryakrishnan R, for instance, a set of art/cultural practitioners, activists, institutions, cultural theorists and LGBTQIA+ communities in Kerala came together to ask the following questions: How do sexual minority communities enact the life they envision for themselves and others? How do they partake in the cultural process? Another project, ‘Gendered Spaces’ by Sumona Chakravarty and Nilanjan Das, has emerged out of Chitpur, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Kolkata. It examines how different spaces in the area have perpetuated shared ideals of masculinity.

Then there is ‘Towards Feminist Futures’ by Jasmeen Patheja, who works with communities to build and archive testimonials of sexual violence. “Most women and girls across the world remember the clothes they wore when they experienced gender-based violence. The garment is a witness and memory of gender-based injustice,” mentions the note. Another significant project is ‘Change Room Archives’ by Baaraan Ijlal, which is an on-going sound installation of conversations about one’s fears, apprehensions and desires.

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What makes these projects significant is that they seek a long-term engagement with the communities that the artists function within, and don’t end with this showcase. That mirrors Khoj’s endeavour too—to incubate emerging, experimental and transdisciplinary creative practices and pedagogies over time. It all started when the organisation moved to Khirkee in 2002 and sought to build trust with the community located in the neighbourhood. “We had bought the place from architect Pradeep Sachdeva, who was very close to the community there. We took it upon ourselves to forge a bond. So, the earliest residencies involved talking to shopkeepers, showcasing projects on the street, getting kids in the neighbourhood to draw maps or take photos with the single-roll disposable cameras,” says Pooja Sood, founding member and director, Khoj International Artists Association.

Some rather interesting projects came up as a result. There was Khirkeeyan (2006) by CAMP, in which the neighbourhood television was repurposed as conversation systems in a mashup of cable TV and early CCTV systems in the urban village. Artist-researcher Malini Kochupillai started Khirkee Voice, which now is a platform for the residents’ expression. Sreejata Roy mapped the neighbourhood to look at women in public spaces and later at the process of gentrification of the area.

The Khoj team also realised that the projects should not be about artists using the community as ‘content’ for the artwork and then showing it in “fancy places”. “We stopped some such projects. Our understanding of ethics has also evolved. I am not saying that artists are being opportunists, but we have learnt to alert them. A lot of our long-term projects have come out of such conscious residencies, such as Khirkee Voice, Phone Booth, and more. They emerged from real concerns such as the horrible incidents around racism that happened here. We asked ourselves what we can do without getting into an activist mode,” elaborates Sood. The Coriolis Effect: Currents Across India and Africa emerged from this.

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‘Threading the Horizon’ takes this dialogue further. Sood acknowledges that not every artist can be excited about Khirkee. They function within their own hyperlocal communities, and might want to address issues within those. A start was made in 2014-15 to look at communities beyond Delhi’s urban village with the ‘Negotiating Routes’ residency, which looked at community practices around ecology. “We got some fabulous projects from Badrinath, Sikkim, and more. ‘Threading the Horizon’ is along those lines. We gave out small support grants to 14 artists over three years to look at the vulnerability of marginalised genders and urbanism. The idea was to not just look at big cities but peri-urban areas as well. This exhibition looks at violence, but not as an isolated event. The artists have looked at everyday violence of invisibilisation, lack of leisure spaces, and more. Commitment to issues such as these will continue to be the focus at Khoj in the years to come,” she adds.

‘Threading the Horizon’ can be viewed at Khoj Studios, S-17 Khirkee Extension, New Delhi till 30 December, 7 pm


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