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Deconstructing the decade

  • Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery completes 10 years as an independent arts space that challenges preset notions
  • To celebrate the occasion, the gallerists have branched out into two other programmes, Experimenter Outpost and Experimenter Radio

Prabhakar Pachpute’s ‘Thousands Of Vibrations’ from the ongoing exhibition.
Prabhakar Pachpute’s ‘Thousands Of Vibrations’ from the ongoing exhibition. (Photo: Experimenter)

It was during a late-night phone conversation between Priyanka and Prateek Raja in December 2007 that the seeds of Experimenter were sown. At the time, Priyanka was working as India Media Manager with Proctor and Gamble in Mumbai while Prateek was an arts consultant in Kolkata. “We lived between two cities. I would be in Mumbai for 15-20 days, where Prateek would join me," she says. “But even after a decade of knowing him as my best friend and then as life partner, I had no inkling about his ‘dream’." That night, Prateek laid out his vision for an independent arts space and Priyanka liked the idea of starting something, which would also allow them to spend more time together.

“Whenever someone asks me why I shifted from the corporate world to the art space, I always say, for love," says Priyanka.

 Prateek and Priyanka Raja.
Prateek and Priyanka Raja. (Photo: Mint)

Once the decision was taken, the couple travelled across the world, took a course in South Asian and contemporary arts at Sotheby’s in London, and reached out to people in the arts field such as Hammad Nassar of Green Cardamom, London, Marian Goodman in New York, and Mónica Manzutto and José Kuri of Kurimanzutto, who had a gallery in a similar off-centre location in Mexico City and a similar vision—not only did they all respond, but they continue to be friends with the couple even today.

In a way, the trajectory of Experimenter gallery is deeply intertwined with Priyanka and Prateek Raja’s personal journey. “In 2009, after a year of bohemian living, we welcomed our first child, Kaavin. Experimenter started three-four months after that. He is 10 now and so is our gallery," says Priyanka, who is in the midst of a series of events and projects to mark the 10th anniversary—such as the ongoing show, Searching For Stars Amongst The Crescents, at the newly opened Ballygunge Place space and Naeem Mohaiemen’s dui in the older Hindustan Road space.

In the beginning, the duo had clear, demarcated roles—while Prateek took the lead curatorially, Priyanka looked after the logistics and commercials. The couple maintains that while the roles have now merged, the gallery hasn’t deviated from its initial aim—to have a politically charged programme which incorporates diverse practices, and to democratize art for viewers. “The one big decision in the beginning was which city to base ourselves in, as a lot of our relationships were with Mumbai and Delhi-based artists. But Prateek decided to run the programme in a thinking city like Kolkata, also our home city, which is so full of character and is deeply rooted in culture," says Priyanka.

Since it started, Experimenter has not restricted itself to Indian artists, but has shown strong voices from South-East Asia such as Mohaiemen, Samson Young, Bani Abidi and Ayesha Sultana. “The vision was to not be geographically bound but to be location-free. We work with 21 artists at the moment and the selection has been a slow process," says Priyanka.

After a series of conversations and visits, the couple gauges if the artist is deeply invested and entrenched in a particular position or politics, and then adds him or her to the programme. “Naeem is from Bangladesh but is based in New York. Bani is from Pakistan but lives in Berlin. Today, the world is location-free. It’s hard for artists to work around a nationality anyway. It is more about their position and politics," says Prateek, who feels everyone in the programme is like family—and that their continuing relationship with the artists is a deep commitment.

In the past decade, both the gallery and its artists have won accolades—Artsy, an online resource for art collecting and education, called Experimenter one of “The Most Important Young Galleries in the World"in June, while Mohaiemen was nominated for the Turner Prize in London last year. But what is it that validates the decision of starting the gallery for the Rajas? “With a name like Experimenter, the space already makes a position. From the beginning, we never saw the need to conform to any preset process of doing things. And we are happy that we are able to continue our decision making irrespective of who thinks what," says Priyanka.

For instance, when Experimenter completed a year, the duo realized there was a deep void in curatorial thinking, and that there was a need for curators to come together on a common platform. So they came up with the Experimenter Curators’ Hub, where some of the leading names from the international art world, such as Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery, London, Adam Symczyk, curator of Documenta14, and Nada Raza, research curator for the Tate Research Centre Asia, came together. “We didn’t ask them to present papers, but to tell us what they were thinking when they made an important exhibition. It is like going to school for three days and hearing from some of the finest minds," says Priyanka. Curator Natasha Ginwala has been moderating the hub for seven years . The continuity of her voice and presence helps the audience understand the positions taken earlier and then link them to the urgent issues of the times.

To celebrate 10 years, the gallerists have branched out into two other programmes. One is the Experimenter Outpost, which will allow them to bring the exhibition of a white cube space into old spaces—abandoned, disused, closed—anywhere in the world. “The idea is to see how art can inhabit such a space and how people can interact with art," says Prateek. The other is Experimenter Radio, which started as a fun initiative to reach out to a wider audience, with playlists created by the artists represented by the gallery. “There are cafés in Kolkata that stream Experimenter Radio. I went to a dinner in Delhi where they were streaming Sohrab Hura’s playlist," says Priyanka.

Education is an important part of the programming, and the Experimenter Learning Program helps people from all walks of life immerse themselves in visual arts through workshops, salon-style classrooms, and lectures with experts such as Naman Ahuja and Sanchayan Ghosh. Over the past year, 12 such sessions were conducted on subjects like music, textiles and film-making. This year will see artist and writer Shuddhabrata Sengupta do a module on time, and Naveen Kishore, founder of Seagull Books, conduct a course on independent publishing.

“Prateek and I believe that the future of the world lies in independent action. So we are hoping to plant these seeds of ideas in the coming year through the programme," says Priyanka.

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