Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"I see curatorial work as activism"

Dr. Masum Momaya has been a curator for close to 8 years. Working at the Smithsonian Museum, she has put together an exhibition called “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans shape History”. Speaking about museum curatorial work as a form of storytelling, and sharing her own experiences, thoughts and ideas about the commonalities that both India and the US have, Dr. Momaya weighs in on a very significant element of storytelling in this interview: deconstructing stereotypes.  

Dr Masum Momaya
Let’s talk about the show. What’s the story behind curating a show exclusively for and on the Indian Diaspora?
The Smithsonian began working on this show in 2007 – seven years in the making. They were approached by a couple of Indian American community members in the Washington DC area, who said that they would love to see something of their history reflected on their walls. These local community members have been coming to the Smithsonian for decades, bringing their parents and children and grandchildren - but really had never seen their own histories reflected. They decided to contribute not only some money – but things that they had, like their own documents, newspaper clippings, photographs as well as connections to Indians around the country. That was how it was formed in 2007. One of the capstones of it was this exhibition – Beyond Bollywood – the goal of which is to show the contributions that Indian Americans that have gone into shaping American history.

What narratives of the Indian Diaspora does the show bring to the table?
Our time in the US dates all the way back to the founding of the country. A lot of people don’t know that – they think that the Indian immigration into the US is a recent phenomenon having begun in the 1960s. We have information that shows that it dates back to the 1700s, and some sources say 1620s. We wanted to be able to show the contributions as vast and varied as they are. The exhibition explores political contributions in terms of the struggle for rights, campaigns for rights, also professional contributions across different fields and also cultural contributions through all of the different forms of our heritage including dance, music, art, fashion, films, literature and the like. The title Beyond Bollywood is there because we do some public polling when we title an exhibition – we asked the general American public what comes to mind when they thought of India – and Bollywood came up quite a bit. Bollywood is just one form of representation of popular culture representation. It is not even a complete representation of the film landscape in India. But that was the association. We paired it with the word Beyond, to indicate that we were going to go beyond the popular culture representations of Indians in the United States. The subtitle is “Indian Americans shape the Nation” which is the kernel of this exhibition is about.

Putting the narratives together might have been a tremendous challenge in its own right. What were some of the issues you encountered?
It was very challenging! One of the first panels in the exhibition says that Indian Americans are as diverse as Americans in America and Indians in America, and Indians in India. In every way – language, religion, social class, occupation and history of immigration. The strategy has been to not be exhaustive in our curation, and rather, to be more inclined towards telling the story that we wanted to tell – which is the emphasis on contributions. In doing so, we have managed to represent Indians in different parts of India, and of the Indian Diaspora that came in from other parts of the world – like East and South Africa, the Gulf, the Caribbean and Europe, even. They are all part of the 3.3 million people we count as the Indian Diaspora in the USA.

What kind of stereotypes does the exhibition attack? What identities is it looking to assert?
As with all films, you have to interrogate and evaluate the authenticity of the representation. It was explicitly one of our goals to dismantle stereotypes – that was why we start with them, and Bollywood was in our title, and that is why early in the exhibition there is a panel called India in the American imagination which traces historical and contemporary stereotypes because naming them is a way to start deconstructing them. With the way people continue following the story in the gallery, you really hope that the information challenges what popular conceptions are. We found that actually in terms of visitors, the majority of them are not Indian because it is situated in a museum that caters to the broad international public, and many of the visitors are accidental – in that they have come to see something else and just wander in. Thus far, the feedback has been positive and people have learned a lot of information. Most non-Indians in the US have friends, school mates or classmates, or acquaintances who are Indian – so they know something or have encountered India through food, fashion, film or music. The idea is that this exhibit is to take them to different levels especially because we designed it in a way that people are hit with stereotypes when they come in and as they go in, the story starts to become more nuanced.

What  makes curatorial work a successful mode of storytelling?
I think the visual medium is very powerful. Pairing text with images – pictures tell a thousand words – to me especially, some of the historical images are powerful. Just to see the images of Indian railroad workers in 1906 in Southern Oregon – to know that our infrastructure in the US had Indian hands working on them and to be able to see that visually is very powerful. Our designer for the exhibition is an American-Japanese Woman and the process of designing it was an interesting one. We went to a lot of Indian-American spaces – we went to restaurants, saree shops, houses of worship, people’s homes – and just to look for visual cues for how spaces might be marked in different ways. There are symbols of that in the exhibit as well. For instance, when you enter the exhibit, we have a display of shoes – because in India, when you enter a home or a house of worship, you are expected to take off your shoes. The same thing marks the gallery as a different kind of place. It is all about giving people visual cues to make them ask questions.

Do you believe that the information put forth for a recipient is consumed exactly as the giver of the information wants it to be?
A lot of times, people don’t read the text – they look at the pictures first, and if it interests them, they look at captions. Sometimes they do a whole quick round and then come back to anything specific that caught their eye. Very rarely do they really spend time reading text panels. In this case, the visual medium is very important because you may have 10 seconds to capture attention and that is what we do. I also believe that an exhibition isn’t finished when it is open to the public, but it is in some sort of a mid point. So what happens is the curator decides what goes on the walls and spaces – a lot of things get left out because it should not be too fragmented and confusing. The exhibition is changed or enhanced by the conversation that happens at the gallery. Sometimes there are multiple generations – and pictures they see evoke questions, memories, opinions – and those conversations happen within the groups of people that see these images and learn information from these exhibits. All of this is a part of the exhibition – it is really the interaction in the space that makes an exhibition what it is. That is the whole point – an exhibition is a point of departure. You should set the foundation grounded in research and scholarship to facilitate a conversation. Let them take it where it will, you just have to give them the information.

In curatorial work, one cannot afford to ignore the bad parts of a narrative. Do you think there is an element of risk involved in putting out information of that kind for the masses to consume?
Days after the Twin Tower attacks  on September 11, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, 
a Sikh gas station owner, was shot to death in Mesa, Arizona in one of the first acts 
of retaliation targeting Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and South Asian Americans. 
This turban, which he once wore, was donated to the National Museum of American History by his family. 
Photo Credit: Richard Strauss, National Museum of American History
I think the way it is handled is in the subtleties of capturing and placing things, and how they are framed and in the images that are chosen. It was very important to me to balance struggles and achievements. Throughout the exhibit, you see protests – for example, in the gallery, at the very beginning, we have the turban of a man called Balbir Singh Sodhi – the first man to be killed in a hate crime after 9/11, and it is near the front of the gallery. I would say that I don’t think that these are shocking things for the public – I think in general there is quite a bit of knowledge and awareness of discrimination and prejudice, of attacks and violence, gender based violence and such – so nothing we show is really surprising. For some it may be new information – but we have not had the kind of experiences where people have been made angry by the very presentation of information. Awareness is raised, and that is the whole point. The idea is to balance achievement and struggle. There were two different groups – some wanted to highlight achievements, some only struggle – but in the end, it is part of the power of the initiative to work to balance the two. Telling a balanced story is very important.

In the information era, where does curatorial work sit? Is it right to call it a form of peace journalism?
I see curatorial work as activism, as political work – I hope it leads to peace to the extent that it contributes to understanding, tolerance and embracing of people whose heritage and history may be different. We wrote this in the US as an Indian and an American story. For instance, there are references to things that are cornerstones in American history so that both communities can relate to the milestones. I would say that it is best to contribute to opening up people’s minds and changing their ideas – and opening up people’s hearts in a way that supports advocacy work. I see those two things as parallel and complementary, and I feel it makes advocacy easier when it contributes to awareness and advocacy. If people are debating a policy or legislation, they will be able to do it with a broader understanding of the situation on ground. Immigration is a huge debate in the US – and it is very important to understand these historical narratives that create each community. Some of the same sentiments that existed in 1912 exist in 2012 – same types of cartoons and hate speeches among other things. The idea is to encourage routes for informed opinions.

Indians in New Jersey and implemented educational programs
on South Asian cultures in Jersey City schools. The group also helped pass
a bill in the New Jersey legislature raising mandatory penalties for "bias” crimes.
Photo by Corky Lee

In the process of drawing up the exhibits, did you come across any narratives that are common to both nations, and by extension, becoming a singular narrative for the Indian Diaspora in the US?
One of the books that were written around the time when we were finishing up this presentation was a book called Colour Cosmopolitanism, where the writer compares letters exchanged back and forth between Indian freedom fighters and leaders of the American civil rights movement. It is amazing to discover the philosophical connections and solidarity between the two, and the power that it has had. I don’t personally feel that I would be in the US today if that wasn’t there – because my parents wouldn’t have stayed, wouldn’t have felt welcome or that they had rights or opportunities available for them – they would have found it unfriendly to be there. To me, those connections are monumental and I hope that they will always be uniting elements for both countries – the commitment to human rights, democracy and the future of their people. In both countries, democracy is a work in progress, lots to be done in both sides, but that philosophical connection will always bring both countries together and help them evolve.

View the Digital Museum here.