Transforming Spaces, Overcoming Dyslexia, and Being Global
My grand-father was an avid collector of things, or at least that’s how I used to identify them growing up. For instance, I remember there was this statue in my house, taller than me, of a female figure dancing in a classical Indian pose. I basically call my family, well-organised hoarders. I come from a background where aesthetics were part of what we did in some way, my father collected his own artefacts, and my mother stamps. My earliest memory of art, the way we understand it now, was still through my parents because my mother insisted that I learn to do art from a young age. But my first memory of enjoying looking at it, was when my art teacher showed us a Van Gogh, and how to use melted wax to create the same effects. I was around 14, and that’s when I realised the difference between looking at art and making art, and which of the two I preferred doing.
Teaching on social media. Since the lockdowns, and we have been severely affected in India, I have mostly been writing. The shows I was involved with completely fell through. But I am also an educator, and I love it. For one of the institutions where I teach, I curate social media content: about art, historical and contemporary artists, and to showcase what they do. It takes the form of Instagram stories highlighting significant works, which most students don’t know about—and that’s not usually what they look at on social media. Hopefully at the end of this year I can manifest a few curatorial projects, perhaps complete some of the older ones.
Global Experience. I am trained as an architect, with a Master’s in History and Critical Theory, but after practicing for three years, I realised that I actually enjoyed some of the more theoretical aspects of architecture. I worked as a curatorial associate for one of the museums in Mumbai, the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and I took it from there with my curatorial practice and engaging with the art world. In the last couple of years, I worked with festivals and on temporary installations. My Master’s was in London, and later I was fortunate enough to be a part of a series of residencies and summer courses in different places, Copenhagen, Venice, and Tokyo… It became a collecting of experiences and people. Some of the people that you meet in these programmes are artists, architects, curators, and social scientists, engineers who are taking a break, and that makes a global experience. It’s integrated with my local experience although not consciously, but for instance since I was in Venice for a few months during the art biennale in 2019, when I am writing about this year architecture biennale I can use my experience of Venice.
I am writing mostly about the performing arts, design, and architecture. I am a senior features writer at Stir, and for the Venice Architecture Biennale we are interviewing about 20 designers and architects, in different formats. Some are video interviews, some are basic Q&As, some are conversations which are then integrated into an article.
It’s just as important to write as a curator, as it is to read. I should add at this point that I am dyslexic, and as a child I didn’t have the best relationship with writing. I struggled with it, and once I came into young adulthood I decided this was a mountain I was going to climb over. It ended up being something I really enjoyed doing, and it’s part of my career now. I have kept this spelling test from when I was little, where I wrote all the words correctly but in a mirror image, which is very typical of a dyslexic person. I like to show it, especially to my students when they say they can’t write. I tell them “this is where I started”. Having that relationship with writing since a young age makes me value my goals, I want to be careful about how I say and write things because of that.
My interest in curating is more with installation and tridimensional pieces. I think it’s important, especially if you are collaborating with a single gallery, that every show transforms it into a new space each time. The space needs to reflect the work.
The best way to know an artist is the studio visit. Of course having conversations and meeting socially helps, especially when you hear them talk about another artist’s work, as they reveal things about their own process, but studio visits are still one of the best ways to get to know an artist’s work.
I never curate a show without research.
Other forms of arts are important to me. I am very interested in the performance arts, I occasionally write for the magazine published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, primarily about Shakespeare—I know first Van Gogh, now Shakespeare—but yes when they put a Shakespeare’s play on, I usefully write about it.
A book that still grips my imagination is Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. I feel that you can open any page in that book and find a very interesting passage, even without any kind of context. Just a week ago I read a few chapters from it again. Otherwise, I think it’s time to do a little book shopping.
I have never thought about what I would collect if I were an art collector. But there are a few Indian women artists whose work I really enjoy. I made a conscious effort to write more about young women artists when I started, and there are probably a few of their artworks that I would like to collect. There are some collectives that have formed over the past few years that have been using their art to talk about contemporary issues like the Indian caste system and create a certain kind of dialogue. I think I would like to collect some of that too.
In the past year, fun was Netflix and wine. I can’t make this sound any better or cooler than what it is. But when not in lockdown, I travel with friends around India. It’s a big country and there is a lot to see, and we are fortunate enough to be able to do so. I try to plug travel with art festivals, as I think even for fun it’s a part of who we are. So for instance we would go to the Kochi Biennale, and it has the sea nearby. Also in India we celebrate many religious festivals, and you have a special food for these occasions, so that’s another thing I used to do within my social circle. It could be a Christmas or a Diwali meal.
If I wasn’t curating, I would be an architect. I didn’t like it at the time, but I would have stuck with it. I did enjoy my architecture education and the designing process. It was all the waiting in between design and construction that I wasn’t fond of.
Devanshi Shah is a curator, writer, architect and educator. Trained at the Curatorial School in Venice, she has co-curated shows at the AplusA Gallery and Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. She has designed the set for ‘The Floating Market,’ an experiential theatre production in Delhi. Devanshi has written for several global publications including Art India, Condé Nast’s AD India, mondARC, STIR India and for the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai – on a range of subjects from art and design to architecture and performance. She authored a mini-zine for the ALT CHP art festival in Copenhagen, where she was an artist-in-residence at The Utopia School. She is also the co-author and deputy editor of the reputed N.A.S.I.K. Project. Over the last three years, she has been an educator at numerous institutions in India, including Istituto Marangoni’s Mumbai campus. Devanshi has a Master’s degree in History and Critical Thinking from the Architectural Association, London. She is now working on achieving a Diploma in Indian Aesthetics.
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