A curator’s tale: Art Jameel’s Rahul Gudipudi

Hiwa K's sol show Do you remember what you are burning? Co-curated for Jameel Arts Centre by Rahul Gudipudi

Any arts centre is more than a sum of its parts. It’s an alchemical combination of the physical space, its direction, its strategies and aims, its embeddedness, its programmes – and its people. And to a large extent it’s the people who define the content, the activities, and therefore the tone (and perhaps even the value) of the institution.

Jameel Arts Centre has two fundamental spheres of activity, the principal means by which the ambitions are delivered: the exhibition/performance spaces and its extensive library. In this two-parter we’ll look at both of these through the work of two individuals – one curator, one artist.

The role of the curator can be difficult to pin down. It involves the ability to analyse and filter, identify important connections, and present the resulting story in a way that is above all engaging for all the stakeholders – the audience, the artist or performer, the gallery owner or the arts centre director. It demands knowledge and experience, but equally it requires flexibility and empathy. Most curators major on the first pair of those; some struggle with the other two.

It helps if your life and career have followed a less than predictable path. On his way to the job of Exhibitions Curator at Art Jameel, Rahul Gudipudi started with an engineering degree and then did postgraduate research in robotics and sensor design for space. “It’s strange how that history now informs an affinity for thinking about digitopian futures and technology’s impact on society,” he says. “Among other subjects …”

At the same time he was getting interested in photography and “instead of doing a masters in robotics as was scheduled, I ended up studying photography”. That was at Light and Life Academy, India’s first professional photography institute, where in 2009 he took a Post Graduate Diploma in Professional Photography.

He subsequently worked as photographer, but at the same time started to get involved in the arts ecosystem – “running an open space / shared studio for artists and practitioners across different disciplines, becoming part of an artists’ collective in Bangalore called Nodi which thought critically about public art projects and the built heritage of the city”.

And that led to an invitation to curate at the Story of Foundation, a really interesting organisation that seeks to create opportunities for informal learning through “transdisciplinary festivals occupying public spaces in Goa with scientists, philosophers, artists, activists and thought leaders”, as Rahul puts it.

Rahul subsequently became a contributor to the New Alphabet School, a collaborative exercise in “practice-based, situated approaches in cultural studies, art and activism”. Over 12 editions, the New Alphabet School has run colloquia for research that goes beyond academic and disciplinary boundaries; in January 2020 , the Goethe Institute in New Delhi hosted a two-dayer on #Coding – “how do we encode and inscribe sustainability, ethics and care within our techno-social relations and digitopian imaginaries of the future? What role can governance and citizens play in enabling these imaginaries?” – and Rahul co-curated the edition, and is a member of the programme’s curatorial advisory board and jury.

Working with the Foundation and the New Alphabet School helped to inform his ideas of “lifelong-lifewide learning”. But he was also drawn to “systems-based, collaborative and generative projects that allowed for experimentation and deeper textural learning for audiences while addressing questions that concerned the communities or publics that we were engaging with”.

His move to Art Jameel he regards as a natural extension to this; “working collaboratively with spirited colleagues and shared values, giving me the opportunity to explore long-term research-based exhibitions and programmes that think about different ways of engaging with the community”.

The job of Exhibitions Curator at Art Jameel involves the day-to-day management and administration that necessarily accompanies any exhibition-making. But Art Jameel has a much broader remit, to foster the role of the arts in building open, connected communities via a range of arts, educational and heritage initiatives that centre on research and documentation. So Rahul’s role includes responsibility for developing Art Jameel’s long-term research threads, in particular for upcoming exhibitions and related programmes – “exploring the politics and discourse on material heritage, for instance, or sustainable futures in relation to food production and its eco-sociologies”.

There’s a lot of communication, too, for Art Jameel’s operating model is essentially collaborative. “We are actively engaged in initiating conversations and working closely both with artists and with partner institutions, which often involves sharing knowledge and modes of thinking with each other.”

And of course – to put it crudely – Rahul puts on exhibitions. Currently the Jameel Arts Centre has Hiwa K’s solo show Do you remember what you are burning?, curated by Rahul and Nora Razian. This is a very powerful exhibition of video and installations, based on the artist’s experiences of fleeing from his home in Iraqi Kurdistan and returning years later; it mixes personal experience with a sometime humorous take on experience, particularly viewing it as an outsider or incomer. It’s well worth the visit.

Says Rahul: “This is Hiwa’s first exhibition in the region – it opened in December last year and runs until July 24, then travels to Dublin and Toronto – and it’s been enriching to work so closely with him and Nora of course.”

“The exhibition represents about 13 years of Hiwa’s practice as an artist, including key works like the Bell Project that was shown at the Venice Biennial in 2015; and Pre-Image, A View from Above and One Room Apartment that were commissioned for 2017’s documenta 14.”

One Room Apartment is situated outside in the Jaddaf Waterfront Sculpture Park, and is an important work to spend some time with. It’s a roofless cement box topped by a single bed and TV aerial, a replica of the meagre dwellings that started mushrooming around the minefields of Hiwa K’s hometown of Sulaymaniyah in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War. “These rooms came with the promise of the American dream,” said Hiwa K. “But what kind of dream and hope would fit in such small spaces?”

There’s more on the website, in particular a collection of resources that includes essays by Adam Scymczyk, who curated documenta 14; Aneta Szylak, the curator who with Hiwa K founded Estrangement, a series of workshops for artists in Iraqi Kurdistan; and the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan.

Rahul is also responsible for the series of embodied research based movement workshops called Learning from my feet, led by Lina Nahhas. “She developed the workshop in close dialogue with Hiwa and his works – particularly the new commission Destruction in Common, a printed carpet upon which the workshop takes place.”

Rahul was part of the team that specified and delivered Art Jameel’s quick-response Research and Practice Platform project to support independent art practitioners with micro-grants during the early days of the Covid pandemic. “It was great to be able to respond urgently and support the practices of as many practitioners, particularly at a difficult moment for many when we were witnessing a lot of exhibitions, residencies and programmes being cancelled.

“We received 496 applications from artists from over 49 nationalities and awarded 97 projects. We’ve received a heartening feedback from those awarded, and it’s perhaps now a moment to regroup and think longer term in how to further nurture artistic practices in the present times. We’ve seen in these past months the landscape responding with a host of digital programmes and a slow opening towards IRL programmes creating new opportunities for the artists …”

Rahul’s remit extends beyond Dubai into the Saudi homeland of Art Jameel; he’s working on the opening exhibition for Hayy Jameel, the Jeddah-based counterpoint to the Jameel Arts Centre that is slated to open later this year. The exhibition is a joint project with long-term partner the Delfina Foundation in London.

He’s also involved in Hayy Learning, an educational platform for artists and creatives based in Saudi Arabia that will migrate from online delivery and partner institutions to Hayy Jameel when that opens. In May 2020, Hayy Learning launched its Curatorial Fellowship initiative, a year-long course that covers the essential everyday aspects of institutional exhibitions and project management but also supports the development of rigorous research and practice-based modes of exhibition-making along with opportunities for multidisciplinary research … which just about sums up the role and the interests of Rahul Gudipudi

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