Past Events

London, Asia, Art, Worlds conference: Bureaucracy and Agency

Conference, Lecture – Karin Zitzewitz, Zainub Verjee, Aparna Kumar, Sanjukta Sunderason

  • 11 June 2021
  • 1:00 – 4:15 pm
  • This event is part of London, Asia, Art, Worlds, a multi-part programme of online events taking place in May and June 2021. It is envisioned as a murmuration, a series of interconnected papers, conversations, performances and interventions.
  • Zoom webinar

The Bureaucracy and Agency panel will reveal the overlooked role of cultural diplomacy (such as funding bodies and cultural centres) in defining transnational pathways, as well as the potential power of grass-roots infrastructures.

Chair: Karin Zitzewitz (Interim Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, Michigan State University)

Paper Abstracts

Zainub Verjee

This keynote addresses the world making in post World War II decolonization. Taking the Festival of India (FOI) held in London in 1982, as the primary site of multiple contestations in the context of ‘structure of racial hierarchy’ of international relations. It examines the role of cultural diplomacy and cultural bureaucrats in politics and their impact on the manifest cultural staging in the form of exhibitions, festivals, and museums. What is the consequent impact of these on the very political frameworks that instigate them? What role does a bureaucrat play and what agency does it offer both to the institution and the discourse that is produced? Given the context of the newly decolonized nations as subjects rather than agents of imperial globalization, the keynote traces the genealogy of FOI to British Arts Festival of 1951. The keynote makes a case for decolonization of cultural diplomacy and cultural policy, while addressing the inherent negotiations required for the production and visualization of ‘national cultures’ in a world of deep-seated global inequalities.

Aparna Kumar

This paper positions London as a principal coordinate in the division of museum collections between India and Pakistan following the partition of 1947. It unearths the tortuous journey of the 1500 objects of art and archeology sent from Bombay to London for the Royal Academy of Art’s now-canonical Exhibition of Art, Chiefly from the Dominions of India and Pakistan. These art objects, sourced from public and private collections from across the Indian subcontinent, arrived in London in October 1947 amid extraordinary circumstances: while in transit, their homeland was carved into two separate nation-states.

This upheaval of place, humanity, and identity in South Asia had a number of ramifications for the objects’ time in London. It complicated their display, as symbols of an authentic ‘Indian’ heritage; it also complicated their return in 1948, when both India and Pakistan claimed the objects as their rightful national patrimony. The negotiations that followed the Royal Academy exhibition suspended the objects in a state of harrowing uncertainty, wherein they were recategorized, separated, dismantled, and in some cases used as political leverage in other partition contests. The Royal Academy of Arts, too, was thrust to the centre of this larger dispute. As the objects’ caretaker in London, it became a de facto arbiter in India and Pakistan’s broader clashes over objects, museums, histories, and representation, in a moment when cultural boundaries in South Asia were far from clear. This paper also, thus, foregrounds the vital diplomatic role British art institutions played (and continue to play) in processes of decolonization and nationalization in South Asia.

Sanjukta Sunderason

This paper focuses on the exhibition Commonwealth Art Today held in London in 1962, following the formation of the Commonwealth Institute. By drawing a selection from artists from the former/colonies, this exhibition did two critical things. Firstly, it selected/shaped the parameters of what would be representative of the ‘national’ – often via the figures who steered such selections at national levels. Secondly, it generated – even if only in theory – a potentially dialogical transnational category of the ‘commonwealth’ in art. Such plays – of national and transnational frames – were integral to similar forums from the post-Second World War decades of intersecting politics of decolonization and the Cold War in the 1950s–1970s.

Such exhibitions at the institute – with ambitions of shaping both the national and the international – were critical ingredients in constituting the forms as well as discursive power of postcolonial modernisms. Using Commonwealth Art Today as a case study, this paper unpacks constituent ‘transnational’ questions that can connect the different contexts exhibited, and reflect on the wider institutional role the Institute played.

London, Asia, Art, Worlds is convened by:

Hammad Nasar, Senior Research Fellow, Paul Mellon Centre
Ming Tiampo, Professor, Art History, and Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Sarah Victoria Turner, Deputy Director for Research, Paul Mellon Centre

Image credit: Tracey Moffatt, Nice Coloured Girls,1987, film still. Digital image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney


Bureaucracy & Agency

Papers from Karin Zitzewitz, Zainub Verjee, Aparna Kumar, and Sanjukta Sunderason.

About the speakers

  • Karin Zitzewitz headshot

    Karin Zitzewitz is an associate professor of Art History at Michigan State University. She is the author of Infrastructure and Form: The Global Networks of Indian Contemporary Art, 1991-2008 (2022), The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India (2014) and The Perfect Frame, the 2003 memoirs of Mumbai gallerist Kekoo Gandhy. Her research has been supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the American Institute for Indian Studies, and the Fulbright program. She is a former Chair of the editorial board of Art Journal and Art Journal OPEN.

  • Zainub Verjee headshot.

    Zainub Verjee has over four decades built a formidable reputation as an artist, writer, critic, cultural administrator and public intellectual. A firm believer in art as public good, she has contributed to international instruments of culture such as Status of the Artist and Cultural Diversity. An active member of civil society, she was the Vancouver Moderator of the Spicer Commission – The Citizen's Forum on Canada's Future.

    Deeply engaged with the UK’s British Black Arts, Third Cinema and the post-Bandung decolonization, Tactical Video Movement, Zainub has been embedded in the early years of Vancouver’s photo-conceptualism movement as well as history of women’s labour in British Columbia. An internationalist, in 1989, she co-founded the critically acclaimed In Visible Colours, a foundational film festival of third world women and women of colour filmmakers in Canada. In 1992, she was awarded National Film Board Fellowship as part of New Initiatives in Film for women of colour and aboriginal women. Her work has been shown internationally, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Venice Biennale.

    She is engaged on issues of artists’ labour and income and co-authored an open letter to the Prime Minister of Canada on behalf of 75000 artists, initiating a national campaign. Her work as a cultural bureaucrat, cultural diplomat, artist, activist and writer has been consistent and contiguous with what might be termed a critical transversal aesthetic.

    Recipient of many honours and awards, Zainub Verjee is the laureate of 2020 Governor General's Visual and Media Arts for Outstanding Contribution.

  • Aparna Kumar profile.

    Aparna Kumar is Lecturer in Art and Visual Cultures of the Global South at University College London. She received her Ph.D. in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2018. Her research and teaching span modern and contemporary South Asian art, twentieth century-partition history, museum studies, and postcolonial theory. Aparna’s current book project examines the impact of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 on the development of aesthetic discourses in India and Pakistan in the twentieth century.

  • Sanjukta Sunderason

    Sanjukta Sunderason is a historian of twentieth century aesthetics, who works at the interfaces of visual art and political thought. She is interested in particular in the ways in which art reflects and reframes struggles, imaginations, and dialogues around twentieth-century decolonization. Her book, Partisan Aesthetics: Modern Art and India’s Long Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2020) studies left-wing aesthetics in dialogue with formations of modern art in late-colonial and early postcolonial India. She is currently working on two book projects: first, a co-edited volume on the aesthetics of the postcolonial left in South Asia (with Lotte Hoek, University of Edinburgh); and second, a monograph on ideas/forms of the transnational in the art of decolonial liberation movements. Sanjukta has lives and works in the Netherlands, as Assistant Professor of History of Art at the University of Amsterdam.