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January 18, 2017

Tate Modern’s Director Talks About Her Views On Indian Art

Text by Huzan Tata

Newly-appointed director and the first woman in charge, Frances Morris, talks about the road ahead

How do you intend to take the Tate’s legacy forward?
“Over the last 10 years we’ve been building a collection that’s much more international and interconnected than before. One of my really big ambitions is to explore the stories in our art works and share them with the general public. Over the course of the next few years, I’m hoping to showcase art that people will be unfamiliar with and that allows us to delve into more nuanced and interesting narratives. Another ambition is to reposition the work of women. I want to do that with authority and conviction both with the permanent displays and in a series of exhibitions that will showcase careers of women who have perhaps been overlooked. There’s a huge Indian community in London. I would love for them to feel that Tate Modern is their place to go to on a Saturday morning. We’re creating a museum that’s not just for white British people, but for a cosmopolitan city.

How is Indian art perceived back home?
“We have a number of works by Indians on display at Tate at the moment.There’s a wonderful installation by Sheela Gowda that contains human hair and car bumpers. People are really drawn to this piece, one of the reasons being that it speaks about India’s modernity, and also about tradition. It’s a beautiful way of articulating the importance of India culturally in history. People have been really interested to see the works on paper by Benode Behari Mukherjee, which is on display next to a Matisse. Mukherjee’s work relates deeply to the Asian heritage of collage and fabric, and Matisse’s to another genre, but there is a connection too. I think people are interested in the difference and also the sameness, the strangeness, the familiarity. We are a nation that has strong historical links with India, so people feel a certain affinity.”

Which Indian artists do you admire?
“I think India has a strong background in photography; I love Dayanita Singh’s works. I have her beautiful photo books on my mantelpiece and I look at them every day. Vivan Sundaram is someone I admire as well — he’s been slightly overlooked, but is hugely important in underpinning a more recent generation’s work.”

You’ve said in the past that the art world is a ‘Boys’ Club’. Are the exhibitions of female artists you’ve curated a way of countering this?
“I’m trying to showcase artists that weren’t in the club! So we make a new club, which is more diverse and accessible. I hope in a few years no one will walk into a gallery and say, ‘Isn’t it surprising to see so many women?’ I just want them to see extraordinary art by extraordinary artists. We’d like to create an even playing field. At the moment it needs supporting and pushing, but I’m hoping for normalisation in the future.”

Are the boundaries of what is considered art today increasingly blurring?
“I’m sure they are, for artists and for people who are close to art. For people who don’t have an art background, or aren’t self-confident, the borders are complex. As soon as people stray from painting, printmaking or sculpture, they feel insecure. One of the things I think museums can do is encourage and empower people, and help them find ways to experience and enjoy the blurred boundaries. I don’t think art is defined by the materials, the mediums or the genres.”

Which are the Indian cultural venues that have made it to your itinerary?
“My must-visit list includes the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. I went to the first one — it was a revelation. The architecture, the city and the atmosphere were really memorable. You felt such an extraordinary buzz and support from the young people. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is one of my all-time favourites in the whole world. The collection is very special; I love old-fashioned museums. I work in a contemporary space but often my inspiration comes from the older museums. We can learn a lot from tradition and translate it into modernity.”

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