On a Tuesday morning in December, we met with DIA Assistant Curator Katherine Kasdorf and Vice President of the Friends of Asian Arts and Culture auxiliary group Anita Rajpal for a tour of the museum’s recently opened gallery for Indian and Southeast Asian Art. We discussed the gallery’s commissioned contemporary works, the thematic approach organizing the collection and the relationship between the museum and Detroit’s Indian community.
Interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Dr. Katherine Kasdorf, Assistant Curator for Arts of Asia and the Islamic World: As we enter our gallery of Indian and Southeast Asian art, we’re met with two contemporary pieces and some older Hindu sculptures. The first is by a local artist based in Detroit, her name’s Neha Vedpathak. She was born in India, came to the U.S. in 2007 and has been living in Detroit since 2016. We actually commissioned this work of art from her for this new gallery. She uses this innovative new technique she invented that’s a paper-based technique she calls plucking. She starts with Japanese handmade paper and takes a pushpin to very delicately separate the fibers and create this lacy texture. And then she sews pieces of the paper together and paints it. This work she chose colors that she relates to sunrise and sunset, and she relates this themes to cycles of renewal and resilience, which she identifies as a common theme between India and Detroit.
The other contemporary work you’ll see is an untitled sculpture by Anish Kapoor, who of course is a British artist born in India and this is actually a work on a 3-year loan owned by some collectors in New York. We liked the idea of having this iconic artist’s work greeting people as they come in. You see your reflection but it’s inverted so there’s this play between reality and familiarity, making the familiar unfamiliar.
The Indian Scene: So everything else here will be here permanently?
KK: Yes! I’ve been talking a lot about our contemporary works, but really what forms the core of our collection are historical works of art. It was a priority for us to include modern or contemporary works in each of our new galleries. On one hand, we want to show people how historical works of art are still relevant today, and help them understand ways they were relevant in the past when they were made. But we also don’t want to leave people with the impression that Asia is only about the past and only about centuries-long traditions, so we want to highlight these works that also connect to global practices today.
IS: It looks like a lot of religious sculptures have been chosen, is there something that’s trying to be communicated through picking these particular pieces?
KK: One Ganesha is on loan from a local collector and the rest of the Hindu sculptures you see are part of the DIA’s collection. And so, because we have these very strong Hindu sculptures in our collection we wanted to showcase them. But for the interpretation that we have developed around them — the labels, the videos — we really want to help visitors understand how sculptures like these function and are meaningful to Hindus. In each of our galleries, we develop what we call “a big idea” as we plan them. So rather than trying to do some kind of survey or chronological presentation or stylistic presentation of works, we identify an idea that works in our collection can help get across or a story that they can tell that we hope will be meaningful to as many visitors as possible. And we focus on that idea as we develop the themes that we present.
For Hindu sculptures, we were working with the idea that sculptures like these provide devotees with multiple ways to access the divine — multiple gods and goddesses, multiple belief systems within Hinduism, different places of practice and modes of practice, like temples or processions or inside the home. And we try to highlight all of these ideas in our labels and in video to show Hindu sculptures like ours in different settings and different modes of practice. We also try to help visitors understand the core beliefs that inform Hindu practice, like darshan for instance, we explain as this sacred eye contact that a believer makes with the god or goddess when they’re worshipping that god or goddess.
IS: Have you found that this exhibit is being visited more by people of Indian background? Or has it been mixed?
KK: Overall, it’s been really positively received, so that’s been really rewarding. It seems it’s been speaking to people in the Indian community as well as to people with very little background in this type of art or the cultural practices that inform it. We haven’t done formal surveys, but just from the type of feedback we’ve been getting so far, it’s been really positive.
IS: Do you have a personal favorite of any of the pieces here?
KK: Absolutely. My background is in South Asian temples. I did my dissertation research on Hoysala temples in Karnataka, so I’ve always felt really drawn to religious sculpture of India, particularly Hindu sculpture. I love the yogini; she has so much power and I love the idea of a goddess like that embodying both auspicious and potentially inauspicious characteristics and how she has this power to be beneficial but also this power to be threatening. I really like this combination of contrasts that she embodies — she’s really fierce.
IS: How about you, Anita?
Anita Rajpal, Vice President, Friends of Asian Arts and Culture: My favorite piece is the Shiva because Shiva is the creator and the embodiment of life in India. I’ve always loved this piece, ever since we’ve been coming to the museum. I used to bring my kids when they were 2 years old and 3 years old, so this was the first piece I’d come and show them.
IS: How long has it been here?
KK: It’s been in the collection since 1928.
IS: For the community, it really opens doors for them to feel welcome at the DIA, by being represented. Having this at its own standalone gallery really invites them into the DIA community.
KK: Before I arrived, the team here — which involved people in the department of interpretation, a research assistant, the previous curator and expert consultants — worked with community consultants. They hired people from the Detroit metro community, most of whom identified as part of various Asian communities to get their feedback and initial ideas that the DIA might present in its new Asian galleries. After they had worked a little bit more to further develop some of those ideas, they presented these working ideas to focus groups. There was an Indian focus group to get people’s feedback, to catch any red flags.
For instance, in the development of our Hindu sculptures theme, initially the idea focused very much on temples, that these sculptures were for temples. Some of the feedback the focus group offered was, “We don’t only worship in temples, what about worship in the home?” so we added that component to our interpretation. With our baby Krishna sculpture, we talk about it in terms of a sacred devotional image for worship in the home and we feature images of home worship in our video.
IS: It looks like the Jain religion is also represented.
AR: Yes, very well.
IS: So do you find that members of the Indian community that are Muslim or Jain are also happy with this exhibit?
AR: They’re very happy. The way we’ve presented this emphasizes that they’re a part of India. We wanted it to be clear that we haven’t sidelined them in any form or fashion.
KK: We’ve also developed a response wall because it’s impossible to represent all the communities here. Our collection just doesn’t allow it. There are certain regions that we just don’t have anything from — the Philippines is a big example. We try to broaden our representation through this response wall that we’ve created where we invite people to share their story, ways they’ve responded to their gallery or something about themselves — how they might connect to various regions of Asia. We also created a dynamic map at the entry to the galleries where we show an Asian-centric map of the world that zooms into the different regions of Asia, showing country names in both English and national languages and quickly cycling images of various art-making practices from those regions. So we try to expose people through that feature to additional regions that we can’t necessarily represent here in our collection.
IS: What do you want the community to know about this gallery and the importance of having it at the DIA?
KK: I think that we want people of all communities to come and enjoy and appreciate these really fabulous works of Indian and Southeast Asian art. We want people who might not know much about them yet to understand them better. People who do have some background, we want them to think in new ways, appreciate them in new ways and really get something meaningful out of our collection.
The Robert & Katherine Jacobs Asian Wing is now open at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
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