INTERVIEW: Ravi Agarwal, Photography Curator, Serendipity Arts Festival 2019

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Sharbendu De, Imagined Homeland. Curated by Ravi Agarwal. On display as part of Imagined Documents, 15 Dec – 22 Dec.

Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF), is a leading multidisciplinary art event and is one of the largest in South Asia. Curating a wide variety of works, with performing arts, film and literature, and photography to name a few, SAF offers a comprehensive insight into contemporary Indian art. In the run-up to SAF’s fourth edition, London Photography Diary spoke with Ravi Agarwal, Photography Curator for 2019.

Ravi Agarwal has an interdisciplinary practice as an artist, photographer, environmental campaigner, writer, and curator. His work explores key contemporary questions around ecology, society, urban space, and capital. He works with photography, moving image, installation, and public art, and has been shown widely in shows, including at the Kochi Biennial (2016), Sharjah Biennial (2013) and Documenta XI (2002). He co-curated the ‘Yamuna-Elbe’, an Indo German twin city public art and ecology project in 2011 and ‘Embrace our Rivers’, a Public Art Ecology project in Chennai (2018).

This year’s SAF photography program takes a step further on from the traditional documentary style that has underpinned much of Indian photography up until now. Documentary photography has existed in its many forms for much of the mediums history. From it’s conception, it has always been questioned which side of the blurry line it should fall – either artistic expression or objective journalism. SAF’s mission for 2019 is to further challenge the dichotomy of visual truth through explorations of conceptual narratives and personal stories. Constructing scenes and moulding characters to fit a narrative redefines what documentary photography is capable of, and it’s Ravi Agarwal at the reins.

Sahil Naik. Curated by Ravi Agarwal. On display as part of Urban Reimagined 2.0, 15 Dec – 22 Dec.

“Serendipity is a unique arts festival. It combines a spectrum of art forms ranging from performance, visual arts, theatre, music, photography etc.. It draws an immense footfall each year, and brings the best of art practices to people who may never go to a gallery, museum, or theatre. It is making its mark here and internationally as well. There is a growing recognition of it across the board, and an awe that it is pulled off year after year – getting better and better!”

What are the challenges of curating contemporary Indian photography?

“Photography is ubiquitous, but serious photography practice needs to be separated from it. As a medium it has re-emerged globally through new languages and forms, and no longer is it unusual to see it along with other mediums. However in India, there are only a couple of good institutes where it is taught as a contemporary practice, and until recently photo-journalistic practices have dominated, and also western practices have been strong influencers. What constitutes photography from ‘here,’ what are its concerns, its engagements and aspirations, its moorings – those are the kind of questions I am interested in – and to seek those serious practitioners who are developing a language of their own.”

How does the process of curating this festival differ from that of a show in Europe?

“Serendipity gives full control of content and choices to its curators. There is total trust in them, once they have been invited. A show this size normally will take over a year to do, but here it is delivered in less than 8 months. Besides there are problems of sites, production etc., which have their challenges, but need to fulfil at the highest quality. With the relative absence of institutional support structures for the arts in India, it needs constant problem solving.”

How do you think the expectation of truthfulness and accountability in your ecological work applies to the curation of photographic exhibitions?

“Ecology can be perceived differently depending on who is describing it. A fisher looks at the sea differently than a tourist. In that sense we create nature as our own relationship with it. That is the challenge of ecological work, that from the ‘ground’ it looks different than it does from a distance. Truth in the photograph is the truth of the photographer – her perception, and gaze. Curating photography for me needs an openness to understand this, and that the photograph reveals a lot about power structures and understandings. Both ecology and the photograph are for me political subjects.”

Serendipity Arts Festival 2019 will take place in Panaji, Goa from 15 – 22 December.

-Joe Burrows

Joe Burrows studies Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at LCC and is an editor of London Photography Diary. While primarily identifying as a documentary photographer, he has begun producing written content for London Photography Diary and other online and print publications. He is currently developing a long term photographic project exploring the social impacts of the UK energy transition.