“Who is written into the history of India, of Europe, or of the world?” – 5in10 with Atreyee Gupta
Atreyee Gupta (Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices 2014/2015) holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota (2011) and a BA from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, which, as the first postcolonial art institution in India, played a key role in framing Art History from the Global South. Her interest in global aesthetic flows arose from her training in India and in the US, shaping her current project on abstraction in postwar India and its multimodal transregional vectors. Gupta has taught at the University of Minnesota, Duluth (tenure track Assistant Professor, resigned) and the University of California, Berkeley (Visiting Lecturer).
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
Early in my childhood in Calcutta, my parents – an academic and a musician – had instilled in me their conviction in secularism, equality, and democracy. But I was growing up at a time when the Subaltern Studies historians were radically altering how we perceived the place of marginality and peripheriality within global and local histories. These ambient discussions effected how I perceived the world. Who is written into the history of India, of Europe, or of the world? Conversely, what are the structures of thought that perpetuate inequalities of exclusion? These questions still drive me.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
My research focuses on modernist art in India. In particular, I am interested in the modernist theories and artistic practices of abstraction that appeared immediately prior to the Second World War and consolidated themselves in the backdrop of bipolar Cold War constellations and multi-polar postwar transcontinental Non-Aligned networks. The history of this period, of course, largely remains the story of modern art in Western Europe and North America. My own research seeks to open up this story to different worldly arrangements and differing conceptions of art and history.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
2002 – the last year of my undergraduate degree in Baroda, India – coincided with a large-scale politically orchestrated genocide that led to the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims by the city’s Hindu majority. I witnessed homes burnt to the ground, commercial establishments owned by Muslims destroyed, and knew of many who died. I was twenty-two years old. Only much later, after my academic journey had traversed three continents with distinct parameters of belonging and unbelonging, did this experience translate into a particular kind of intellectual engagement with questions of parity and equivalence. In this sense, each one of these stations were formative.
How is it, to do research in Germany?
I immensely appreciate the willingness of scholars and researchers in Berlin to think about ideas and histories that are dissonant from dominant ones. I have also been struck by the openness of the German academy to thinking and working collaboratively, both at institutional and personal levels. Indeed, I have greatly benefited from ongoing conversations with scholars here. Moreover, even though my work focuses on the ramifications of the Cold War in a place far from Germany, being in Berlin has significantly reshaped the way I think about my own work on global modernism. Indeed, the Cold War had cut through Berlin, as it were.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
It is fair to say that the academic study of twentieth-century art from the former peripheries is still an emerging field. On the one hand, this field suffers from an inadequate infrastructure in specific local contexts, in part due to the unevenness of historical developments and in part due to a range of political circumstances. On the other hand, the complexities of “non-Western” cultures are often disregarded by metropolitan academic systems, in effect homogenizing temporal and spatial differences in a mode that can only be called ethnographic. Both create intellectual myopias and perpetuate inequalities of ignorance.