C. P. Belliappa's Column

C.P. Belliappa interviews Dr Nima-Poovaya Smith, founder of Alchemy, involved in promoting art in UK

“C.P. Belliappa interviews Dr Nima-Poovaya Smith, a prominent figure in the United Kingdom in the field of art and literature.

Ammanichanda Nima-Poovaya Smith is based in Leeds, UK. She has been actively involved in the promotion of visual arts and literature ever since she enrolled at the University of Leeds in 1981 on a scholarship. She held the prestigious post of Senior Curator of Bradford Museums and Galleries from 1985 to 1998, was Director of Arts, for Arts Council, Yorkshire from 1998 – 2002 and Head of Special Projects, National Media Museum from 2002 to 2004. In 2004 she founded Alchemy, an organization involved in exploring the confluence of a variety of arts from different parts of the world. This year Alchemy completes ten years of a highly successful role in promoting art and literature. Dr Nima-Poovaya Smith was very much taken up with my book on Victoria Gowramma and invited me to take part in the annual Ilkley Literature Festival in 2012. We continue to interact on several positive outcomes on the story of Victoria Gowramma. I conducted a Q&A with Dr Nima-Poovaya Smith, and here are details of her accomplishments and projects, in her own words.

1. Your graduate, postgraduate and doctoral qualifications are all in English literature. But your professional career has involved a range of other disciplines, particularly the visual arts. How has this come about?

As much as by chance as by anything else. I was always interested in the history of Indian art. This was further nurtured by my mentor, the pioneering academic the late Professor C.D. Narasimhaiah, Head of the School of English at the University of Mysore. He had, very imaginatively, introduced the writings of A.K. Coomaraswamy into the curriculum. You might say that Coomaraswamy, although trained as a geologist, played a seminal role in the development of Indian art history. I was completely hooked. I went to the University of Leeds in 1981 to research the writings of Canadian author Margaret Atwood. In 1984, the University of Leeds asked me to run a course on the history of Indian art. I thoroughly enjoyed it. When the curatorial post for Keeper of International Arts came up in Bradford Museums and Galleries in 1985, I could not believe it. It was such a perfect fit with my own interests.

However, English literature continues to be my great love. It has informed so much of the work I do as a curator – in terms of ideas, emotions and the images that language can conjure up. And particularly since I took up the directorship of Alchemy 10 years ago, I have been involved in a number of collaborative projects, particularly with Ilkley Literature Festival, involving literature and other art forms.

If I may, I would like to acknowledge my parents’ role in the developing of my interests. My father (late Ammanichanda Poovaya) had a profound love of English literature, so avid reading was the norm. He also had, and I’m not quite sure how or why, a number of colour prints by English artists – Turner, Gainsborough, Watts and Reynolds. They certainly fired my imagination. My mother (Muthie Poovaya – a nonagenarian) was what used to be described as ‘artistic’. She had drawing and painting lessons after she got married and clearly enjoyed them enormously. She lived with us for a while in England and I was struck by how sophisticated her visual literacy was. She had a tribal ‘Warli’ painting in her room and she used to gaze at it again and again – trying to decode its various symbolic meanings. She used to sketch a number of scenes she saw from her window as well. Therefore a love of literature and the visual arts must have been part of my genetic make- up in some mysterious fashion.

2. You have been involved in various museums in UK. What aspect of art interests you the most?

I have worked for two museums in particular – Bradford Museums and Galleries (1985 – 1998) and the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television – now called the National Media Museum – (2002 – 2004). However, through the touring of exhibitions that I have curated, I have also collaborated with a range of other museums , such as the Victoria and Albert Museum (and the British Museum) on A Golden Treasury and The Radiant Buddha. I would say my tastes are eclectic. I have curated historical shows that have involved manuscript paintings of the Ramayana from the 18th century Jagat Singh album drawn from the British Library collection and Warm and Rich and Fearless: An exhibition of Sikh Art with loans from the British Library and the Royal Collections. I have also curated exhibitions involving contemporary arts. An Intelligent Rebellion: Women Artists of Pakistan, which not only toured around Britain but was also shown at the UNESCO gallery in Paris, is an interesting example.

A more focused response to your question is that the starting point has to be an idea which excites me. The kind of objects I use, depend on how best the idea can be brought to life and of course what is available in collections – it might be paintings or sculpture or glass or all three. Almost all of my projects involve the commissioning of new works.

3. You have had dealings with a number of museums in UK. Can you tell us about your experiences?

Well, in a sense there is ‘an embarrassment of riches’ mainly because my career has spanned nearly 30 years. I think certain people have shown a lot of generosity, particularly in terms of sharing ideas as well as trusting mine. Sue Stronge, a highly talented curator from the Asian Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is one person who immediately comes to mind as someone whose friendship and intellectual openness helped enormously. When I came up with the idea of an exhibition on Indian jewellery entitled A Golden Treasury, I was at an early point in my career and this exhibition largely depended on loans from the V & A collections, because at that point Bradford had hardly any collections. Sue not only embraced the idea and helped me curate it, but also found a suitable publisher to bring out a book on the exhibition, which she edited and to which of course I contributed. The exhibition was a great success in Bradford and travelled to London where it was shown at the Aga Khan’s gallery (the Zamana Gallery as was) in South Kensington.

Museums and galleries have changed exponentially in Britain over the last three decades. They are no longer isolated temples of culture for the privileged few. They have to attract new audiences, particularly people who don’t normally interact with culture. The challenge is how to make the offer more relevant to a much broader constituency. I find telling the stories behind the exhibits always attracts people. Another challenge the sector faces is funding. These projects are expensive to put on. I certainly spend a lot of time on funding applications. It is an increasingly competitive field, especially as all the players are constantly raising their game. There is also the constant challenge of having a flow of ideas that are fresh and original and can actually be translated into concrete projects. Thank god Alchemy has an enlightened Board that understand that creative thinking time, where ideas take root, is a valid activity that needs to be respected. I also love working in collaboration – different ideas coming together can make for a very rich process.

4. You are the founder-director of Alchemy and have completed ten successful years. What inspired you to start this organization?

I wanted to initiate projects which explored the confluence of cultures. I am fascinated by how cultures rub up against one another and the artistic transformations that come about as a result. A good example of this is Connect: People, Place, Imagination, a major Alchemy project I curated for Bradford Galleries and Museums, years after I had stopped working for them, which was launched in 2008. I always thought it curious that long-term museum displays were so culture specific and bound by chronology. Bradford Museums and Galleries, for instance, had works by important western artists both historical and contemporary, which were always shown in isolation from art from other parts of the world. The collections also included, due to energetic buying by me when I was working for Bradford (who does not like to shop!) a growing number of modern and contemporary works from the South Asian ( Amrita Sher Gil, Jamini Roy, Arpana Caur and Anish Kapoor), and African Diasporas ( Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili) reflecting the issues of migration, identity and cultural representation within Britain. I had also begun to collect calligraphy from the Muslim world as well as textiles and objects in gold and silver.

It is an unusual and diverse collection and ‘Connect’ enabled the succinct telling of complex stories. It explores connections between people and objects across different centuries and cultures, investigating links between works of art that are not immediately obvious. For instance, I placed a Bollywood poster of Rekha in Umrao Jaan alongside a portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. The Bollywood/Hollywood connections were immediately clear to people. Two beautiful sirens who had lived out their lives in the public arena with different tragic undertones.

I also found that my concepts often needed more than one art form. In addition to the visual arts and literature, I was increasingly using musicians and dancers. I enjoy working with artists (by artists I mean writers, painters, musicians, actors etc) No institution in Britain would have such a job. I had to create it myself. Hence Alchemy was born, with generous ongoing support from Arts Council, England I must add.

5. What is the main focus of Alchemy?

We conceive and curate a range of ideas – always demonstrating cultural confluence. In the process we also broker a range of creative partnerships – between institutions, between artists and between artists and institutions.

6. You hail from Coorg in Karnataka. Is there any impact of Coorg culture in your line of work?

Truthfully, initially the answer would have been no. Apart from items of Coorg jewellery I had included in the afore-mentioned Golden Treasury exhibition, there was nothing obvious. It was not that I was not interested in Coorg culture, it was just that so much of the information seemed speculative. Of course there was a lot of factual information in the various gazettes and anthropological surveys. But these were not easily accessible. So there was nothing that leapt out at me as a rich theme for a project.

All this changed when I read this amazing book entitled: Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg. I relate to stories and this was a cracking one. I’m not trying to flatter you, because of course you are the author of this book – but it is now leading to some interesting projects. We invited you to Ilkley Literature Festival when the first edition of the book was launched in 2011 and I hope you will agree that it was a wonderful event. The musicians David Wilson and Inder ‘Goldfinger’ Matharu enhanced the event by responding to your book with a wonderful musical composition. Now that a second edition of the book has come out, I am delighted that there will be a dance drama around it as well as poems in response to the book. These poems will be melodised by Christella Litras who is a wonderful singer and composer.

Coorg now is increasingly foregrounded in my own imagination and there are a number of ideas I would like to develop further. I would like to do an oral history project because people’s memories and anecdotes can be a wonderful repository of all sorts of treasures. I also toyed with the idea of an exhibition on Coorg jewellery – it has a wealth of symbolism – and is in some ways quite unique, which is unusual considering we are such a small community. And of course Coorg jewellery is not actually crafted by Coorgs.

I have to say this, I feel my ‘Coorgness’ mostly comes out in my approach to life. Coorgs are a proud people (some might say too proud). But this also makes us very determined and quite unafraid. I feel I have some of this Coorg steeliness, especially in situations where I have to show grit!

7. You have been associated with textiles and jewellery. What invoked interest in this field?

As I said earlier, my tastes are eclectic. But you are right – textiles and jewellery do have a particular resonance for me. My father worked for the sericulture industry so silk was part of the fabric of my childhood. I revelled in its sumptuousness and colours. I also liked the fact that textile history is so closely entwined with the history of the Indian subcontinent – in terms of aesthetics, technology, politics, economics and social attitudes. I curated Silk: Bradford and the Subcontinent in 2012 and it was a fascinating exercise to reveal the nearly forgotten links between Bradford and India. It also gave us the opportunity to display all manners of wonderful silks, a number of them from India, Pakistan and Bangla Desh. Their colours were so vivid that the gallery had a joyous atmosphere. At the same time, through the display of cooler shades including white and off white Dhaka muslins, we were able to make people subliminally aware that South Asian colours are as much about subtlety as vibrancy.

Yes – jewellery does hold a fascination for me – it is a spell that I feel a lot of my Indian compatriots are also under. India used to be (I don’t know if it still is) the largest repository of privately owned gold. Gold and gems have mythology, fable and history embodied in them not to mention much harsher realities linked to the pernicious custom of dowries. Again – we come back to the stories. Jewellery has a surfeit of them so of course I am gripped.

8. As a promoter/founder of Alchemy, bringing together diverse cultures, what have been the challenges in bridging cultures?

Projects that help bridge cultures have to ensure that the connections and bridges are robust and can stand up to scrutiny. Over egging a tenuous connection between cultures does not really work. This does require a lot of research and can lead to dead ends. The other kind of bridging cultures we try and do, is to bring disparate groups of people together to view our projects and normalise their interactions. This does not happen enough, especially between people of different cultural backgrounds, although class can be as much of a barrier as culture. But we in Alchemy are an excitable lot. We love bringing different groups of people together and are so delighted when this happens that it amuses people. This, alongside with what I hope are interesting projects, curated within non-confrontational spaces, have helped increase interaction between different classes and cultures. We have a long, long, way to go though.

9. As you take Alchemy forward what are the new avenues you look at. Also, is the next generation as involved in arts and museums?

Well, we are certainly looking forward to developing Victoria Gowramma further, especially in terms of a dance drama and lyrics, all of course within the context of the new information you have in your epilogue. The next big project is Albion: British Identity Through the Lens of the North. Alchemy has brought many partners together over this – Opera North, the BBC, National Media Museum, Bede’s World, Jarrow etc. Albion taps into a very current zeitgeist – the interrogation of and debates around questions of British identity. Using a number of art forms, Albion takes as its context and impetus the North – perhaps that part of England which sees itself as most distanced from the power centre of England. Its dominant but eroding industrial heritage and vibrant folk narratives provide a rich seam for artists to mine.

Now is the perfect time for a cultural exploration of identity in Britain. In September 2014, Scots will vote in a referendum on whether they want independence. This and other contemporary events – the centenary of the First World War, the staging of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – mean that much political discourse and debate during 2014 will be focused on questions of identity as the very future of the entity known as Britain is at stake.

The starting point for Albion is that any artistic exploration of British identity, past or present, has to reflect a multiplicity of narratives, backgrounds and identities. Britain’s imperial and contemporary history, linking us as they do to distant countries in different continents, means that the exploring of this identity is as much a global as a national story. Albion will challenge some of the accepted, often stereotypical, characteristics of “Britishness”, “Englishness”, “Scottishness” and other identities attributed to people and communities within Britain.

Younger generations – I have been very lucky that Alchemy, along with Baroness Lola Young from London, have co-directed a number of national Cultural Leadership Programmes funded by the Arts Council through the Treasury. This has brought us into close contact, in many instances, with young talent. Their interest, was not just focused on museums and galleries but the broader cultural and creative industries. They have a profound commitment to the arts which Lola and I found impressive. They also showed a depth of knowledge which was heartening. However, because of the recession, this is an increasingly difficult sector to break into. A number of young people have to do work on a voluntary basis in order to gain the experience they need. I hate to see talent wasted. We need the freshness of their ideas. I am worried now that there could be a lost generation of unexploited talent. We try and do the little that we can – but as we grow older, with recruitment not being as buoyant as we would like, there is a very real danger that the skills and expertise of my generation won’t be passed on to younger generations. However, young people are resilient and resourceful – and if they have a passion – they will find ways and means through which to fulfil this.

Website of alchemy: “