Cultural Criticism

Cultural Criticism
Jyoti Dhar is an art critic of British and Indian descent based in Colombo. She is a contributing editor for ArtAsiaPacific and regularly contributes to Artforum and The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka. Her review of Chandraguptha Thenuwara’s exhibition, GLITCH +, won first prize at the International Awards for Art Criticism (IAAC) last year, making her the most recent winner, and the 4th winner of the top 10000 euro prize.  Dhar discusses the relevance of cultural criticism in the contemporary age.

A: Why do you think entering awards such as this are important for practitioners across all fields – from the arts to critical writing?
JD: Sustenance and validation; essentially so that you can keep doing what you do for a living, and so that you can make your parents feel a bit better about it.

A: Why did you choose to enter this particular award?
JD: In a nutshell, this is the only award I’ve come across that allows anyone writing about art to apply for it – regardless of their age, qualification or nationality. It’s great that it is so inclusive. Also, it rewards generously and judges anonymously, which is so important.

A: Where have you contributed in the past and what types of articles are you interested in?
JD: I have a background in medicine, not art history or journalism, which means that I’m always learning and thinking about what kind of writer I want to be. Living and working in South Asia I’m drawn to the work of artists – particularly women in cities such as Lahore, Delhi, Dhaka and Colombo – whose practice has been shaped by the socio-political currents around them but speaks to urgent concerns in the world today. I’m also increasingly drawn to the intersection between art and psychotherapy in post-conflict areas, such as northern Sri Lanka, which allows me to merge my two worlds of art and science.

A: How did you select which of your written pieces to submit?
JD: I went to meet Chandraguptha Thenuwara in his studio ahead of his annual show commemorating the Black July Riots of 1983. I was actually feeling quite disillusioned about the world of art criticism at the time, and the conversation I had with Thenuwara as well as seeing his new body of work completely shifted things for me. It was fearless, direct, uncertain, disturbing and complex. It was one of those rare moments where you feel energized and decide that you have to write about immediately.

A: How do you think that critical writing and arts journalism help to make art accessible and for readers to make sense of the world around them?
JD: For me, being an art critic is sometimes like being part-detective, part-doctor. It’s about picking up on clues and analysing, deciphering and distilling, trying to do something justice but not drawing reductive conclusions. The most compelling art of course speaks to its time and place, but for me it has to leave you slightly off-kilter and make you re-assess what you thought you already knew.

A: What is the most important aspect of writing about the arts, in your opinion?
JD: I think storytelling is a really neglected aspect of art criticism. Rebecca Solnit talks about this idea of transforming the “unknown into the known” and I find this is a really useful way to think about art texts, which often require you to weave together political context, biographical details, formal analysis and art history – all with an economy of words. To transmit all of this, you have to first connect and engage with your reader.

A: What are you looking forward to covering this year?
JD: I just reviewed a fascinating show about radical and relatively unknown video art from Hong Kong and Taiwan from the 1980s. I’m currently working on an essay about young photographers in Sri Lanka looking at the doctoring of truth, as well as a longform feature on Delhi-based critic-turned artist Anita Dube, who will curate the Kochi Biennale later this year. I’m really excited to see that and write about other festivals in the region, as well as delve more into the notion of neuroarthistory.

To see more of Dhar’s work, click here.
The IAAC awards are open for entries until 23 September. Find out more here.
1. Courtesy of IAAC and RCA.