Alice Cicolini is a London based jewellery designer, creative commissioner and producer, and author of The New English Dandy by Thames and Hudson.In the following interview she speaks of Global Local, a show on contemporary Indian Design she curated in 2004, which travelled to The Victoria & Albert Museum in London and 8 cities in India.
Mayank Mansingh Kaul (MMK): Can you share with me what was the process leading upto the show Global Local? How did the idea come about? Did you have questions about Indian design that were addressed by the show, or did the idea of the show first come and then you went in search of answers?
Alice Cicolini (AC): It was a part of a larger series of shows called Import Export curated by Lesley Jackson, which was the last project that I was involved with producing at The British Council in the UK, before I came to India. The show attempted to look at how a sense of British design was changing–and from that view, what was really ‘British’ about British Design–through the work of designers who had come to live in the UK for extended periods of times from other countries, either as professionals or as students, and how the design was therefore culturally relevant in the British context. Here, we were also reflective in a conscious way about why people would be interested in seeing such a show – if it travelled outside of the UK – and we made the decision to always try and produce a partner show in the country where the exhibition toured in. And even though Global Local took place within the first three months of me moving to India as The Head of the Creative Arts Division at The British Council in India, I had been involved with the India office for the previous four to five years, and was familiar with the work of designers in India. The idea of the show was really to enquire into what the ‘Indianess’ is in Indian design by looking at three major streams of expression as they appeared to me then. One, was a more discreet, paired down aesthetic in India that was looking at a cultural design language that India might share with the far-east countries like Japan. A second was the kind of kitsh-inspired, Bollywood-ised version of design that was exemplified by designers like Manish Arora. And a third group of designers who were trying to find a passageway between the imposed ‘modern’ approach of architects like Le Corbusier who had developed work in India earlier, and this kitsch ‘Indianess’ that was expected from India by the rest of the world, but which also encompassed the colours and heritage that India is associated with in a fresh way.
MMK: An important part of what you were trying to achieve was to show design in the exhibition format, which had rarely ever been done in India before, but was fairly developed in Britain by then. So how was the further process of negotiating how to make this transition from the shop space in India?
AC: I think the process was in some ways the same as anywhere else in the world when one attempted to put design in a gallery space and The British Council’s design department was set up in 1996, with the beginnings of what is now a fairly common practise in Britain to showcase design
in a gallery space. The main questions were really though ‘what’ to display and ‘how’to display, and the display aspect was very important because if we were going to show how curation here differs from how it is ‘presented’ in a shop, it also marks how much importance you give to the the chosen products. And another direction was also keeping in mind how such an exercise was common to events in the field of visual arts – where we had seen some preceding shows in Europe from India – where you are addressing the question of how to showcase the creative work from one country to an audience that has never seen it before. This led us to think that what would follow through after such a show as Global Local would be a more complex set of explorations, and at that point it was enough to merely say that there is a body of interesting work coming out from India which necessarily distinguishes itself as design from traditional craft. In India it had often been done in crafts but not design.
MMK: What was the kind of feedback you received from Indians, especially given the context of curatorial work like that of The Crafts Museum in Delhi, which impressed upon the need to show design with its makers through demonstrations and in settings that simulated those of its original geographies? Were the responses controversial at all?
AC: Let me break this into three groups of responses. The designers I was contacting to include in the show were massively excited about having their work talked about like this, in some ways, even being talked about at all outside of the retail stall space kind of exhibitions, also with the display design being done by an Indian firm. There was a second group of responses which were the viewers, who were excited about this, given that Indian designers, especially fashion were popular and were talked about in the local press often, and the show provided a way into other forms of design like graphics and product, by using the main attraction of fashion design. There was a third set of responses that I could say were more problematic, where academics and curators thought the show was not deep enough. And this was true, as I have said before, it was enough for us to provide an overview without getting into any kind of more historical references over a 150 period, even if I was familiar with aspects of the beginnings of modern design through the India Report of Charles Eames, and that there was a break in how design was perceived through the colonial British rule.
In hindsight now, though, I think we could have included and addressed an element of social design.
MMK: I remember seeing the show as a student at NID in Ahmedabad, and I am reminded of how I saw it as fashion-led, now that you yourself brought this up. Was this intentional? And if so, why?
AC: My own view of the design scene in India then was, that there were more international quality designers working in the field of fashion than others, and in any kind of emergent design industry, fashion and graphic design often tend to lead because they require lesser infrastructure than say product design, where the investments required are larger.
MMK: Was the audience response in different Indian cities varied?
AC: Yes, in cities like Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore, they were more complex as they tended to have more design literate audiences and such conversations about design were already taking place. In other cities people were just really excited that such work was being done in India. In Bhopal, Manish Arora’s installation was attacked by right-wing people, as he had played with imagery of Indian gods!
MMK: How do you reflect back on the show seven years later? Were there any important outcomes for you?
AC: It went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A) and was shown with the Australian equivalentin Import Export, and the collective set of these design shows had the highest footfalls in terms of visitors to the V & A that year. For the designers involved, there were obvious business outcomes and others, like Manish was asked to do Fashion in Motion subsequently there. The workshops in Delhi and Bangalore that were organised were also in my view very important as they helped unpack a lot of early questions about design in India.
What perplexes me though is that there has been no follow up to the shows since. No similar shows have tried to address what are the social contexts of design in contemporary India. Also, where are the publications? There is no book that talks about the history of Indian design which could further lead to such curatorial ideas. And in this way, it could be said that the show failed too…
MMK: You are now designing jewellery and your association with India continues to be very strong. As a designer now, what are your main concerns about design?
AC: There are some questions that exercise me, and these are around design as well as the visual arts, and related to really unpicking the idea of what constitutes the contemporary. To me contemporary means the entire range of practises and methodologies which exist today in India, and very little of this is really brought into the kind of curatorial spaces we function in. Another aspect is how traditional practitioners and urban artists can be seen on the same page. At what point for instance, will a Meenakari jewellery artist fetch the same price as an M F Hussain painting? And if this is at all possible? There are other areas that interest me too, echoing more the work of designers/ thinkers like Soumitri Vardarajan, who feels that design must focus on larger issues like ecology, the view that design is firstly about innovation in industry, that design has been much too closely associated in India with the production of transient objects, and that the designer-craftsperson relationship in India historically, infact, has been a tragic one.