Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi –

For the annual Art in America Guide, published in print in January, the editors spoke to five directors of notable museums and institutions—Adriano Pedrosa of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo; Ibrahim Mahama of the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana; Sharmini Pereira of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka; Hoor Al Qasimi of the Sharjah Art Foundation; and Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi—about their work in and around the Global South.

Roobina Karode is director and chief curator of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi, the first private institution focused on modern and contemporary art from India. At the museum, which she has led since its inception, Karode has curated retrospectives of Nalini Malani, Nasreen Mohamedi, and other key figures. On the international stage, she previously curated or cocurated such major exhibitions as the first Asian Art Triennale at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan (1999) and the Indian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019). Below, Karode discusses the museum’s approach to framing contemporary art on the subcontinent. 

As told to A.i.A. When the Kiran Nadar Museum opened in 2010, we had a three-pronged approach: build a collection, build a museum, and build an audience. We didn’t have a real museum space yet, but we still had to create the museum, so we worked hard on forming an audience base and expanding the collection. At that time, there were just over 200 works in the collection; we’ve now crossed the 10,000 mark. That includes photographs, drawings, prints, and installations dating from the 1950s onward.

Not having a specifically designed building had its positive side, because we were not confined to the museum; we organized exhibitions in Chandigarh, Jaipur, Kerala. I often draw concentric circles: We are located here, but we have to move from the museum to the city, from this city to another city, then to the nation and outside the country. But finally, we were able to find land for a building that Adjaye Associates is now designing. It will be an art and culture center with eight galleries as well as auditoriums, ideation rooms, a library, and a restaurant. We will be able to bring out a lot of the collection, rotated annually. 

The audience that comes to a museum is never a monolith. In India—which has a long history of multiple civilizations and thousands of museums focused on antiquities—visitors are varied and sometimes not well informed about modern and contemporary art. Our exhibitions are designed to bridge the disconnect between the public and the art. Most times, it’s not a scholarly but a storytelling approach that works, because it fosters more capacity for visual attention. How can we tell audience members our stories? Can they tell us theirs?

For quite a few years, I have been drawn to the history of Indian abstraction, which has somehow not been explored within the Western discourse. We’ve had some exceptional abstract artists, but they were often completely on their own, because the vast majority of their peers were working in the figurative paradigm. I’m interested in those silent practices, in artists who remained quiet or reclusive. I have been mounting retrospectives, one each year, for these unsung individuals, many of them women. Soon I will ask some younger curators to organize shows for midcareer artists too.

This spring, we will present an exhibition focused on artists from South Asia who engage with pop culture. I cocurated it with Iftikhar Dadi, a professor at Cornell University. “Pop South Asia” was first presented at the Sharjah Art Foundation in fall 2022, and we saw lots of interesting juxtapositions emerge. An underlying question in this and other exhibitions is: How are art and aesthetics changing as the world around us changes? We have to write our stories; we have to write about our artists; it cannot always be someone sitting somewhere else who authors our history.

Banner images, left to right: installation view of “Inner Life of Things” exhibition; visitors in front of Hangama Amiri’s mixed-medium Bazaar; Karode illustration by Denise Nestor; detail of Vivan Sundaram’s 1967 painting Indeteminacy; viewers looking at Pushpamala N.’s series “Native Women of India—Manners and Customs,” 2000–04; all museum images courtesy KNMA, New Delhi.

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