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Indian art collective breaks down barriers in NZ’s art scene

Kshetra Collective is a group of creatives that aims to elevate the visibility, respect and understanding of artists with Indian heritage in New Zealand.

Seeking to challenge stereotypes, the group is preparing for an exhibition titled Invisible Narratives: Contemporary Indian Creatives from Aotearoa at New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata in Wellington.

Sarah Dutt, a founding member of the collective, says that representation matters.

"Through my work and collaborations with the Auckland Museum, I always knew that there hadn't been a lot of representation of the New Zealand Indian community," says Dutt, who is also a painter, artist and high school teacher at Alfriston College in Auckland.

The collective was founded by Dutt in collaboration with Mandrika Rupa and her daughter, Mandy Rupa Reid, after a casual conversation at a cafe.

Sarah Dutt is a founding member of the Kshetra Collective.

Sarah Dutt is a founding member of the Kshetra Collective. Photo: Supplied

Rupa, a filmmaker with a background in cultural and community work, recalls the day she met Dutt with fondness.

Rupa knew playwright and actor Jacob Rajan and spatial artist Rafiq Patel and had worked with painter Shruthi Yatri in the past.

Next on the list was Tiffany Singh who is a social practice artist who specializes in socially engaged art outcomes.

"Tiffany Singh was on everybody's wish list, but everyone was scared to call her," Rupa says. "I said, 'I'll call her', and she said, 'yes' right away."

With seven creators now firmly on board, the collective was born.

The group came together in 2022 for its first exhibition called A Place to Stand at Auckland's War Memorial Museum.

Rajan, a veteran of the New Zealand theatre scene, is optimistic about the collective's future. He believes it will become a platform for Indian artists to establish themselves and create opportunities for the diasporic communities.

"The Indian culture was an invisible culture," says Rajan, co-founder of the Indian Ink theatre company.

Jacob Rajan in Krishnan's Dairy

Jacob Rajan in Krishnan's Dairy. Photo: Wats Behind the Lens

Rajan wrote Krishnan's Dairy 25 years ago to provide audiences with a better understanding of Indian dairy owners.

"People just say hi but, beyond that, didn't know anything about dairy owners," Rajan says. "So that was my way of shedding some light on the Indian behind the counter."

Krishnan's Dairy will once again play an important role in Rajan's contribution to the Invisible Narratives exhibition in Wellington.

He believes that visibility is important, and the exhibition invites viewers to experience a range of emotions of what is to be an Indian New Zealander.

"We want to celebrate the culture but also showcase the sorrow of marginalization and racism," Rajan says.

Singh agrees with Rajan regarding visibility.

She says Indian culture has always been considered as a "minority culture" despite a substantial population of Indian New Zealanders.

"The fact that there has never been a contemporary Indian art exhibition in Aotearoa before is kind of crazy," Singh says.

Tiffany Singh is a social practice artist.

Tiffany Singh is a social practice artist. Photo: Kate Whitley

Singh also highlights the lack of Indian-descent curators and gallery executives, hindering the progress of Indian artists.

"No one is having the conversation and making the statement that [Indian artists] should be present and that we shouldn't be a token cultural festival once a year," she says.

Singh hopes that exhibitions such as Invisible Narratives will bring much-needed visibility to Indian artists, inspiring curators and gallery directors to create spaces to showcase their work.

"What we're trying to do is to … encourage the curators and the directors of the galleries to look a little bit more closely and actually make spaces for the country that their institutions are in and actually represent the people that are a part of the fabric of that country, which we very much are."

Invisible Narratives: Contemporary Indian Creatives from Aotearoa will be held at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata from 31 August.

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