Q&A with curator and researcher Susan Bean

Susan Bean was formerly an anthropology professor at Yale University, and she helped curate the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. She visited India for a year in the early 1970s and was immediately amazed at everything there to see.

Bean, who is currently researching and writing books on Indian art and culture, will give a lecture Friday entitled “Things Fall Apart: Ephemerality, Museums and Indian Visual Culture” at the Ackland Art Museum.

Bean spoke with staff writer Emily Hackeling about her curating efforts and her ideas for the lecture.

Daily Tar Heel: What spurred your interest in the visual culture of South Asia?

Susan Bean: That’s a hard one to answer. It started long ago when I visited India in the early 1970s. If I were to give it a short but truthful answer, it would be my early experiences in India and the obvious importance and power of the visual appeal there.

DTH: What will you be addressing at the lecture Friday?

SB: I’m going to be talking about things and how these things all disintegrate eventually. I’ll be discussing how, in some contexts, disintegration is considered to be a bad thing. You want things to last forever. Take museums, for instance. One of the main points of a museum is to collect and preserve important objects and keep them from disintegrating. I contrast this to objects made of clay in India. In this context, clay is either quite fragile, earthenware or unfired clay sculpture.

I’m going to talk about the many ways in which this is considered a good thing that these are objects that are made with the idea that they’re temporary. Although they require effort to make and might be beautiful, they’re there for a purpose and then of no importance.

DTH: What do you hope people will take away from this lecture?

SB: I want them to learn new ways to think about things and materiality. When they exit the lecture, they’ll look around at the natural world and its existence, they’ll be tuned into materiality and properties of things. They’ll be aware of the fact that they are made, they exist and they cease.

DTH: What inspired your recent exhibition “Midnight to the Boom: Painting in India after Independence” at the Peabody Essex Museum?

SB: It’s an exhibition that looks at the age of modernist painting in India from independence in 1947 to the end of the 20th century when the art world changed. It’s art that’s not so well known. People have a tendency to think there’s a single lineage of modern painting through Paris, London and New York City — and that’s it. This is an opportunity for people to see modern art was being done in many places. India is one of them.

DTH: Why is it important to you that people see this type of art?

SB: Especially with modernist paintings, there is a lot of art that was really exciting and that Americans are not familiar with. It’s important to give people an opportunity to broaden their vistas a bit.

As far as Friday’s lecture material, it has to do more with the cultural meaning of things. I’m actually comparing the American way of approaching things with clay objects. We’ll be exploring how lasting and enduring is important in one context, but being ephemeral and disintegrating is important in the other.

Thanks for reading.

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