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Srimoyee Mitra, the new gallery director of Stamps Gallery, University of Michigan School of Art and Design, on how she switched from being a writer and a theatre professional to pursuing a career in arts and curation.
Can you tell us about your background?
I grew up in Mumbai and attended Villa Theresa High School. I had a fun childhood in a nurturing family and with friends from different cultures and religions. Srimoyee Mitra’s intrigue with art as an experience began early on during visits to her grandparents’ theatre and film production company in India. “We would take trips to see my grandparents in Kolkata when I was a young girl,” said Srimoyee. “I would sit at the theatre sets of their production company for hours and watch rehearsals. There were so many things to look at and play with.”
That intrigue continued well into Srimoyee’s teen years, when, at age 16, she began a two-year, pre-university program at the Mahindra United World College in Pune, Maharashtra, India(MUWCI). “I had read about the program in the newspaper and decided to apply,” she said. “Being a part of the school, which brings together students from diverse cultures and experiences, really changed my life. It was a formative time for me.”
How did you end up in an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career such as arts?
At 19, Srimoyee left Mumbai and headed for Toronto, Canada, to study acting, playwriting, and directing at Glendon College, York University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Drama Studies and International Studies in 2004. “I learned a lot about space with working in theatre – whether it was the relationship between my body and the space, other bodies in the room with me, or to things that are in the space. And, about how we animate and activate that space,” said Srimoyee. “Theatre played an important role in helping me learn about these intersections.”
What was your career path?
I have a background in theatre and have worked as a writer as well. I started out in theatre as my undergraduate degree was in drama studies. I came back to Mumbai after completing my BA and started pursuing theatre with various groups at Prithvi Theatre, NCPA and other venues. I learned a lot working with Rehaan Engineer, Ayesha Sayani, Yuki Ellias, Ramu Ramanathan, Suruchi Aulakh to name a few. At the same time, I was working as a freelance writer to sustain myself.
Then, to my surprise, I got full-time positions as an art writer at The Indian Express, Mumbai Newsline, and Time Out Mumbai. During this time, I met many artists, designers, architects, gallerists and art historians. I enjoyed interacting with them and learning about their creative work. After a brief stint as an arts writer for Time Out Mumbai and The Indian Express, Srimoyee returned to York University, School of the Arts, Media Performance and Design, to pursue Art History and earned a master’s degree in the discipline in 2008. “Arts writing introduced me to the work of visualizing,” she said. “So I decided to go back to school to study the history of art. With theatre and space, I couldn’t be as experimental as I wanted to be.”
Can you tell us about your transition to an Art Curator?
I was fascinated by the multiple ways in which an art work can tell stories and offer alternate ways of looking and thinking about common sociocultural issues. It inspired me to shift my love of story-telling, history and narrative from everyday life from the theatre space to the gallery where I felt I could be more experimental. I also decided to go back to university to study art history.
I learnt about the various art movements in India and the West and their influences on artists from different generations across the world. Since then, I have been curating exhibitions with projects like Ek Aur Level Chalte Chalte: A Festival of Theatre for Change, a hybrid art and theatre event that took place at Kitab Mahal, Mumbai. The festival brought together theatre companies as well as photo and installation artists from universities in Mumbai. I have since worked at various arts organisations and museums in Canada such as South Asian Visual Arts Centre in Toronto and the Art Gallery of Windsor.
What do you do as a curator?
Largely centered on cultural and social research, the focus of my curatorial practice lies in exploring questions of “place.“ It is an inquiry-based practice, where I start with questions like, “what makes this place?” A simple question that reveals a multitude of histories and narratives be they well known socio-cultural, scientific, economic perspectives or unknown minoritarian narratives and histories that are personal, fragmented or erased. I curate exhibitions and projects where artists, designers, architects, filmmakers, explore the space between the known and unknown, visible and invisible worlds to develop meaningful works that envision and create positive social change.
What is your current role?
I will assume the role of inaugural director of the new U-M Stamps Gallery from April 3, where I will head the 8,000-squarefoot space situated on the first floor of McKinley Towne Centre in downtown Ann Arbor. I am looking forward to it. We are living in a highly divisive time, and the objective of my work as a curator is to build a shared understanding of our society and culture by bringing together innovative and meaningful work by diverse artists and creative practitioners on questions of social justice, empathy and respect.