MOTHER TONGUE I was born and brought up in Uganda. My grandfather had set up business in East Africa, like a lot of the Asian community, and then he brought out my mum and dad. My parents both came from Kutch, in the Indian state of Gujarat. We were five boys and five girls. I was the youngest boy and very close to my mum. I have strong memories of her talking about Kutch. She said it was a unique place, she always talked about the craftsmanship – the beautiful embroideries and the mirror-work. Kutchi was my first language.
UNITY What’s interesting is that there were no divisions or separations in the community. I come from a Sunni Muslim background but there were Shia Muslims in Uganda as well, and everyone celebrated each other’s cultures and faith. They reinforced their diversity by sharing festivals. These were migrants who were entrepreneurs, finding new business in a new homeland, so they adopted this new life together. We’ve lost that now in England – we have communities living in silos. But it wasn’t like that in Uganda. There’s a Kampala Art Biennale now and I’d be really interested in curating a show there. That would be a dream.
DOUBLE BLOW The death of my mum, and then (Ugandan president) Idi Amin wanting to get rid of all the Asians (within 90 days) in 1972, happened almost simultaneously. To add to the impact, the family was separated, and some of us went to England, some to Italy. We ended up in a camp in Somerset – not many people know that there were camps but there were. Eventually, we went to Manchester, where we had relatives. I remember the cold: smoke came out of your mouth when you spoke! And the food was bland and horrible, there were no spices at all.
WONDERS OF WOLVERHAMPTON I’ve a gregarious personality and I guess I was always a happy-go-lucky kid. I was very good at art at school. I did a foundation course in art and design, and went on to Wolverhampton Polytechnic, as it then was, to do my degree in fine art. Paresh Chakraborty was there. He was a very influential tutor, not only to me but to Anish Kapoor. Anish was teaching at Wolverhampton: a lot of young up-and-coming artists were then teaching at regional art schools. It was Anish who gave me my reference to go to India. I’ll be curating a show of his early work in Norway in 2018.
EMBRACING KUTCH In 1982, there was a big “Festival of India” in Britain. I’d gone to a preview of Indian art at the Royal Academy, in London, and met (renowned Indian artist) Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and I’d invited him to Wolverhampton to give a talk. I’d had no idea about India and its art schools. Nothing! He’d taught at Baroda, in Gujarat, and when he said that I thought immediately about my mum. I applied and was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship for two years. I’d never been to India. It was a shock, yes. It was like seeing everything in a film but simultaneously you were there. Oh my God, it was an amazing experience. I went to Kutch. And even though I could speak the language, I had a strong accent and I felt like a Westerner. It was like being in a time machine, like being Dr Who. After Baroda, I did think of staying on but I felt I needed to go back home. England was my home.
MIRROR WORK It was a struggle when I got back. I found a studio in Salford with two other artists but I wasn’t able to sell work and I started curating shows. My big break was being appointed a full-time curator at Huddersfield Art Gallery, in 1990. Curating means “caring”. It means that you present art in a way that embraces what artists do. Later, I went to the Arts Council with the idea of forming an arts company, Shisha, which means “mirror”, specifically to work with artists from the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan diaspora. We did a seminal exhibition, called “ArtSouthAsia”, as part of the Commonwealth Games’ cultural programme in 2002, working with key artists who came to Manchester. Subodh Gupta came, Imran Qureshi came, Atul Dodiya came. The British public was incredibly receptive.
TRADE OFF I was invited to Brisbane to see the Asia Pacific Triennial. I was really interested that the Queensland government was working with artists from the Asia Pacific region. I met Suhanya Raffel (the new executive director of M+), she’s Sri Lankan and had been in Australia for a long time. She was working for that triennial. I could see the impact and I thought, “Why not a triennial in Manchester?” It already had the historical trade connection with Asia. The first ATM (Asia Triennial Manchester) was in 2008, we had Hong Kong (Luke Ching Chin-wai) and mainland (Chen Shaoxiong, Qiu Anxiong) artists. The work artists are making in Asia is so ambitious in terms of scale and content. This notion of the YBA (young British artist) is dated, it’s not important anymore.
SERENDIPITY I met Annoushka Hempel, artistic director of the Colombo Art Biennale (CAB), in 2014, at the third ATM. She said she was looking for a curator and asked if I could think of anyone and I said, “Yes – me!” I’ve been a senior research fellow in Asian cultures at Manchester Metropolitan University since 2012, and something like CAB is my field. It’s going to be international, not only South Asian. Studio Assemble, who won the Turner Prize last year, are taking part. There are 40 artists, and half of them are from Sri Lanka, north and south. In Sri Lanka, the artists have witnessed conflict. Some of them lost their parents in the war and their work is very raw. You’re looking at work that’s experiential, a lived life.
GIRL POWER I’ll be in Sri Lanka for a couple of months and my family’s coming at the end. I met Farah, my wife, when my sister introduced me to her. We’ll have our 25th anniversary in Sri Lanka. We have two girls, Aniqah, who’s 23, and Amani, who’s 19. Both of them have strong personalities. The other day I said to Amani, “You don’t need so much make-up.” She said, “It’s not about you, it’s about me, it’s about female empowerment, not about men.” So she doesn’t let me curate her. But I’ll ask her if what I’m wearing is right so I suppose she curates me.
Colombo Art Biennale 2016 runs for 18 days from December 2. Alnoor Mitha
was in Hong Kong visiting friends after attending the Gwangju Biennale,
in South Korea.