by Sunena V MajuDec 19, 2022
My first meeting with Sean Anderson was during Martand Khosla’s show On The Brink, at Nature Morte gallery in Delhi. At the time, he was introduced to me as an Associate Professor in Architecture and Director of the B.Arch. program at Cornell University, and former Associate Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the United States. However, his designations are not what captivates one's curiosity but rather his thought trajectory. During our conversation at Nature Morte, his opening line was—“Along with the discussions of the work, we will be talking about the questions of values, social justice and the ground, that we stand, sit, exist and build on.” Among other things, that conversation was a preface to the social responsibility Anderson shares—as an architect, professor, curator, and human being. While that encounter, by itself, had me invested in Anderson’s works, it was his name popping up in the 2023 curatorial team for the Dhaka Art Summit, earlier this year, that had me religiously researching his works, all over again. Without an ilk of doubt, I knew it was a given that at Dhaka, Anderson would be etching another curatorial response that reflects on the architecture and design worlds’ responsibility towards the underprivileged and underrepresented.
As Anderson wrapped up the curation of the exhibition, To Enter the Sky at Dhaka Art Summit 2023, STIR spoke to him about the exhibition, his socially responsible initiatives and about juggling his diverse roles that range from an educator to a curator.
Sunena V Maju: How have your multicultural experiences renewed your outlook on the profession? Is architecture more than just a profession for you?
Sean Anderson: I have always thought of architecture as a starting point rather than a profession, job, or field of exploration. For me, architecture is not only a way of thinking in the world, but also a way of imagining with the world—to conjure, craft and build spaces that can be physical, temporal, haptic, or even metaphorical. I have had the great fortune to spend a good part of my life moving about the planet, sometimes travelling, sometimes working, but always exploring and asking questions of myself, in and among found spaces. I embrace serendipity and the unexpected and the unplanned.
Sunena: How do you contextualise the curation of exhibitions in the current social and political scenario?
Sean: Exhibitions, for me, are as much about building as they are a mode of storytelling, of giving voice to the sometimes silent and the overlooked or invisible. They require dynamic interfaces between bodies and images/spaces and thus demand ways of looking, reading and thinking (that) are slowly being eroded by the advent of our personal escape vehicles (mobile phones). We can confront ourselves as much as our histories in an exhibition and thus exhibitions offer a deeply personal and yet wholly public interaction with and around which the curator(s) wishes one to consider, if even for a moment. How we dialogue with an exhibition is as much about how we dialogue with each other.
Content is form. The impetus for an exhibition, then, is at once to design a mirror, a method, and a dream all at once. - Sean Anderson
Exhibitions, especially when considering the intersection of architecture and art today, are even more necessary than ever before. They are not only sources for and representations of educational ambition but also can productively instigate much-needed discourse and even desire. Exhibitions have the ability to articulate and amplify significant questions about who we are and who we wish to become as individuals, communities, societies and nations. The capaciousness of exhibitions allows for unlimited outward and inward expansion. One may hide in an exhibition, but an exhibition cannot hide you. They need not only be activist calls to raise awareness of a given issue or question-sometimes, articulations of beauty (individual and collective) are just as powerful a vehicle for the realisation of goals, answers, and hopes. Advocacy need not look like it all the time. And sometimes beauty is a far more subversive catalyst for change.
Sunena: Could you tell us more about your recent exhibition To Enter the Sky at Dhaka Art Summit 2023?
Sean: When I was first invited to join the 2023 curatorial team for the Dhaka Art Summit, I was ecstatic because I felt that there were many new questions I wanted to ask that we were unable to approach in our previous exhibition in 2020—right before the pandemic commenced. I believe the summit is one of the most important exhibitions anywhere. While the overall theme of the summit was a reflection on our shared current and future environmental precarity, I was also intrigued by the presence of the child as both an arbiter and catalyst for thinking. I knew I wanted to focus on South Asia but also on how these manifestations may be found with narratives from outside the region. My first thought then was to not propose any ‘solutions’ or stereotypical approaches to climate crises with architecture. Architecture often incites too many problems for it also to be ‘solving’ environmental degradation. I likened architecture to forms of turbulence on the ground, in the air and in our oceans. But we can use architecture and its various formations as a method for thinking through potential, through the possibility of material, and for bringing awareness of the stateless. For this, I knew I wanted to assert the longstanding presence of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, whose one million plus individuals inhabit the largest refugee camps in the world.
I knew I wanted to work with Rizvi Hassan, a Bangladeshi architect whose incredible work among the Rohingya camps in the country is unmatched by any other architect I know, except maybe for Marina Tabassum and Yasmeen Lari in Pakistan (both of whom have important monographic exhibitions right now in Germany and Austria). Hassan built a full-scale portion of a building façade composed of bamboo and metal as well as an elegant installation of bricks and models and wood carvings—all of which were complemented by a collection of chairs fabricated in the camps by artisans. We scattered these throughout the gallery for visitors to enjoy. And I knew I wanted to organise a collaborative work that represented as many children’s voices and views as possible. This became the impetus for a work I entitled 1000 Futures which consisted of 1000 children’s drawings from across the country for which they were asked one question: “What does the future look like?” I was fortunate to work directly with the Jaago Foundation and its schools which were founded as the first schools dedicated to marginalised populations across the country. These formed from floor to ceiling the central spine of the exhibition gallery walls as well as an exterior wall.
From there, I was invested in including projects that challenge our interpretation of material with works by Agnieszka Kurant, Olalekan Jeyifous, and the Cape Verde-based Patti Anahory/César Schofield-Storia Na Lugar. I also included a set of images of the 18th and 19th century Coral Mosques of the Maldives, some of the oldest mosques in South Asia. I still find it remarkable to consider with future sea level rise these same spiritual structures may end up as living coral structures again.
An immersive installation with documentary works by the Sri Lankan collective, We Are From Here, activated poetic humbling responses to demolition through activism and art. They are effectively pushing against the arms of neoliberal development in Colombo to rethink who and what is safe from dissolution. While considering demolition, I also felt it essential to include works that relied on vision as a recuperative action, one in which the dimensioning of self and other are collapsed. I included a site-specific built mirage by the architect Suchi Reddy, a responsive textile installation by Felecia Davis, and an extraordinary set of images of a disappearing riverbed by the Bangladeshi photographer SarkerProtick.
One of the more provocative works, placed right at the entrance to the gallery, were two hand-embroidered textiles created by Rohingya artisans working in the camps. One had the sewn title Camp Life, which appeared to be like a planet of camps, like continents. The other was entitled Future Life, which was an urban or infrastructural mapping of sorts in which justice, equality, intact houses, and joyful figures all interacted and were seen as both origin and destination-a possible return for all the stateless Rohingya refugees and others seeking shelter and home. These for me conjured the resonances that I wanted every visitor to take with them—that we all share one sky.
Sunena: As someone who has worked in both the academic and curatorial fields, could you talk about the directionality of having ‘a global perspective?’ On paper, we all agree that the East can have a perspective of/on the West but in the actual spaces of curation and academia is this true?
Sean: I would like to offer that my perspective in lieu of being ‘global’ is holistic and operates at many scales. Indeed, the geographic and geo-political are significant ways to consider the work I am interested in elevating among my scholarship and curation, but I hope that we should all have the capacity to think beyond our own small spheres to engage in the many worlds in which we all inhabit. My work at MoMA, for instance, was centred on bringing other parts of the world into exhibitions, discourse, and the Permanent Collection. I was the first curator of architecture at the institution to bring works by South Asian architects, architects from the African continent, Southeast Asian and African Diasporic and African architects to public view.
I believe it is essential to use the exhibition to counter the troubling hierarchies that are too often embedded and remain in the public consciousness as well as institutions. To think expansively, and holistically, is to also resist those sometimes-limiting markers that I was continually informed both as a student, as well as a professional, were necessary and we must challenge those boundaries that are essentially put before us to make others feel comfortable with ourselves.
Sunena: Could you tell us a little about how your work started voicing the needs of underrepresented communities and their role in city building and architecture? Were there any particular instances that led you to this?
Sean: I think I have always unconsciously associated myself with questions of becoming. One of my first jobs was working with Tibetan refugees, most of whom had escaped by foot off the Tibetan plateau, to find their way to India. From them, I continue to work towards hope and perseverance and compassion. I worked for some time in Kabul, Afghanistan, and in Yemen, and in both places, I found that people always shared, without question, what they had no matter what. The idea of sharing, of extreme generosity, of opening oneself to each other, seems like a waning aspect of our lives today. And yet, it is one of the most powerful. While I was teaching in Australia, I began research on the plight of asylum seekers and refugees who were being denied access to the country through multiple acts of violence and trauma that, to a certain degree are still being enacted today. I was able to visit Nauru, Christmas, and Manus Islands, which became effective prison islands of forced exile and erasure because Australia did not want these people on their own island. And ironically, many of these people came/come from places I know very well. Here I was living, teaching, and researching in a place that welcomed me and not them and with utter disregard for their lives. But not only in Australia but across the planet, more than 100 million individuals are forcibly displaced and no doubt these numbers will increase. Refugee camps and displaced settlements thus, for me, may be seen as proto-urbanisms and responsive environments rather than the often violent or violating places they have historically been and continue to be.
If we don’t reimagine and redirect the ways in which we, as nations and societies approach immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, we will no doubt continue heading into unmitigated disasters. I find their stories humbling and so damming of all the nations that refuse to accept these peoples as human, as families, as thinkers who sacrifice so much to seek and live a new way. It is they from whom we should model ourselves because it is they who consistently teach us, through their transits, their movements, their silences, their escapes, that there is always hope and we can manifest it even in the direst of circumstances.
Sunena: From your perspective as both an educator and a curator, could you talk a little more about whose voice or rather which voice should be addressed or speaking about the ‘underrepresented?'
Sean: There must be many voices, not only from within and adjacent to marginalised individuals and communities but also be amplified among those of us who are privileged enough to speak and be heard at a greater distance. These same voices can be diachronic and can assert themselves from other times, past and future, even.
The voices need not be in unison but should be an ever-expanding chorus. - Sean Anderson
Unfortunately, sometimes the voices of those ardently working against the ‘underrepresented' are louder, more permissive, and divisive than others. It is my hope that many of us can work together across our multiple mediums (including this one) and with our own strategic agency to aid in bringing the powerful unmatched stories of those who continue to succumb to erasures, displacements, and disaggregation into a broader consciousness.
Sunena: Do you think a radical change or revolution is in process for the urban design industry, and architecture where communities and the public take on a more significant role in how cities function, grow, and change over time?
Sean: Cities, like the people and animals and non-humans that inhabit them, evolve. They are not monolithic. They are atomic, dynamic systems. Just as cities are barometers for the ways in which we as societies around the world continue to face our own limits, it is also just as valuable to think of cities as unfolding interdependent contexts in which one may seek alternatives to capital, to living in and around each other, to face multiple environmental and social collapses, to liberate and potentially escape. They embody safety and violence at the same time. Just like humans. Living in a city is a choice. Moving to a city anywhere in the world is a choice. When confronted with the responsibility of these choices, I wonder if cities are just spaces that are always falling apart at the same time as starting to be built. Consequently, we can either sit back and take advantage of all those cities bring oneself (whether good or bad-or even accessible) or depart from our self-situated comforts and seek to make ourselves and others’ lives better and by extension, work and live with equitable integrity in and among the city itself.
I always imagine the city (Rome) is not only for its monuments, or its devastations-or even its erstwhile ancient powers-but rather an evolving constellation of spaces, languages, cultures, and forms that are always in productive tension and time. Cities build us as we build them.
Sunena: What’s NEXT for you?
Sean: I have a notebook that comprises many overlapping ‘NEXTs.' And I want to accomplish them all! Some are book projects which keep getting eclipsed by ideas for other new book projects. These mainly focus on work that I began at MoMA with the intention of making exhibitions to accompany the books-and now aspire to do so elsewhere. There are film and documentary treatments that I continually refer to and revise. The designers’ collaborations I wish I could execute. I love being invited to write shorter essays on artists' and architects’ works that I admire and to be in dialogue with. But perhaps the most substantive of these new NEXTs is an art and architecture platform I am currently developing in the Medina of Fès, Morocco. Having lived and worked in Fès (and across the continent) over the course of more than 20 years, the centre will be the first of its kind in Morocco and North Africa.