It’s a journey, isn’t it?

Priya Khanchandani’s role as Head of Curatorial and Interpretation at the Design Museum in London may allow her more scope than ever before to drive forward our cultural institutions’ moral imperatives; yet, as Ryan Filchak discovers, this has long been on her agenda.
words – ryan filchak
location – chicago, usa

In 2018, writer and researcher Priya Khanchandani contributed her curatorial talents to the India Pavilion at the London Design Biennale. Titled ‘The State of Indigo,’ the installation Khanchandani worked with the Gujral Foundation to produce was a multi-sensory experience expressing the cultural significance of this plant-based dye – and the imperial narrative and impact of Indigo production in India. To tell the true story, India’s multi-faceted and reverential use of the dye must sit side by side with the colonial British tyranny involved in Indigo’s export from the country – an effecting narrative interwoven throughout the team’s deeply emotional installation. Smells of the Indigofera plant, sounds of thrashing farmers and virtual representations of Indigo farms were all presented simultaneously in digital form so that the viewer may empathise with the plight of the worker and the drive of a country under colonial occupation. Today, synthesised dyes used for denim reflect global market trends, and the progression of a commodity exploitatively farmed to fund the transatlantic slave trade collapses the historical narrative. Furthermore, this past understood as present activates how we see Indigo in use and its complex role in design history.

By positioning colour in a post-colonial context, Khanchandani brings together her past experiences of working with contemporary design, and her Indian culture, in a profoundly impactful and symbiotic way. Similar noteworthy curatorial efforts, such as 2019’s ‘Patterns as Politics’ exhibition at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale, received international attention and acclaim from publications such as Wallpaper*, Monocle and Architectural Digest. As a former employee of ICON magazine, such press mirrors Khanchandani’s own accomplishments in the publishing world. During her time at ICON, where at first a contributor, she was quickly offered the position of Editor within weeks of being brought on. Today, she works as the Head of Curatorial and Interpretation at the Design Museum in London – the current point on a career path which is anything but linear.

“Concrete change is imminent as cultural institutions continue to reflect and be reflective of the world we live in”

Khanchandani grew up outside of London where she cultivated an interest in the arts and visual culture from a young age through dance and music lessons. Later, these early interests informed her study of Modern Languages with a specialisation in Renaissance Italy at the University of Cambridge. From then, following an internship at a law firm, Khanchandani was offered a training contract guaranteeing financial assistance for post-grad law school and a job offer upon completion. After achieving a certain level of financial stability, Khanchandani returned to the arts through a second post-grad degree at the Royal College of Arts in 2011.

Notable career path aside, what resonates most throughout her work in the cultural sector are the ways each exhibit or piece of writing represents an active decolonisation of institutions and a push for diversity through action and representation. The moral imperative of museums and galleries has long been at the core of her work, something consciously held dear in her position as a curator.

“Concrete change is imminent as cultural institutions continue to reflect and be reflective of the world we live in,” says Khanchandani. “And this change occurs on two fronts: the public programmes in place and the cultural makeup of the institution – both with their collection and their staff.” Specifically in the realm of design, a homogenised Eurocentric canon dominates the work in the industry and the structures of representation. Khanchandani works within this dismal status quo to address a deeply problematic field, and what it means for cultural institutions coming from a place of privilege to concede power.

“There have been some very positive conversations on senior levels,” Khanchandani says, reflecting on the impact of activism driven by Museum Detox – another of her recent outputs. As a Co-Founder and former Co-Lead of Museum Detox, a group who champion diversity and fair representation for people of colour working in galleries and museums, Khanchandani has been campaigning for this cause since long before the Covid-19 crisis became a catalyst for a reexamination of our cultural institutions. “Networks breaking down formal structures bring institutions together to express truths,” Khanchandani says. “The cumulation of conversations in silos now have a platform.”

In a similar vein to Museum Detox, the platform Design-can provides resources for those historically overlooked within the design community and gives them a place to share their story. At the Design-can website one can find signal boosts for grants, events, articles and videos all aimed towards reshaping and making space within the design industry. By confronting prejudice and practising inclusivity, each of these groups reflect Khanchandani’s resolve to send the latter back down to her peers.

To speak with Khanchandani is to approach a multitude of daunting and discouraging issues – including sickness – with a productive and optimistic outlook. As a survivor of ovarian cancer, Khanchandani says her conversations discussing this part of her own history sometimes prove more difficult than any other. And yet, in a moment where disease affects every single interaction in the modern world, the condition and exercise of ‘resolve’ in relation to healing seems relevant and essential once again. To “decide firmly on a course of action” suggests a purpose and direction; qualities synonymous with the work Khanchandani has done to push stories like hers to the foreground. A form of healing in and of itself.

Reflecting on this broad array of topics, Khanchandani pauses before remarking, “it’s a journey isn’t it?” This rhetoric does not fix an awkward silence; rather she says this with all the conviction and steadfastness of a person familiar with the process of healing and the nature of progress, and there is peace in this deceptively simple resolution.

A note: Each month, we update our site as part of our efforts to reduce the environmental impact of our digital estate. The global emissions from the digital industry are on a par with those from the aviation industry, at almost 2% of total global emissions. What’s worse, this is increasing year on year. In an effort to lessen our impact, each month we compress and archive previous features and update our site with new content. Throughout the month, our current features are available to all to enjoy; our full digital archive is accessible to boom saloon members, in thanks for their support to use creativity to inspire and empower those facing challenges. Support our work and become a member by clicking here.