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Shivani Kagti

Making space for Northeast India’s creative minds

Northeast Edit – a gallery and creative collaborative space in Shillong – shines the spotlight on the region’s talented artisans

For most of us, exposure to art and design from the Northeast is restricted to handicraft melas or visits to the emporium while travelling. There’s a certain imagery associated with such products as Priti Rao, one of the co-founders of Northeast Edit, puts it. Based out of Shillong in Meghalaya, the Northeast Edit is a unique gallery as well as a creative collaborative space that opened its doors in February 2021. A platform that showcases designers and artists from across the Northeast – their aim is to “present artists, makers and storytellers who you would ordinarily not encounter, as they are not part of any corporation, and they live and work in remote, hard to reach areas”.

Rao, who has a Masters in Public Policy at Sussex and a Design PhD from Northumbria, is a Senior Advisor at the impact advisory firm Dalberg. She found herself moving to Shillong last year after her husband was posted there. The idea for setting up Northeast Edit took shape after numerous conversations with co-founder Samya Deb who brings over a decade’s experience in leading large global creative studios. Most recently, he established and ran Airbnb’s in-house Brand Creative studios in Singapore and Shanghai. In this interview with Curtain Call Adventures, Rao tells us about the genesis of the Northeast Edit and the discoveries they’ve made so far.

The Northeast Edit gallery in Shillong – photo courtesy Gwen Stephens Jones

What inspired the launch of Northeast Edit and what is it all about?

The journey began one summer six years ago, in the city of San Francisco. Samya and I were both working there at the time. Over our many conversations, we discovered we were both passionate about creative communities, especially in smaller, lesser known regions of the world, and their creative culture. We talked about doing something in the Himalayas, where I had lived and worked for many years, but as chance would have it I found myself in Shillong a few years later. What began as a house restoration project, soon turned into a discovery of the many artists and makers living and working in the Northeast. I started sharing with Samya what I was finding in the region, and we both felt compelled that these stories, artists, and works needed to travel beyond the Northeast.

Northeast Edit officially launched in February 2021. It is a part gallery, a part journal, and a part creative collective. Our purpose is straightforward: we are here to present creative communities from Northeast India to the world and we are committed to creating true wealth, not just profit for our artists and makers. We curate works that are caringly made, often out of precious and renewable materials from nature. They reflect the distinctive beauty, culture and talent of an emerging Northeast India.

Kriya Rynjah has created a special collection of Baa objects from the dragon bamboo sourced from a home farm in Ojhapara village bordering India and Bhutan – photo courtesy Northeast Edit

Was it very challenging to set up especially in the midst of the pandemic?

No, it was somewhat easier as people had more time. There was more time to explore for Samya and me who otherwise have full-on careers… we actually had time to slow down and do things that are meaningful and exciting for us.

Have you been surprised by the kind of talent and workmanship that you’ve seen in the region – is there anything that stood out in particular?

For me, what was surprising is that a lot of our work focusses on the Northeast that I think few people talk about or showcase. In the main cities of Delhi and Bombay it’s very difficult to find Northeast exhibits or products…it hardly ever makes it except in the melas and stuff. And there again it’s a particular imagery of somewhat more tribal, ethnic and highly colourful, so on. Whereas the Northeast that I was discovering was much more subtle and contemporary, working with the beautiful natural materials here in a very sensitive manner and really kind of respecting the local craft and culture. [Their] huge respect for nature is what really stands out in the work here. So I think for me that really resonated designer after designer and artist after artist that I was meeting. So, I just felt like the world needs to see more of this and present it in a nice way.

Bowls and other objects created by Kriya Rynjah have been showcased at the Northeast Edit gallery
– photo courtesy Northeast Edit

Are you primarily focussed on artists and designers from Meghalaya at the moment or have you been able to reach out to a wider circle?

No, we are focussed all across the Northeast but because of the pandemic our travel was bit limited. But yes, we have been chatting with artists from other regions as well…particularly Nagaland has become bigger focus now and in times to come even further places. But we set out with stories of three artists and three women from Ri Bhoi district because we wanted to put together a journal on that region which we are working on this year.

From what you have experienced, what are some of the biggest challenges that artists or designers from the Northeast are facing today?

The lack of a good platform is definitely one. For a lot of artists the only forums tend to be like these exhibits that are organised by the government within the state or for those who actually have the means kind of branching out to Delhi, etc, but that’s very few people. And again without the support and financial backing from somewhere, they cannot actually do those things. And that’s the focus of Northeast Edit because we want to tell these stories in a certain way which really showcases the details, the beauty, the thinking and the stories of the artists but also their work. But more telling that more from an international perspective. So that’s what Samya and I bring to the table…our wide exposure to a lot of these kind of spaces across the world and so we want to represent the artists here on those kind of platforms and forums.

We are still doing it slowly and more organically through friends and our networks and so on. For both of us, this is kind of a passion project rather than something we are doing for money or something that we are doing fulltime because we also have our day jobs. So, yes, I think in our own way we are trying to create bit of an archive of the work here, particularly more contemporary work…obviously traditional work as well but traditional work that fits our curatorial philosophy where it still fits into the modern world, it has a certain sense of aesthetics and it’s more minimal and quiet and so on.

Meghalaya-based designer Iba Mallai is one of designers showcased by Northeast Edit. She draws inspiration from her rich traditions and folklore from Ri Bhoi district – photo courtesy Northeast Edit

What are your plans for the future?

Our plans are to bring more makers and artists like Iba Mallai into Northeast Edit’s collective. Our aim is to provide a creative home for artists to be inspired, showcase their talent in unique ways, and provide them with a platform to connect with other artists and audiences around the world.

For those who are interested in collecting work represented by Northeast Edit, we hope to bridge the gap when it comes to finding meaningful works, and contemporary narratives from this underrepresented region. We’ll be curating more shows in our gallery space in Shillong, creating a body of archives of the artists and their works through our online journal, and showcasing emerging culture from this region to the most relevant platforms and audiences in India and around the world.

Iba Mallai’s collection is made with handwoven eri silk from Meghalaya, also known as peace silk as the silkworms are not killed in the process of fiber extraction – photo courtesy Northeast Edit

What’s your favourite thing about being in Shillong?

Access to nature, I think. It’s right on your doorstep unlike in a city where you have to travel quite a bit to get there. Also, I find the sort of makers and musicians and artists really interesting over here. The thinking is really energising and inspiring and their ability to overcome all odds to pursue their passion is really inspiring. Hoping to be here for some time and do whatever one can while one is here and hopefully beyond as well.

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