"Much of the creative work being done is critical of today's world."

21 December 2023

Suhanya Raffel, CIMAM President, Director of M+ Museum, Hong Kong
Suhanya Raffel, CIMAM President, Director of M+ Museum, Hong Kong

Interview by Julia Villaro and originally published by Clarin on November 7, 2023.

The global meeting of modern art museums takes place between November 9 and 11 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Born in Sri Lanka and educated in Australia, Raffel has worked in institutions around the globe.

Undoubtedly, Suhanya Raffel is one of the most influential figures in the contemporary art world. Born in Sri Lanka and educated in Australia, Raffel worked in institutions from various parts of the world until she assumed the role of director of the imposing M+ Museum in Hong Kong in 2016, the largest in all of Asia.

Since 2022, Raffel has also been the president of CIMAM, the global network of modern art museums, which will hold its annual conference from November 9 to 11 at the Museo Moderno de Buenos Aires under the auspicious title "The Co-Creative Museum: Social Agency, Ethics and Heritage”.

A few days before her arrival in Argentina, this curator (decorated in 2020 with the French Order of Knight of Arts and Letters) agreed to have a virtual interview with Clarín Cultura to talk about the past, present, and future of institutions, the ethical and aesthetic challenges that the new era holds, and her personal desire to reconnect with the Buenos Aires scene, which she visited more than 30 years ago.

During the pandemic, there was a moment (longer in some places, shorter in others) when we all thought that museums, finally, like many things in the world we knew, would disappear. However, that was not the case. How did these institutions survive?

Museums changed in an extraordinary way. They became true civic institutions, places where people could safely meet, and we needed safe places to be together at a time when the pandemic kept us apart.

The other important thing is that our collections, exhibitions, and programs gave the population a respite, a break, the possibility of thinking about other moments in history, different stories, and other contexts that helped us think about our own, about what was happening. From there, the transformation that museums underwent was foundational, it changed the meaning they have in people's lives.

You direct a museum that is no longer defined as specialized in art but in visual culture. How important is visual culture as a legacy in a hyperconnected and globalized world where images are increasingly ephemeral?

We established the M+ Museum as a museum of visual culture based on what it means to live in this world, especially in places like Asia. We did interdisciplinary and transnational work that was foundational.

We are beginning to reflect realities that include a much broader diversity of who we are, what our history is, and how we communicate. Visual culture gives us the possibility to embrace this contemporary life, this everyday life in which we absorb so many forms, not only visual but also auditory and audiovisual.

We live an interdisciplinary life, and contemporary institutions must reflect that the openness of today's artistic practices is an openness that historically was not considered within institutions. Today, museums embrace the fact that art can be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transnational; that we can be in the works we do and in how we carry them out.

Personally, I believe we are building an institution that seeks to impact our lives in a deeper way, considering that we live in a very challenging and complex world.

After decades of being just a specific department in an art museum, Asian art, as well as that of Oceania and Latin America, seems to have taken off from a certain Eurocentric and obsolete reading. Do you think that is the case?

Yes. I think those taxonomies and classifications come from another time, a period in which they were used by the history of colonies as tools to understand, but also to circumscribe productions. Now museums want to undo those labels, and question them, but because at the same time, they are looking for more creative ways to operate in today's world.

Because anything we do must serve and at the same time, inspire. I think museums must include the word hope in their agenda because we are facing such complex worlds that it is easy to lose hope. They must be institutions that contain hope and help the public affirm itself. Much of the creative work being done is critical of the world's situation today, but at the same time, it gives us tools that help us look forward.

The theme of the CIMAM conference is Ethics, Social Transformation, and Cultural Legacy. What are the challenges and responsibilities that a museum faces today regarding these topics?

What we were talking about a moment ago leads directly to this because one of the biggest challenges that the museum has taken on in our time is to become an institution that favors social transformation. From being bastions (think that the curator used to be a "keeper" or "guardian," that's where the origin of the word comes from), we have become more active agents, especially when we think about the community, and more dynamic in relation to how we think about knowledge and its transformation.

There is a very great responsibility in that, and we must take it very seriously because the cultural legacy that emerges from it will depend on the ethics with which we carry out our work. The theme of the conference seeks to explore deeply that link between ethics and cultural legacy.

In this sense, there is a lot of interest in the fact that this conference is taking place in a place belonging to the global South, such as Buenos Aires. I am sure it will be a very important conference.

Will you have the opportunity to get to know something about the contemporary art scene while you are in Buenos Aires? What expectations do you have regarding the CIMAM conference?

We had a lot of acceptance, and we will be at full capacity, which is wonderful. That means there is a lot of appetite to get to know the place and its cultural activity. And it is very good for CIMAM because we are a group of professionals from all corners of the world; you will see that when we meet. So it will be a great opportunity to get to know the artists there much more deeply.

Personally, I am very excited to return to Buenos Aires after more than 30 years; I want to learn about the modern trajectories of artists, architects, and designers, particularly the work of so many creative women who have emerged in that part of the world. It will be a great opportunity to learn and know.