Meet Block Museum Fellow Simran Bhalla

In September 2019 the Block Museum welcomed Simran Bhalla as a 2019-2020 graduate fellow.  Block Museum Graduate Fellowships are offered to two graduate students annually, one from Art History and one from any department within the Graduate School.  Graduate Fellows are integral members of the museum staff and support projects through exhibition and collection research, curating, writing and catalog production.  We took a moment to sit down with Bhalla, a PhD candidate in Screen Cultures to discuss her background and forthcoming work.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your field of study?

I grew up in New Delhi, which has an incredibly rich cultural scene, but is a difficult place to watch foreign, art-house, and specialty cinema. I sought out what I could through borrowed and bootlegged DVDs and the occasional consulate program. I was excited to pursue a BA in the US so that I could study (and watch more) cinema. I have always been interested in an interdisciplinary and multifaceted engagement with film culture: I was a film critic for my college newspaper, and after graduating, I worked at the New York Film Festival for one season. After that, I returned to India to work as a culture writer, covering cinema when I could. I was particularly drawn to Iranian movies, and the combination of ambiguity and deep empathy that characterized many of the best ones. 

At Northwestern, I am writing a dissertation on state-sponsored film from India and Iran, focusing on the 1960s and 1970s. I was interested in the history of modernist and experimental films from these two countries, and was fascinated to find that exciting, formally innovative films were being produced by governments and their social and cultural institutions. I’ve been fortunate to work on previous Block programs related to these interests, and am thrilled to now be a fellow here, particularly in the Year of Global Modernisms.

Can you tell us about some of your previous research at Northwestern?

My research considers the relationship between the aesthetics of state-sponsored projects, modern nation-building, and the construction of citizen subjectivities. I focus on the 1960s and 1970s because these are the decades in which India and Iran (and many other postcolonial, or formerly semi-colonial, nations) invested in large-scale development programs, which, in addition to film, included the sponsorship of modernist architecture, design, and art exhibitions. Thus, I look at a variety of materials, from policy and exchange agreements and other government documents, personal correspondence, and of course films themselves. This past year, I conducted research on this subject at archives in New Delhi and Tehran.

What will you be focusing on while you are here?

I’m primarily working on Block Cinema programs and the exhibition Modernisms: Iranian, Turkish and Indian Highlights from NYU’s Abby Grey Collection. The Block is very dynamic and collaborative, so it’s been illuminating to work with various departments and people at the museum, and see everything that is involved in mounting exhibitions, film series, and other public programs. I’m looking forward to several upcoming programs: in the winter alone, there’s Modernisms, Terence Gower’s Ciudad Moderna, rarely screened classics of midcentury Indian melodrama, and modernist Iranian documentaries. (I realize I’m betraying how much I like modernism here, but I’m on trend for the year!)

What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibitions, and collection?

It’s been a privilege to have the Block Museum as part of my graduate experience. I have always been encouraged by the museum’s interdisciplinary and global perspective. I admire the museum’s commitment to engaging all members of the Northwestern community, and our local communities as well. It’s exciting when programs as diverse, informative, and beautiful as Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded and Caravans of Gold are made accessible to the community, and within the span of a year. The Block has also always been an inclusive, welcoming place for faculty and graduate students to share their expertise and interests. I’ve worked on a few programs here, including Salaam Cinema! 50 Years of Iranian Movie Posters, which included a symposium and film series. I also had the good fortune to be able to curate a film series based on my research, Ministry of Light: Experimental State-Sponsored Films from India, 1968-1975. I greatly value learning how to make academic research — and rarely seen art forms — accessible and compelling to broader audiences. 

What museum exhibitions or programs (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?

I just saw Six Modernists at Midcentury in Mexico (yes, more modernism, and it isn’t even the last mention in this interview) at the Art Institute, which focused on female artists with transnational and multidisciplinary careers. It uses cultural history to structure the narrative of a show that holistically integrates mediums such as textiles, sculpture, and furniture. In Tehran, I visited Niavaran Palace Complex, the former residence of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his family. It was converted into a museum after the Islamic Revolution. The home and library host modernist Iranian art (including pieces by artists that we’ll be featuring at the Block this winter) alongside mid-mod Eames and Knoll furniture, all selected by Empress Farah, who was a patron of avant-garde art, music, and film in the 1960s and 1970s. It really brought the histories I research to life. Lastly, I’ll be seeing the newly-reopened MoMA on a trip to New York, and am very interested to see their diverse and decolonial redesign. 

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